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).
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.