How Edith Head’s determination led her to costume A-listers
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, a handful of costume designers were as recognizable as the stars they dressed. Sitting at the top of the stack Edith headan icon in its own right, and the woman whose name goes hand in hand with Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor (to name just a few). With over a thousand films under her belt, two books, a few columns and souped-up US Coast Guard attire, there’s no denying the reach of Head’s sketchpad; However, there remains a healthy debate about the validity of her status as the grande dame of costume.
Head enrolled at Chouinard Art College to be a step ahead of the students she taught at the Hollywood School For Girls (yup, a real place) and became a tutor to countless offspring of Hollywood stars in a society that was once unattainable. With the encouragement of her new husband, Charles Head, Edith became drawn into the world of art and design and eventually auditioned for the role of Sketch Artist at Paramount Studios. Apparently not swayed by intellectual property law or the odd instance of copyright infringement, Head passed off sketches by her art school classmates as her own stunning Paramount designer Howard Greer, and begins her journey in the ranks of the studio. For his part, Greer recalled his first meeting with Head as impressive, for he was struck by the sight of “a young girl with a face like a kitty cat crossed with a Fujita drawing with which (who) appeared a holdall full of sketches.”
Although her deception was exposed faster than one can say, “This sounds vaguely familiar,” her personality and the aforementioned act of chutzpah had charmed executives enough to keep her on board. Duplicity was no sore point for Head, who refused to be shy about anecdotes involving cunning acts and highlighting her own shortcomings. Such confessions merely furthered her image as a bright and ambitious woman, a force to be reckoned with. For Head, her lack of creative abilities was also overcome by excellent language skills: illustrious academic qualifications, including a Bachelor of Arts with honors in French, as well as a master’s degree in Romance Studies during her time at Stanford University, which cemented her value as someone who was able to correspond with international stars and foreign executives.
Head clipped her teeth on Westerns, while also being responsible for outfitting some of Hollywood’s best-dressed horses Travis Bantonanother Paramount favorite and a man nowadays Marlene Dietrich would have held an “essential worker” for making sure the A-listers did their best. It’s said that Head rarely designed costumes during those formative years (and, to be fair, you can only do so much with a saddle). However, she made a name for herself as a hard worker with an eagerness to learn, rising through the ranks from cattle couture to styling supporting roles, male actors and eventually actresses. Ironically, after Banton left Paramount, Head was searched for in his role not to be at the head of the pack. After all, Rind wasn’t Balmain, and Paramount wanted a name synonymous with the Paris catwalk. Nonetheless, her perseverance paid off, and within a year she was chief designer (in both capacity and name), becoming one of the few women to hold such a prestigious role, and, by her own account, the first designer “with a mining camp rather than a European background.”
Head’s lack of personal extravagance and penchant for clean sophistication over more elaborate designs set her apart from her contemporaries, who were eager to add another frill or develop a new, signature style. It was her understated demeanor (aside from the iconic blue-lens glasses) that bolstered her reputation as a designer to the Actors who bring their vanity to the fore and secure lifelong friendships, not to mention work. To ensure that her subjects (as opposed to style, fabric, etc.) were the focus of each fitting, Head’s sophistication continued in the design of her studio, with mirrors positioned to remove any distraction from the model and convey meaning stressed. Satisfying the egos of some of Hollywood’s notoriously difficult women even in the dressing room was a stroke of genius, a move Head suggested as part of her knowing she was a better politician than a designer. Her clean designs were also an act of preserving her reputation for future criticism, with the understanding that simplicity would never go out of style, while more “talk of the town” fashion would become obsolete. In other words, if she was going to stand the test of time, her costumes had to be just as durable. Who has seen Grace Kelly in low-rise jeans?
Head was also open when it came to the shape of the clothes. In order to remain the go-to place for the A-list, first and foremost it was imperative that her costumes were flattering. A rigorous study of her subjects’ shape, warts and all, meant that Head would hide her subjects’ less appealing elements and enhance their assets. Short waists, stubby legs and all the minor sophistications of an actress were addressed.
Continuing her charm offensive by making sure she made a name for herself, Head left the needle and thread at the studio to embark on several extracurricular projects where she would mingle with the public. Radio and television spots, columns and books became part of her oeuvre, putting aside the inscrutable bust lines of Hollywood royalty and instead helping Mrs. Jones camouflage her short legs. As the sartorial agony aunt, Head’s performances were regularly the most-watched/listened-to segments, resulting in insurmountable fan mail and style-centric SOSs from audiences wanting to look sharp.
A self-proclaimed success, Head knew how to make friends and with whom, forgoing indulgent design for classic and timeless silhouettes that would flatter her clientele, and cementing her own reputation as a guru of style that would never be outdated.
9 movies from the 2000s with excellent costume design
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