Broad Cinema: An Ode To Legendary Costume Designer Edith Head
From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week's article is in honor of the incredible Edith Head.
Edith Head was one bad bitch. Just barely five feet tall with her kitten heels on, Head ruled Hollywood for over the course of five decades, more than 1,000 films, thirty-five Academy Award nominations and eight total Oscar wins. She became the Chief of Costume Design at Paramount in 1938, and remained there for forty-four years before moving on to Universal Studios, a place that would soon feel just like home thanks to her close relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock. She became fast friends with Elizabeth Taylor during A Place in the Sun, won over Gloria Swanson with ease on the set of Sunset Boulevard, and graciously wooed Barbara Stanwyck to her corner from the moment they met while making The Lady Eve, and onward for many films to come. In short, Edith Head wasn’t just one of the most famous designers to ever live, but also, quite possibly was the most successful woman to ever work in the history of the industry.
Think about it. Tippi Hedren’s green suit in The Birds. Audrey Hepburn’s princess gown in Roman Holiday. Kim Novak’s beige blazer in Vertigo. Robert Redford’s drifter pin stripe suit in The Sting. Bette Davis’ off-the-shoulder cocktail dress in All About Eve that she donned as she told her party guests to “fasten their seatbelts” because it was going to be a “bumpy night”. All of these iconic cinematic looks have one thing in common – “The Doctor”, a.k.a. legendary costumer Edith Head. She had a confident and composed air about her which created a calm but efficient work environment, one in which actors and actresses felt free to express their opinions regarding their attire, but also accepted the threads that were handed to them with understanding nods and compassionate enthusiasm. Actors can be cautiously stubborn about what they wear on screen, but through fast talk and unwavering attentiveness to their needs, Head made each and every single body on set feel as though they were the most important person in the room. Head always got what she wanted in the end.
The daughter of a San Bernardino mining engineer, Head didn’t gain her regal stance through nepotism or wealth or intimidation, but by sketching, stitching, hemming, and carefully calculated power plays. Instead of going to school for fashion or film, Head studied French in college, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in letters and sciences at the University of Berkeley, and going on to gain a Master of Arts degree in romance languages in 1920 at Stanford University. After she graduated, she wound up teaching French classes at the Hollywood School for Girls, and filled her time by taking drawing lessons in the evenings. Growing tired of her mundane routine, she awoke one morning to discover an ad in the newspaper – Paramount Pictures was looking to hire a new sketch artist. On a whim, she went to the school where she worked, gathered up a bunch of the girls’ best drawing samples from a class next door, put them all in a portfolio, wrote her name at the top of it, handed it in to the studio, and applied for the job.
Jack Greer had a good sense of humor. He discovered the little trick that Head had played on him, but instead of getting mad at her for lying and taking credit for others’ work, he laughed and told Head how surprised her was at her display of determination. To Greer, if Head wanted the position so badly that she would fabricate a fake portfolio just to convince him that she deserved the job, then she must’ve really wanted it. He hired her, took her under his wing, and taught her everything he knew. Little did he know, one day the student would surpass the master and go on to become one of the most renowned sketch artists of all time.
Edith Head knew how to package herself – it was a large part of her charm. She thought of herself as a professional woman, and believed she should dress as such. Realizing early on that she was not a glamour girl, Head chose to embrace her short stature and assertive nature by playing up sharp, conservative edges in her outfits and applying starkly straight forward color schemes. Black and white two piece suits, stiff collars hugging pearl necklaces, thick black bangs tucked back into a tight ponytail behind her ears, dark blue eye glasses prominently situated atop her smart pointy nose, pencil thin lips pressed together, and brave chin pointed up at the sky -- Head was just as much a vision as the stars she dressed for the pictures.
Head used to say that “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it”, and she wasn’t wrong. Just as the actors onscreen transformed themselves to fit into whatever century they were supposedly living in, became whatever spy or assassin or world leader or quaint shop girl that he or she played that day, disguising themselves through the use of their ensemble, so, too, did Head further establish the identity of a tough but talented costume designer through the use of her clothes. She became so well known for this look that she actually became somewhat famous, appearing as herself in Lucy Gallant and in the television series Columbo, in addition to popping up on talk radio, and even going on to inspire visually similar cinematic characters like Edna Mode in The Incredibles decades later. She knew that putting a famous face to her work made her all the more appealing for studios, and through her powers of fame and persuasion, she had both production companies and actors alike courting her for business affairs.
Edith Head tirelessly studied her actresses, poured over the filmmakers’ scripts, and met with directors and producers to discuss the overall aesthetics of the films she was working on. Hours and hours of late nights and countless drawings went into every single outfit onscreen, achieving looks which appeared like effortless gaudy garb, but in actuality strategically matched the precise mood of each individual motion picture. She created believable worlds with her clothing, channeling their power to make the audience accept whatever universe the actors were placed into, without question. Her mission was not to create trends that everyday women would wear (although her looks did inspire mimicry), but to bring the story in the director’s head to life. To Edith, movie costumes weren’t about fashion, they were about theater, and turning ordinary actors into characters greater than themselves -- someone for audiences to attach themselves to, to admire, to root for, or to mourn, or to despise with a fiery vengeance -- all within the course of a two-hour runtime. She was arguably the best at crafting cinematic fashion, but she was undoubtedly the smartest businesswoman in the room because she knew how to conjure up enchanted ensembles out of thin air that would wow fans, but most importantly, would please her boss -- the man behind the camera.
Edith Head was very tough on people, but you wouldn’t know it. For years she kept the secrets of each actors’ flaws to herself, bottling up her complaints of diva starlets and difficult women for many, many years. It really wasn’t until she was in her later years that she began to admit to favoritism, and began spilling a few secrets. The truth was, Edith hated working with women. She loved to work with men. Men might start out a little timid at the sight of all those clothes racks’, but they usually wore whatever Edith told them to. She was especially fond of her time working with Danny Kaye on White Christmas. It was the women who usually gave her trouble. She could hide their flaws easily enough – she covered up Bette Davis’ thick neck and draped scarves over Audrey Hepburn’s prominent collar bone – but convincing an actress to wear something she didn’t want to wear became a constant challenge for Head on set (especially when she worked with Kim Novak on the set of Vertigo). She also was known to bump heads with director Cecil B. DeMille quite often. To Catch a Thief became her favorite film that she ever worked on -- Head adored Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, the only woman who Head claimed had “no flaws”, and went on to become lifelong friends with both of them. However, the proudest moment of her career came towards the end of her life when she designed uniforms for female U.S. Coast Guards.
Edith Head was a rare breed. She knew people down to their bare bones just as well as she knew the dress designs in her sketchbook – and she worked them both to her benefit. At her core, she was a seamstress, but in her dark perplexing eyes, and in her rapid fast speak and steadfast self-assured manner, she was a star, and the love and care which went into every stitch of every costume she ever created still shimmers brightly in every magical moment onscreen, now and forever.