Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Film and Television Costume Edith Head

Edith Head

Author: Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén

Image from the 1954 film 'Rear Window', featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
Rear Window (1954). LB Jeffries (James Stewart) and Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), in a publicity still issued for the film. Costume Designer: Edith Head. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images. © Paramount Pictures.

Costume designer Edith Head may be best known for her eight Academy Awards and thirty-five nominations for Best Achievement in Costume Design. Born Edith Claire Posener on 28 October 1897, in San Bernardino, California, to Max Posener and Anna E. Levy, she kept much of her background a mystery, and accounts of her early life and education vary. According to a biographer, David Chierichetti, Head graduated with a major in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master’s degree in Romance languages from Stanford University (2003, 6). Edith then married Charles Head and when the couple divorced in 1938, she kept his surname. In 1940, she remarried art director Wiard Ihnen.

Head is one of the most renowned costume designers in Hollywood history. She was taking drawing classes while teaching French in La Jolla, California, when she saw an advertisement for a sketch artist at Paramount Pictures to assist their head designer, Howard Greer. Lacking drawing skills, she assembled a portfolio of other artist’s sketches and was offered the job. When Greer left the studio in 1927 to open his own fashion business, Travis Banton, already a famous designer in his own right, was put in charge of the costume department. Head’s position was consolidated under the mentorship of her new boss. She assisted Banton on projects and also designed for secondary leading ladies and less stellar Paramount productions. When Banton was laid off from Paramount in 1938, due to absences and his alcoholism, Head became the first costume designer with no formal training in fashion to be appointed to such a position (Desjardins 2016, 59–60). Head’s contracts with Paramount were renewed with options in favor of Paramount (Castaldo Lundén 2018, 130). Every renegotiation entailed a salary increase, although her salary remained significantly lower than her predecessors. Head rendered exclusive services to the studio but was also loaned out to other studios for specific productions when requested by a star, a common practice.

Head’s time at Paramount coincided with an era in which studio marketing and publicity departments began to promote their costume designers’ public profile in newspapers, film, and fashion magazines. By 1938, Paramount acknowledged Head’s value by adding a clause in her contract for exclusive rights to the exploitation of her name in movie productions, exhibitions, promotions, and advertising (Castlado Lundén 2018, 131). In a pre-branding era, Head’s contract accounted for the use of her designs and her “label” well beyond the theatrical release of motion pictures. Credits such as “Costumes by,” “Gowns by,” or “Costume Design by Edith Head,” started appearing on Paramount films in 1936. However, from 1951 onward, the studio was obliged by contract to include Head’s credit on every Paramount film, regardless of the extent of her participation, as head of the costume department. This may explain much of the confusion around her hundreds of film credits.

Her position at Paramount, and then later at Universal Studios, gave her the opportunity to collaborate with eminent directors, such as Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. She created memorable costumes for leading stars including Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley McLaine, Sofia Loren, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Natalie Wood, and Veronica Lake, amongst many others. Head is credited for designing the costumes on eleven of Hitchcock’s films, including Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963). Head costumed Audrey Hepburn for her role as a chauffeur’s daughter in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954). Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the most memorable ensembles and gowns in the film after Hepburn’s character returns from her sojourn in Paris. In a rare reputational misstep, Head was widely criticized for her failure to credit or thank Givenchy upon receiving her Oscar. (Jorgensen and Scoggins 2015, 237).

Besides her contributions as a costume designer and her promotional role for the studios, Head developed a wide range of activities that enhanced her public persona and leveraged her fame to promote the costume design profession and the film industry. Between 1949 and 1950, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sponsored a series of twelve industrial films under the title The Industry Film Project. Each short described one aspect of the motion picture industry. Head was showcased in The Costume Designer (1950), a behind the scenes look of the role of a costume designer. In 1953, she also became the first fashion consultant for the Academy Awards ceremony (Castaldo Lundén 2018, 5).

Head was a regular guest on television shows, discussing what women should wear to flatter their silhouette. She made sporadic appearances on Hollywood Scout Talent (1965–1966), Girl Talk (1962–1970), Masquerade Party (1952–1959), The Dave Garroway Show (1953–1954), The Mike Douglas Show (1961–1962), The Ed Sullivan Show (1950–1965), and The Merv Griffin Show (1962–1986), amongst others. She also appeared as a guest on radio programs. In 1945, Head joined Art Linkletter’s radio show, House Party, as the regular fashion expert. Between 1963 and 1965, Head presented a series of five-minute sponsored radio segments on CBS titled Fashionscope (1963), Fashion Talk (1964), and Fashion Notes (1965). These title changes stemmed from legal and contractual challenges. (Castaldo Lundén 2018, 141–146). Head’s radio segments addressed a diversity of subjects on which she could provide advice or reflect upon different fashion-related issues. Beauty, well-being, and even decoration were recurring topics.

Head also co-published two books, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to Dress for Success (1967). A third manuscript was reworked by Paddy Calistro and released posthumously in 1983 as Edith Head’s Hollywood, rather than the original title envisioned by Head, Hollywood Magic. The book combines fashion advice with Hollywood anecdotes. During her career, Head released two series of sewing patterns featuring sportswear and simple-line dresses under her signature. The first lines were launched at the peak of her career in the 1950s and the second series, launched in association with Vogue Patterns, appeared in the 1970s. To promote the patterns, Head embarked on a media tour across America that included interviews and TV appearances in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle (Castaldo Lundén 2018, 151).

The widespread popularity of Edith Head’s public persona led to cameo-roles in features including Lucy Galant (1955) and The Oscar (1966), as well as in miniseries such as Columbo’s “Requiem for a Falling Star” (1973). Universal Studios was quick to exploit her presence on their lot. She was the headliner in Fashion Featurette, which was produced and exhibited for the promotion of the Universal City Studio Tour (Castaldo Lundén 2018, 133). Head died on 24 October 1981, of myelofibrosis at age eighty-three in Los Angeles. She lived long enough to become a Hollywood icon and to enjoy her celebrity. After twenty years of invisibility, Head, Howard Greer, and a cohort of costume designers pushed for the first Academy Award for Costume Design, which was finally given in 1948. She also helped found the Costume Designers Guild in 1951 (Adams 1999, 14:03). Perpetual rights for the exploitation of her image continue to allow Universal to profit from her brand. Today, Head’s imprint is culturally ubiquitous, taking on forms as diverse as paper doll books, limited edition dolls of the stars whose image she helped create, costume exhibitions, and a one-woman play about her life story.

References and Further Reading

Castaldo Lundén, Elizabeth. 2018. Oscar night in Hollywood: fashioning the red-carpet from the Roosevelt Hotel to international media. PhD. Dissertation, Stockholm: Stockholm University.

Chierichetti, David. 2003. Edith Head: the life and times of Hollywood’s celebrated costume designer. New York: Harper Collins.

Desjardins, Mary. 2016. Classical Hollywood, 1928-1946. In Costume, makeup, and hair, ed. Adrienne L. McLean, 47–74. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Head, Edith and Jane Kesner Ardmore. 1959. The dress doctor. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Head, Edith and Joe Hyams. 1967. How to dress for success. New York: Random House.

Head, Edith and Paddy Calistro. 2008. Edith Head’s Hollywood. Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press.

Jorgensen, Jay. 2010. Edith Head: fifty-year career of Hollywood’s greatest costume designer. Philadelphia: Running Press Adult.

Jorgensen, Jay and Donald L. Scoggins. 2015. Creating the illusion: a fashionable history of Hollywood costume designers. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Leese, Elizabeth. 2011. Couture on screen. In Costume design in the movies, ed. Adrienne Munich. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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