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Edith Head’s Legacy

In her day, the famed costume designer ruled at Paramount, dressing everyone from Grace Kelly to Elizabeth Taylor — all the while savvily self-promoting and getting her way.

Costume designer Edith Head — whose most unforgettable designs included Grace Kelly’s airy chiffon skirt in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Gloria Swanson’s darkly elegant dresses in Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Lamour’s sarongs and Elizabeth Taylor’s white satin gown in A Place in the Sun — survived 40 years of changing Hollywood styles by skillfully eschewing fads of the moment and, for the most part, grandeur and ornamentation, too. Boldness, she believed, was a vice.

Thirty years after her death, Head is getting a new dose of attention. An impressive coffee-table book, Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, was recently published. And in late March, an A-to-Z adaptation of Head’s autobiographical 1959 book, The Dress Doctor, is also being released. The breezy volume spotlights her style prescriptions, such as, “Even a perfect figure looks better if it doesn’t resemble a sausage,” and: “Don’t dress too different. You don’t want to dress like the herd, but you don’t want to look like a peacock in a yard full of ducks.”

What one senses, though, is that Head’s stunning record — costumes for 1,000 films capped off with 35 Academy Award nominations and eight wins, more than any other woman in Oscar history — stands as tall, if not taller, than the designs themselves. But that’s the way Ms. Head wanted it. Trends change; power, she knew, would always be in fashion.

She is still correct. Few people could tell you what she designed, but they know her name — proof that Head was good with a hemline but better with the public.

But it didn’t begin that way. Head had a lonely childhood with a stepfather who moved the family from one desolate mining town to the next and eventually to Mexico. In 1914, Head’s mother took her to Los Angeles, where she attended college and afterward found work teaching art. It was in 1924 that Head responded to a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times looking for a sketch artist at Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount). In a stroke of deception, Head, who was taking art classes at night, filled her portfolio with drawings done by fellow classmates. She won the job.

Head quickly rose to success. With her tiny frame, pinched face and perpetual scowl, she was that rare presence on a lot populated with the world’s most alluring women: commanding in her sexlessness.

Her anti-glamour made her self-conscious, an outsider, and she learned how to watch and listen. Those dark blue-tinted glasses, which became a Head trademark, were originally worn because they let her understand how clothes would look in black and white. But even after the advent of color films, she adhered to the look. They kept her thoughts a secret.  Those hours she spent fitting the most glamorous, powerful stars in Hollywood earned her the role of confessor-therapist. Too fat? Too thin? The stars told her everything.

“Ms. Head was very diplomatic,” says designer Rita Riggs, a former assistant. “That’s how she survived so long.” After years of this, Edith Head knew more than celebrities’ measurements — she knew their insecurities. Bonds formed.

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Head read faces. She read beneath the faces. When the likes of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Grace Kelly (Head’s favorite) were loaned out of Paramount, they might ask for Ms. Head personally or — as was the case for Bette Davis on All About Eve — insist on her. The clothes were good, but what drew them to Ms. Head, film after film, was her no-nonsense efficiency and respect for the bottom line: She dressed her actors appropriately, in accordance to the dictates of story and character. Sure, there were jaw-dropping costumes — like Ginger Rogers’ mink and faux-ruby-and-emerald gown in Lady in the Dark, which, at an estimated $35,000, is considered one of the most expensive dresses ever made for a movie — but in countless films, Head’s designs flew under the radar.

Dorothy Jeakins referred to her as “the little dressmaker.” While costumer Irene and set/costume designer Cecil Beaton fussed with style, Head — whose tenure at Paramount lasted 43 years — designed for longevity. She avoided prints, for example; she worried they would be out of style at the time of the film’s release.

Her own monotone tweed suits were utilitarian and forgettable. But that was all part of the master plan. She limited her wardrobe, writes her biographer Jay Jorgensen, “to ensure that actresses would not be distracted from their own reflection in the mirror during fittings.” (Head, who was married to set designer Wiard Ihnen for 39 years, enjoyed wearing colorful clothes at home; they called to mind her time as a child in Mexico.)

“Ms. Head appreciated it when we dressed conservatively,” Riggs says. Head’s assistants were mandated to come dressed in white gloves, beige tailored suits, tie their hair up in little chignons and blend into the studio walls, which were painted in a shade of pale silver- gray, a color so unassuming it was practically invisible. Actors like Audrey Hepburn, who came to work with their own costume ideas, posed a threat to Head’s authority. Surrounding them in aesthetic innocuousness, she believed, kept their minds idea-free. They were easier to sway that way.

There were a couple of distinguished touches chez Head — a decorative assemblage of miniature sewing machines and a couple of lamps shaped like female torsos — but they were there out of necessity; the room would have been conspicuously barren without them.

Outside the studio walls, Edith Head was a constant source of attention, a media maven who turned her enigma into a brand. Beginning with her regular appearances on Art Linkletter’s radio show House Party in the mid-’40s, she cultivated a careerlong genius for self-promotion, which included consistent newspaper and magazine columns threaded with only the most practical morsels of fashion advice, the odd TV appearance and — like the reality stars of today — an attention-grabbing bitchiness. “Well, when a woman reaches 40 and over, she should never reveal what she should conceal,” she once said. When The Dress Doctor was published in 1959, it sold 8.5 million copies. She was a star.

But Head, for all her success, missed her calling. In another era, the designer, who died in 1981 at age 83, would have run the studio.           

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