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Edith Head: Google Doodle celebrates the costume designer’s birthday

Edith Head on today’s Google Doodle brought some much needed Hollywood glamour to this dark, rainy English Monday.

Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head, with her trademark black-rimmed round spectacles, must be one of the most famous in her trade. She received 35 Academy Awards nominations and won eight Oscars in her career, more than any other woman, and the only costume designer to make it to the Hollywood walk of fame. There’s even an animated homage to her in the shape of Edna Mode, costume designer to superheroes, in the Pixar movie, The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004).

Edith Head’s Hollywood career

Edith Head managed to make her way into Hollywood without any portfolio, later admitting that she passed off other’s sketches as her own to secure a post at Paramount, under Howard Greer and then Travis Banton. When Banton resigned in 1938, she would have her chance in the spotlight, becoming Head Designer at the Studio.

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937) was the first film that brought her to public attention, where Dorothy Lamour wore a skimpy sarong, whilst her mink-trimmed gown for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944) provoked controversy contrasting with wartime austerity. Edith Head received her first Oscar nomination for The Emperor Waltz (Billy Wilder, 1948) beginning recognition after recognition from the Academy. 

The unlikely duo of Twiggy and Columbo‘s Peter Falk presented her Oscar for costume design in The Sting (George Hill Roy, 1973). It’s worth a watch, and Edith Head certainly knows how to do a short and sweet thank-you speech.

Costumes and character

Edith Head was a firm favourite of many a famous actor, including Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davies, Grace Kelly and Shirley MacLaine, because she consulted them and emphasised their strengths and played down their (perceived) flaws.

She also worked closely with directors to bring the characters to life, and ensure that the clothing would meet the demands of the action in the movies. Head noted that Hitchcock was extremely specific about the costumes for his leading ladies, specifying colour or movement of fabrics if they were important for plot or characterisation. In Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954), for instance, the perfect, richly embellished costumes worn by Grace Kelly, emphasise the difference in social standing between her and James Stewart, and his resultant insecurity.

Doris Day, who wore Head’s costumes in The Man Who Knew too Much (Hitchcock, 1956) gave the designer the ultimate compliment, stating that she dressed for the character not the actor. Day felt that the dresses she wore in the movie were not right for her, but they were appropriate for the part of a “doctor’s wife.”

Transformation through costume

In the clip below, Edith Head shows Audrey Hepburn’s costume ‘personality’ tests for Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953).

One costume is for Hepburn disguised as an ‘ordinary’ girl, with a simple full skirt and white blouse with rolled up sleeves and necktie, designed for when Hepburn is out on a motor scooter. The other two featured costumes show her character’s transformation through wardrobe when she is revealed as a Princess – a regal real lace fitted dress and a ball gown. Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose credits include Michael Jackson’s Thriller), says, “Miss Head, she could do the high and she could do the low, she designed what was appropriate for every script.”

Edith Head dressed Hepburn again on Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954), and that little black dress turned into another Oscar win. However, there were rumours that actually Givenchy was the deserving winner, with both Head and the French designer claiming credit. 

Reuse and upcyle… even in Hollywood

For Cecile DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Cecil B DeMille, 1949), she created the stunning peacock cape costume for Heddy Lamarr. Almost 2,000 plumes were gathered from DeMille’s own mansion. Indeed she had a reputation for reusing and upcycling. Randall Thropp, Paramount’s archivist says that she designed a nightgown for Gene Tierney, reused in Rear Window and trimmed with lace in another (Another Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2012, pp130-31).

Goodbye Tinseltown

When Edith Head’s contract ran out in 1967, she left Paramount for Universal, and towards the end of her career she was more involved in costume for television. Head continued in the costume biz until she died at the age of 83 of an incurable bone marrow disease whilst working on her last film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982). And of course this film gave her the opportunity to look back to her golden period, referencing 1940s noir.

Bette Davis, who Head costumed in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), read her eulogy. 

“A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”

I’m certainly inspired to re-watch some of these classics with eyes firmly on Edith Head’s costumes. If you have time, I’d recommend watching this clip of a presentation by Deborah Landis Nadoolman about Edith Head and Hitchcock.

Wearable code and physical pixels

My week has been sullied a little with a cold so I’ve not been up to much, other than watching the final episodes of Breaking Bad... Actually discovering how that epic series ends is probably quite enough for one week, but here are my other cultural treats, both playing with the virtual and the ‘real’, the digital and the tangible.

How to learn code in style

I came across this article about wearable code earlier in the week discussing how people are learning to code through fashion. Check out this video about fashion and technology (the whole video is interesting but the DIY wearables segment is at 3.30s).

The ribbon hair bow comprised simply of two LEDs and a battery is super-cute, and as Becky Stern, director of wearable technology at Adafruit Industries, says a fantastic way to encourage girls in particular to take an interest in electronics and coding. The DIY, open source ethic is alluring meaning that these wearable computing fashionistas can create their own look and share and learn from the wider community. It’s the point where craft meets code, and puts what some might see as dry computing language in a new context on our bodies, either with a use value or simply to allow its wearer to glow.


Just as the code becomes wearable, pixels on a screen became tangible, replaced by thousands of floating lights at an installation I visited this week. Submergence is by the award-winning Squidsoup, residents at Bristol arts cinema, the Watershed‘s Pervasive Media Studio. In the exhibition space, there are over 8,000 hanging lights which change in response to the participants’ movements.

You become immersed in the changing lights, reminiscent of nature’s bioluminescence, which build to a rush of light. Yayoi Kusama’s Gleaming Lights of the Souls and her theories of self-obliteration came to mind immediately, although there is a perhaps a greater sense of losing yourself to infinity in her work through her use of mirrors.

Always a good sign, Submergence seemed to be enjoyed by all, becoming for babies and kids of all ages, a light-filled playground.

Bristol is home to Submergence’s UK première before it heads to St Petersburg. If you’re in Bristol, you can still catch Submergence on 12 October from 14.00 to 21.00.

What were the cultural highlights of your week? Go on, share with us…

Beats, portraits and tennis coats

As it’s now the weekend, here are three cultural treats of my week…

Hey Daddio, it’s Beat Girl

Swinging cats, strippers and squares all star in Beat Girl (dir, Gréville, 1960), an exploitation film revelling in the seedy side of Soho and the bad deeds of 1950s teens. The soundtrack by the John Barry Seven is the epitome of hip coffee bar cool. Just check out the entrance of the eponymous, rebellious ‘Beat Girl’, Jennifer (played by Gillian Hills) in the opening credits (and a young, zoned out Oliver Reed).

Jennifer is disgusted when her father remarries a much younger French women, Nicole, and sets out to reveal her stepmother’s murky past. One of the movie posters proclaims – “my mother was as stripper, I want to be one too”. Another warns, “this could happen to your teenage daughter”, but the moral panic offers an excuse to linger on lengthy strip scenes, explicit for the time.

The post-war generational divide is addressed awkwardly in the film, with the disaffected young men discussing their experiences of growing up during Blitz and hiding out in the underground, just like the cavernous clubs they now swing in.

In contrast, City 2000 is the obsession of Jennifer’s architect father, offering a rather sterile vision of the future, and her rebellion is a way to get attention from him. Ultimately, after she gets into danger with strip club owner (played by Christopher Lee), she is pulled back into the family unit.

While Beat Girl is not quite “over and out”, it’s worth a watch for the “straight out of the fridge” lingo, Gillian Hill’s pouty, beatnik disdain, and the recurring theme song. You dig.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012

For an afternoon treat this week, I headed to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. You can explore some of the chosen photos in this gallery. This portrait photography competition received over 5,000 entries, which were narrowed down to the 60 displayed in the exhibition. There weren’t any portraits which I felt would linger with me long after the exhibition, but I enjoyed seeing the variety of contemporary photos from the famous to family, from friends of the photographers to those they met on the street. Most of the portraits were staged, whether strictly commercial or not, and often full of drama and imagined stories behind their faces.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 M Shed

A sense of discomfort emanates from the winning portrait, Margarita Teichroeb (2011) by Jordi Ruiz Cirera, and as a viewer you wonder why the subject of the piece is covering her mouth and whether you or the photographer should be sharing this moment. Margarita is from a Mennonite community in Bolivia, living without electricity and cars, and where photography is often forbidden. The photographer spent time with them, but they were very uncertain about having their portraits taken (understandable in the circumstances). You can see blurred glimpses of her mother and sister in the background, in the context of the photo, seeming to shield themselves from the camera’s gaze. In comparison the second prize-winner, captures a woman at ease, almost incidentally naked with a chipped mug in her hand.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 is on at the M-Shed in Bristol until 3 November. This year’s prize starts on 14 November until 9 February 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Tennis Coats… at last

When in Tokyo, we wanted to say “sayonara” to the city by going a gig on the final night of our holiday. One of the city’s coolest married couples, the Tennis Coats (Saya & Takashi Ueno), were playing so we headed off to see them, got a little bit lost and ended up arriving just as they were playing their last song. (We hadn’t realised that the main act plays first in Japan, but at least we got to see the support act.)

Serendipitously this week, I noticed they were playing a surprise gig at Cafe Kino in Bristol. Although both feeling a little under the weather, we knew the holiday circle had to be completed. We came away feeling more than a little warm and fuzzy. Memories of our time in Japan, combined with the lovely, mellow but energetic atmosphere the musicians created, delightful tunes and the way that random people took to the stage throughout to join the act. A perfect way to spend a Tuesday evening.

What were your cultural highlights this week?