Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | June 10, 2018
Edith Head – Part 2
'Fashion is like a language. Some know it, some learn it, some never will.'
In this blog I am going to discuss Edith Head’s career during the 1940s and 1950s when she produced some of her most famous designs for the big screen. By the end of the 1930s Paramount was producing forty to forty-five films a year. This resulted in Oleg Cassini (who would later go on to design Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House wardrobe) being hired to join Head in the wardrobe department as an additional designer. However, during World War II, when Paramount was trying to make budget cuts, Edith was happy to sacrifice Cassini by convincing Paramount that she could handle all of the design responsibilities without his help. Head was known for consulting with many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s whom she designed for, including Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Taylor. Her close working relationship with many of the actresses of the period resulted in her getting design jobs that she would not have received otherwise.
Through her good working relationship with Ginger Rogers, Head was asked to step into help on the 1944 film ‘Lady in the Dark’. Working with an estimated budget of between $150,000-$200,000 Head collaborated with the Broadway designer Raoul Pène Du Bois to create what many consider to be the most expensive film costume ever designed. Estimated to have cost $35,000, the gown and matching jacket were lined with mink and decorated with faux rubies and emeralds. The costume gained Head mixed publicity with many commenting on the cost of the gown during the austerity of wartime.
Edith was loaned to RKO in 1946 on the insistence of Ingrid Bergman to design costumes for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’. Head would follow the clothing directives that Hitchcock placed in the script, tailoring her designs to make Bergman both elegant and believable as a spy. Head stated in her auto-biography and style guide, ‘The Dress Doctor’ (1959), that, 'Notorious called for high style and... Ingrid is not a small woman; she was the tallest patient I'd ever had, but she has so much bearing and carriage it doesn't matter that she isn't the skinny model of the magazine... She makes what she wears come to life... The simpler Bergman's lines, the less ornamentation, the better. Simplification is the best medicine for making a beautiful woman more beautiful' (Head, 2011, p. 50). One of the most striking of Head’s designs was the zebra print top baring Bergman’s midriff and succeeded in drawing the viewer’s eye to Ingrid during the cocktail party scene.
The establishment in 1949 of an Academy Award for Costume Design helped to boost Head’s career as she started her record-breaking run of thirty-five Oscar nominations, beginning with her nomination for 'The Emperor Waltz' (1948). Head won eight Oscars during her career, these were for ‘The Heiress’ (1949), ‘All About Eve’ (1950), ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1950), ‘A Place in the Sun’ (1951), ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), ‘Sabrina’ (1954), ‘The Facts of Life’ (1960) and ‘The Sting’ (1973).
One of my personal favourite designs of Head’s is the white satin gown studded with velvet violets created for a seventeen year old Elizabeth Taylor in ‘A Place in the Sun’ (1951). Head would credit Taylor with teaching her about teenage fashions and would design the star’s trousseau for her marriage to Conrad ‘Nicky’ Hilton in 1950. When the film was released this dress, with its six layers of white net over mint green taffeta, was copied by manufacturers to be sold in stores and became a popular prom dress for young women wanting a piece of movie glamour.
Edith Head first worked with Audrey Hepburn on ‘Roman Holiday’ in 1953. She originally found Hepburn’s figure tricky to design for; Hepburn had suffered from malnutrition during the Second World War and had a small bust, thin arms and prominent collarbones but well developed legs (from ballet dancing). Head wrote, 'Audrey knows more about fashion than any actress save Dietrich. Her fittings are of the ten-hour, not the ten-minute variety. She added a few of her preferences to sketches for ‘Roman Holiday’: simpler necklines, wider belts' (Head, 2011, p. 24). Head designed the costumes worn by Hepburn in Rome with Audrey’s body in mind. She dressed the actress in dresses with full skirts to hide her legs, a plain blouse with the sleeves rolled up to camouflage Audrey’s thin arms and used necklaces and scarves to distract attention away from her collarbones. The film catapulted Hepburn to stardom and won her the Best Actress Oscar. Head and Hepburn would work together on ‘Sabrina’ in 1954, where Head would famously fail to acknowledge Hubert de Givenchy’s work in her Oscar acceptance speech for the film’s costume design, and on ‘Funny Face’ (1957).
Of all the actresses Head worked with, one of her most famous design relationships was that she had with Grace Kelly. Head and Kelly developed a close friendship that began with Kelly’s small role in ‘The Bridges at Toko-Ri’ in 1954. Head also designed the dowdy wardrobe worn by Kelly as the wife of an alcoholic in her Oscar winning role in ‘The Country Girl’ (1954), but hoped for a more fashionable film to work with the up and coming actress. Kelly’s iconic ice blue satin gown and coat that she wore to collect her Oscar was designed by Edith, and Kelly wore it again when she featured on the cover of Life magazine the following week. Their working relationship developed when Alfred Hitchcock chose them both to work on his 1954 film, ‘Rear Window’, a film that finally allowed Head to design stylish clothes for Kelly in her role as the fashion model Lisa Freemont. The iconic off-the-shoulder black bodice worn with a white tulle skirt and Balenciaga inspired eau de nil jacket and pencil skirt marked a more conservative style in Head’s designs. Kelly, Head and Hitchcock carried on their collaboration in ‘To Catch a Thief’ (1955), in which Hitchcock stressed the importance of high style for his leading lady. Kelly was given more choice in regards to her costumes and collaborated with Head to create a blue draped chiffon gown, a strapless white chiffon gown, a pink dress and scarf and the gold ball gown worn by Kelly during the masquerade ball. The popularity of Head’s designs for Kelly can be seen in Barbie’s range of Grace Kelly dolls that feature Head’s designs from ‘Rear Window and To Catch a Thief’. Head would state that Grace Kelly was her favourite actress to work with and the two remained friends even after the star left Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Even though Helen Rose at Kelly’s studio, MGM, designed the actresses’ wedding dress, Head designed the light grey going-away-suit worn by Kelly for her honeymoon.
Edith Head worked at Paramount Pictures for 43 years until 27 March 1967, when, at the age of 70, she moved to Universal Pictures, possibly to be at the same studio as the director Alfred Hitchcock, for whom she had designed for extensively throughout her career. Edith received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1974 and remained working at Universal until her death in 1981.
1 Head, E. (2011). The Dress Doctor. New York, Harper Design.
2 Jorgenson, J. (2010). Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. Philadelphia, Running Press.