With her fringed black bangs, chignon and oversized owl glasses, Edith Head was certainly the last person you would expect to see in the fashion world. Yet in her 57 years as a costume designer, she proved to be one of the most influential women in fashion history. Her career garnered her 8 Oscars and 35 nominations, more than any other woman. Even if you've only seen a few movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, the chances are good you were drooling over her designs.
With a BA in Spanish and an MA in Romance Languages, Edith had been teaching at the Hollywood School for Girls. A poor illustrator, she borrowed fellow students' sketches from her evening art class for a job interview at Paramount Studios in 1924. Incredibly, despite her inexperience and inability to sew, she landed the job. She worked on her first film in 1925 and in 1938 she was made Paramount's Head Designer. Public recognition first came with Dorothy Lamour's sarong dress in The Hurricane (1937). In 1967 she went to Universal Studios where she won her final Oscar for The Sting (1973). In all, she worked on 1,131 films.
Edith was somewhat conservative in her designs compared to contemporaries like Adrian. She understood film production well and often clashed with directors who disliked her restrained styles. To her credit, her clothes never stole a scene but rather blended perfectly into the big picture. Alfred Hitchcock loved having her on set because she avoided those fads that would instantly date a movie. Always in tune with production, her trademark sunglasses were originally framed blue glass lenses that enabled her to see how clothing would look in black and white. When color became the norm, the blue lenses were replaced with a regular tint.
Edith's eyewear and hairstyle would be her signature look until her death in 1981. The look was just as low key as her personality. Though she knew all the secrets, she never gossiped nor did she ever reveal a measurement. She claimed, "I accentuated the positive and camouflaged the rest". Actresses like Mae West loved being dressed by Edith because she worked closely with them and was often loaned out to other studios at their request.
Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Later in her career, she was criticized for taking credit for others' work on the Sting and Sabrina (1954). Givenchy had designed Audrey Hepburn's gowns in Sabrina but Edith refused to allow his name in the film credits. She claimed she took his designs into consideration and created her own versions. The Academy decided it was Edith who produced the finished costumes for the film. She did however thank him in her acceptance speech. Actress Debi Mazar put it best; "When Givenchy looked at Audrey Hepburn, he saw Audrey Hepburn. When Edith Head looked at Audrey Hepburn, she saw Holly Golightly." While Audrey would choose Givenchy to design her future costumes, Debi makes a great point. When Edith dressed you, she considered the woman and the role which is exactly why she succeeded in Hollywood.
Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)
Not only did Edith dress the stars, her Vogue sewing patterns sold into the millions globally. She wrote an autobiography and two advice books. Her must read is How to Dress for Success, first published in 1967 and recently reissued. Edith claimed, "Good clothes are not a matter of good luck" and this book proves it. I've provided a link at the bottom of this article for a story from the UK Daily Mail which highlights excerpts from the book. It's timeless advice and you'll be impressed by her no nonsense and humorous approach to what you should be wearing and how to avoid the wrong buys.
Edith is still with us today. For those too young to remember her, check out Disney's The Incredibles. They couldn't get the rights to her image so her name is Edna Mode but the character is true to life. Edith's design for Elizabeth Taylor's white strapless ball gown in A Place in the Sun (1951) sent retail sales for prom dresses soaring when department stores copied it. To this day, teenage girls dream about wearing that special dress. Her sarong is never absent from summer lines. The runways are once again overflowing with Edith's style owing to the hit series, Mad Men. Personally, I couldn't be happier the beehive is making a comeback. At 5' tall, I could always use the height!
Edith Head: Lessons in Old School Grammar