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Edith Head Profile
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Edith Head Profile

In the foreword to Edith Head's autobiography, Edith Head's Hollywood, published two years after her death in 1981, screen legend Bette Davis wrote, "Edith Head was one of Hollywood's greatest designers. She was an amazing woman in a field that was dominated by men in the 1930s and 1940s. While other designers were busy starring their clothes in a film, Edith was making clothes to suit a character; for her, the character always came first."

"Through the work of a fine costume designer, an actor or actress can become the character. We may rehearse our lines, our movements, and our expressions, but not until we finally slip into the costumes does everything come together so that we actually become the character. If we are not comfortable in those clothes, if they do not project the character, the costume designer has failed us. Edith Head never failed."

Edith Claire Posener was born on October 28th, 1897 in San Bernardino, California. She attended U.C. Berkeley and went on to get her Master's Degree in Romance Languages from Stanford University. In 1923, now married to Charles Head, a salesman for The Super Refined Metals Company in Southern California, she landed a job teaching French at The Hollywood School For Girls. Among her pupils were Cecelia and Katherine DeMille, daughters of director Cecil B. DeMille.

On days when DeMille was filming one of his more spectacular scenes, teachers and students from the School were allowed to go to the studio. Because she rarely went to the movies herself, Edith Head was more excited about having a day off work than being surrounded with famous actors and actresses.

Since school teachers did not get paid during the summer months in those days, and because Charles Head had a serious drinking problem, Edith needed to supplement her income. When the Hollywood School For Girls asked her to teach art in addition to French, she gladly accepted, despite the fact that she couldn't draw. Taking night classes at the Otis Art Institute and, later, Chouinard, (one of the best art schools in the United States at that time) she was able to stay one step ahead of her students. When summer came and Edith found herself out of work, she applied for a job as a sketch artist in the costume department at the Famous Players Lasky Studios (later Paramount Studios). There was one small problem. She couldn't draw a human form. Edith later recalled, "I was studying seascape and all I could draw was oceans. I needed a portfolio, so I borrowed sketches - I didn't steal them, I asked everybody in the class for a few costume design sketches. And I had the most fantastic assortment you've ever seen in your life. When you get a class of forty to give you sketches, you get a nice selection."

"It never occurred to me that it was quite dishonest. And all the students thought that it was fun, too, just like a dare to see if I could get the job. I didn't say the work was mine, I said, 'This is the sort of thing we do in our school. '"

Incredibly, she got the job, which paid more than twice what she was earning as a teacher. Edith would remain at the studio for more than forty years.

She began as a sketch artist, but in a few years she was working as assistant to top designer Howard Greer, and after he left the studio, Travis Banton. In her autobiography she said, "Travis Banton and Howard Greer sort of adopted me, and I went with them to all their fittings. I was accepted as part of the team in the fitting room, which also included the head fitter and usually a wardrobe girl. Sometimes I just watched and took notes; I did whatever I was told. With both Howard and Travis there was never any feeling that I would be a threat to them, as is so often the case in boss-and-assistant relationships in any profession. They were secure in their own careers. Both went overboard in encouraging and helping me. I think I had the greatest break that any young designer ever had. Working for them was the kind of training you couldn't get any place else, in any school in the world."

Unfortunately both Greer and Banton, like Edith's husband Charles, had serious drinking problems which eventually cost them their jobs at the studio. In 1938, Banton was out of Paramount (he joined Greer at his custom salon business) and Edith Head became the first woman to be a top designer at a Hollywood studio.

During her career, Edith Head designed for some of the biggest female stars of Hollywood's Golden Age: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Hedy Lamarr, and Dorothy Lamour, for whom she designed the sarong that would make Lamour famous.

Edith was the first costume designer to create clothes for Audrey Hepburn when she started her Hollywood career. She later stated in Edith Head's Hollywood, "When I first met Audrey Hepburn she was doing Gigi on Broadway in New York. I had to go east to have our initial costume discussion for Roman Holiday [1953]. I was completely enchanted by her. She was intelligent and had a strong sense about fashion, but what impressed me most was her body. I knew she would be the perfect mannequin for anything I would make. When clothes are designed to be sexy, you need a shapely form to flaunt them. But when clothes are designed for art's sake you need a shapeless body to display them. I knew it would be a great temptation to design clothes that would overpower her, the actress. I could have used her to show off my talents and detract from hers, but I didn't. I considered doing it, believe me. Another designer might have taken advantage of her, but I made her look even more beautiful."

In Roman Holiday,"Audrey plays Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, and the first time she appears on screen she is regally dressed in a brocade gown with the correct jewels, the correct orders, even the correct gloves. She is the epitome of royal protocol; everything about her is flawless. In true Hollywood form she hates her state of affairs and wants to be free of her crown and everything that goes along with it. She runs away from the palace and becomes something of a street urchin."

Head noted, "The costuming was very important in this film - it told the story. First she was a fairy-tale princess, then she became a sporty, wild, happy, very real person who had no regard for her appearance. The simpler the clothes, the better for Audrey. I tried to design things that would accentuate the novel qualities of her body. I called attention to her long neck so that people began to describe her as "swanlike" and "graceful" instead of "gangly". I emphasized her broad shoulders to draw the eye up toward her face, but nobody ever said she looked like a football player. And instead of trying to pad her hips, I put her in skin-tight pants. I didn't try to use camouflage on Audrey or to make her look like something she was not. Isn't it interesting that the Audrey Hepburn look, the reed-slim silhouette, is still the most sought-after look?"

Edith Head won her fifth Oscar®® for Roman Holiday and went on to design for Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957).

Sometimes the designer had to use psychology to get an actress to agree on the costume. A good example would be when Edith worked on Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo starring Kim Novak. "Kim was a bit intimidated by me at our first costume meeting, I suppose, so she immediately told me that she would be delighted with anything I designed for her. I remember her saying she would wear any color except gray, and she must have thought that would give me full rein. Either she hadn't read the script or she had and wanted me to think she hadn't. I explained to her that Hitch paints a picture in his films, that color is as important to him as it is to any artist. I then proceeded to stick the sketch of the gray suit off to the side so she wouldn't see it and to show her some of the other designs. We had a very amicable meeting and I told her we would need one more meeting to make final fabric and color selections. "

"As soon as she left I was on the phone to Hitch, asking if that damn suit had to be gray and he explained to me that the simple gray suit and plain hairstyle were very important and represented the character's view of herself in the first half of the film. The character would go through a psychological change in the second half of the film and would then wear more colorful clothes to reflect the change."

"Even in brief conversation, Hitch could communicate complex ideas. He was telling me that women have more than one tendency, a multiplicity of tastes, which can be clouded by the way they view themselves at any particular moment. He wasn't about to lose that subtle but important concept just because Kim Novak didn't like to wear gray. 'Handle it, Edith', I remember him saying. 'I don't care what she wears as long as it's a gray suit.'"

"When Kim came in for our next session, I was completely prepared. I had several swatches of gray fabric in various shades, textures, and weights. Before she had an opportunity to complain, I showed her the sketch and the fabrics and suggested that she choose the fabric she thought would be best on her. She immediately had a positive feeling and felt that we were designing together. Of course, I knew that any of the fabrics would work well for the suit silhouette I had designed, so I didn't care which one she chose."

The Golden Age of Hollywood ended with the rise of television. Audiences were now staying home to watch free entertainment. The lack of revenue changed the way studio operated and to save money, they had to cut costs in every department, including costuming. More and more, designers were being forced out as clothes were bought off the rack at upscale department stores. Paramount, like the other studios, was making fewer and fewer films. In 1967, when the studio merged with the Gulf & Western Corporation, Edith Head's contract was not renewed.

Nearing seventy, at an age when most of her contemporaries were retired, Edith Head packed up her office and moved to Universal Studios. Once there, she would personally phone producers and directors who were preparing Universal's more important films to offer her services. It paid off. In 1969 she was nominated for another Oscar® for her work on Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity, starring Shirley MacLaine. That same year she would work again with Hitchcock on Topaz and George Roy Hill on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which she later called her favorite movie, "In terms of sheer entertainment, not in terms of my designing...It had everything - humor, action, romance, and the two handsomest men in Hollywood."

She continued to work through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Her last film was Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) which had her remaking costumes she and her contemporaries had created in the 1930s and 1940s. She told director Carl Reiner, "I guess I've come full circle when I design the exact dress for Steve Martin that I did for Barbara Stanwyck. He looks very funny in it, doesn't he?"

Although she didn't tell anyone involved in the picture, Edith Head was very ill during production with a progressive blood disease known as myeloid metaplasia, which exhausted her. One day after filming was complete, she fell asleep on a leather sofa that was used as part of a detective's office set. Carl Reiner saw her and thought, "How sweet this dear little lady looked. If we had known how ill she was, we probably never would have let her take on the film. I'm glad we didn't know. She wanted to do the project. She was on the set the day we shot the last scenes. Two weeks later she was gone."

The eulogy at her funeral was given by Bette Davis, who said, "A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. She will never be replaced. Her contribution to our industry in her field of design, her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman - none of us who worked with her will ever forgot. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you."

by Lorraine LoBianco

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