Edith Head - the womenswear icon you’ve never heard of
Vintage film buffs with an eye for fashion will almost certainly remember the floaty chiffon skirt worn by Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window, or Elizabeth Taylor’s white satin gown in A Place in the Sun, or maybe Ginger Rogers’ mink and faux-ruby-and-emerald gown in Lady in the Dark, which, at $35,000 at the time is still to this day one of the most expensive dresses to have ever graced the big screen. All of these designs, and thousands other like them all have one thing in common - the costume designer Edith Head, who had Hollywood eating from her palm for over four decades. Head dodged the fads and trends of fashion, believing that boldness was unbecoming, and in doing so created a lasting legacy of timeless designed, many of which changed not only the direction of fashion at the time but also how women perceived femininity and freedom.
Two brilliant coffee table books - Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer and The Dress Doctor, an adaptation of Head’s autobiographical 1959 book - chart Head's rise from humble beginnings to the very heights of Hollywood. Had she been operating now, she would perhaps be a power player of epic proportions, but Head was a somewhat strange and stoic figure who would lament ostentation and overgrown ambition.
The latter volume features quotes that perfectly convey Head's no nonsense approach to design: “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.” Sage advice, if only more people would listen!
To say that Head was prolific is an understatement. She designed wardrobes for over 1000 films and she is the most successful female in Oscars history, having been nominated 35 times and walking away with 8 winners' trophies. Head moved with the fashions of the times without ever being led by them which made her appear old fashioned to some, but she didn't give a hoot and nor did her actresses. Her own anti-glamour approach (she wore tinted glasses, a fixed scowl, and monotone tweed suits and demanded of herself and her assistants that they wear dull clothing “to ensure that actresses would not be distracted from their own reflection in the mirror during fittings.”
“Ms. Head appreciated it when we dressed conservatively,” former assistant Rita Riggs once said to The Hollywood Reporter. Her bevy of assistants were to come to the unassuming studio dressed in white gloves and beige tailored suits with their hair tied up neatly in order to disappear into the bland magnolia walls - Head's belief was that an actress who lacked the inspiration to create her own ideas was significantly easier to work with!
Although cunning when required to get her own way, Head a motherly figure for many of the great actresses and bombshells of the time who would confide in her their insecurities and secrets. The likes of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Grace Kelly (Head’s favourite) would always ask for Head specifically, while Bette Davis reputedly refused to film All About Eve without her. It wasn't that Head glammed them up or rolled out the red carpet - in fact far front it. Her no-fuss, no frills approach was recognised as sheer intensity. Head dressed them for the role, understanding more than anyone the character's nuances and quirks, which in turn helped to heap more praise on the actresses' talents.
Head's tenure at Paramount lasted 43 years, which is remarkable given that her career began with a lie. In 1914, her mother took her to Los Angeles, wear her daughter eventually found a role teaching art, alongside attending art classes herself. When she saw a job advert in the Los Angeles Times in 1924 looking for a sketch artist at Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount), Head padded out her portfolio with drawings done by her fellow classmates, and naturally got the job.
For all of Head's understatement, she was not the shy type. Beyond the costume studio, Head was a relentless self-promoter, her byline peppering newspaper and magazine columns throughout the 40s and 50s, offering sage if not slightly caustic advice to her avid female readers: “Well, when a woman reaches 40 and over, she should never reveal what she should conceal,” she once said. When her autobiography - The Dress Doctor - was published in 1959, it sold 8.5 million copies
Head died in 1981 at age 83. She will go down in the annals of fashion and film as an oft-forgotten maven who perhaps did more to shape modern womenswear than anyone else.