Designing Woman:
Edith Head in Hollywood

Amy Henderson

She referred to her eight Oscars as "my children." Nominated thirty-five times for the Academy Award for best costume design, Edith Head (1897–1981) was one of the most prolific and certainly one of the most celebrated movie designers from the 1930s to the 1970s. A pioneering woman in decades that encompassed both the heyday and the demise of Hollywood’s highly competitive studio system, Head flourished in that fluctuating atmosphere, proving herself perfectly capable of the kind of ruthlessness, arrogance, and self-promotion necessary for success.

But perhaps the key reason Edith Head succeeded was a supreme ability to make herself essential. Born in modest circumstances in San Bernardino, California, she once said of her childhood, "I didn’t have what you would call an artistic or cultural background. We lived in the desert and we had burros and jackrabbits and things like that." Her initial career was as a Spanish teacher, but she also expressed a strong interest in design and studied at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles. In 1923 she answered an ad for "sketch artists" and was hired by Paramount Pictures’ head of costume design, Howard Greer. At the time, Paramount was one of the leading Hollywood studios, with a roster that included such silent-screen stars as Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. Although Head only viewed these icons from the middle distance, she learned from Greer—and from his successor, Travis Banton—how crucial it was to establish a rapport between star and designer. "You have to have the patience of Job," she once said.

In the studio, surrounded by starlight, she downplayed herself as "little Edith in dark glasses and the beige suit. That’s how I’ve survived." In 1938 she became chief costume designer at Paramount—the first woman to hold such a lofty position—and always remembered the thirties as her favorite decade, when "the star was a star . . . [and] she wore real fur, real jewels." Her job was to create fantasy, "to change people into something they weren’t—it was a cross between camouflage and magic." Matinee audiences during the Depression and World War II were full of women who stood in line to see the latest fashions of their screen idols: "Then, a designer was as important as a star," Head recalled. "Dress was part of the selling of a picture."

Over the years, she worked her magic on such stars as Clara Bow, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, Veronica Lake, Olivia de Haviland, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor. She had a keen knack for visually transforming these actresses into whatever screen guise was required, whether in a period drama such as The Heiress, for which she won her first Academy Award, or an adventure film such as To Catch a Thief. "There isn’t anyone I can’t make over," she pronounced. And her loyal clientele also knew, as Lucille Ball once put it, that "Edith doesn’t tell."

dorothy lamourShe takes credit for two particular designs that became fashion crazes: the figure-loving sarong she invented for a slightly zaftig Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess (1936), and the toreador pants she designed to emphasize Audrey Hepburn’s gamine grace in both Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957). But Head’s larger historical contribution was as part of the group of Hollywood designers, including Adrian at MGM and her Paramount predecessors Howard Greer and Travis Banton, who gave an American "look" to movies from the 1930s on. Until then, fashion had radiated from Paris to New York. But with the coming of war and after, the Paris—New York axis was disrupted, and because of the ubiquitous influence movies exercised in these years, Hollywood found itself in the vanguard of fashion’s Americanization.

New York runways, followed by department stores around the country, became dominated not by the formal chic of Chanel and Balenciaga but by clothes that reflected Southern California’s casual elegance—clothes first suggested by Hollywood designs for the silver screen in such films as All About Eve (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951), both of which earned Head Oscars for best costume design. Her scrapbooks of the period are glued to the margins with newspaper and magazine stories trumpeting the ascension of American fashion: "Paris Style Headquarters Moves to America/ America Now Sets the Style Pace!"

A catalyst for fashioning an American identity that strolled across movie screens and down Main Street, Head also proved herself a maven of market mastery. She built on her Hollywood celebrity to purvey her ideas about practical and simple design through a network of other commercial channels, writing articles for Photoplay magazine about how the average girl could dress like a star, licensing her name for Vogue pattern designs, and, beginning in 1948, appearing as a regular guest on Art Linkletter’s House Party, where she gave women in the audience practical advice about how to dress and generally improve their looks.

edith headIn 1967 Head moved from Paramount to Universal. She knew one of the reasons she was hired at that stage of her life—she was seventy that year—was that her high profile would bring the studio publicity. And it was a role she relished. An assistant remembered, "She’d hear the tour tram coming down the street, stick some pencils in her bun, and run to the doorway of her office so she could just ‘happen’ to be coming out when the tram went by. Heaven help you if you got in her way." By the time she won her last Oscar, for The Sting in 1976, Edith Head had fashioned herself into as much of a celebrity icon as the stars she costumed. True, part of her achievement resulted from her willingness to ring her own bell. But most of all, her success came because she was a realist about life in the Hollywood dream factory: "You gotta give ’em what they want, kid. If you don’t, they’ll find somebody who will."

Further reading: Edith Head with Jane Ardmore, The Dress Doctor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959); David Chierichetti, Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

Richard Quine, Edith Head, and Natalie Wood discuss Head’s designs for the 1964 film Sex and the Single Girl, based on Helen Gurley Brown’s memoir, directed by Quine and starring Wood as Brown ; Richard Quine, Edith Head, and Natalie Wood by Bill Ray, 1963;
The sarong that Edith Head designed for such films as Jungle Princess (1936) and Her Jungle Love (1938) made Dorothy Lamour a star.
"Lovelight in the Starlight" songsheet, 1938. Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution;
Edith Head by Bob Willoughby, 1960 (printed 1984), gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Willoughby, © Bob Willoughby

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