American film costume designer
Born: Edith Claire Poesner in San Bernadino, California, 28 October 1897. Education: University of California at Los Angeles, B.A.; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, M.A.; also studied at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard School, Los Angeles. Family: Married Charles Head in 1923 (divorced, 1923); married Wiard Ihnen in 1940 (died 1979). Career: Instructor in French, Spanish, and art, The Bishop School for Girls (La Jolla, California) and at Hollywood School for Girls, 1923; sketch artist, Paramount Pictures, 1924-27; assistant to Travis Banton, Paramount, 1927-38; Head of Design, Paramount Studios, Hollywood, 1938-66; chief costume designer, Universal Studios, Hollywood, 1967-81. Also author, editor, radio and television commentator. Designed uniforms for the Coast Guard and Pan American Airlines; lecturer, University of Southern California and University of California at Los Angeles. Exhibitions: Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1974; Hollywood Film Costume, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 1977; Edith Head: A Retrospectacular, presented by Chivas Regal benefitting the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS and the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation, 1998. Awards: Academy® award, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1960, 1973; Film Designer of the Year award, Mannequins Association, Los Angeles, 1962; Costume Designers Guild award,
The Dress Doctor, with Jane Ardmore, Boston, 1959.
How to Dress for Success, with Joe Hyams, New York, 1967.
Edith Head's Hollywood, with Paddy Calistro, New York, 1983.
in Silver Screen (New York), September 1946, January 1948.
in Hollywood Quarterly (Los Angeles), October 1946.
in Photoplay (New York), October 1948.
in Good Housekeeping (New York), March 1959.
in Holiday (New York), January and July 1973, September and November 1974, January, March and September 1975, March 1976.
in Inter/View (New York), January 1974.
in Take One (Montreal), October 1976.
in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1978.
in Cine Revue (Paris), 19 April 1979.
Epstein, Beryl Williams, Fashion Is Our Business, Philadelphia,1945, London, 1947.
Steen, Mike, Hollywood Speaks: An Oral History, New York, 1974.
Vreeland, Diana, Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design (exhibition catalogue), New York, 1974.
Chierichetti, David, Hollywood Costume Design, New York and London, 1976.
McConathy, Dale, Hollywood Costume, New York, 1976.
Regan, Michael, Hollywood Film Costume (exhibition catalogue),Manchester, 1977.
Morris, Bernadine, and Barbara Walz, The Fashion Makers, NewYork, 1978.
La Vine, W. Robert, In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Costume Design, New York, 1980, Boston and London, 1981.
Pritchard, Susan, Film Costume: An Annotated Bibliography, New Jersey and London, 1981.
New York and Hollywood Fashion: Costume Designs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, New York, 1986.
Acker, Ally, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, New York, 1991.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.
Hollywood, Molly, "Film Colony, New York Battle to Set Styles," in the Los Angeles Examiner, 21 September 1941.
Scallion, Virginia, "Meet the Woman Who Dresses the Stars," in the California Stylist, July 1954.
"Dialogue on Film: Edith Head," in American Film, May 1978.
"Edith Head, Designer of Hollywood Glamor," in the Los Angeles Times, 27 October 1981.
McCarthy, Todd, "Edith Head Dies at 82; Costumes Subordinate to Story, Character," Variety, 28 October 1981.
Dolan, Judith, "A Head for Design," in Stanford Magazine (Stanford, California), 1991.
Locayo, Richard, "Inside Hollywood! Women, Sex, & Power," People, Spring 1991.
Spoto, Donald, "Edith Head," Architectural Digest, April 1992.
As head of design for Paramount Pictures, Edith Head was the last great designer to work under contract to a major film studio. Head's first significant assignment was to create the wardrobe for silent film star Clara Bow in Wings (1927). Her last was costuming Steve Martin in the 1940ish mock noir film, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). In a career spanning 60 years, Head was responsible for the on-screen persona of such stars as Mae West, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Haviland, Gloria Swanson, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Head had no formal training in design and she took care to work within what she saw as her limitations. She might never be considered a couturier, but she could—and did—become a taste-maker. Thus while contemporaries Erté and Adrian came to be known for gowns
Head's wardrobe for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941) advanced her growing reputation as a designer particularly attuned to the psyche of the average woman. Stanwyck had most often been cast in roles which required she look plain. Her on-screen transformation to a woman of style thrilled audiences as much as it thrilled Stanwyck herself. The star had Edith Head written into her contract, and the studio publicity department saw to it that the name Edith Head became synonymous with home-grown American fashion.
Beginning in 1945, Head had a featured spot on Art Linkletter's radio program "House Party," giving advice on matters of dress to the listening audience. When the show moved to television in 1952, Head moved with it. On live television, she would perform an impromptu verbal and visual makeover on members of the studio audience, sometimes using some element of her own clothing to suggest a more effective personal presentation. Head had a keen intellect, and when she brought her gift of analysis to the human figure, she created a look to flatter the wearer and fit the occasion. This was one of her great strengths as a costumier and it was a skill which could benefit anyone.
In her film work, Head was known as a "director's designer" whose interpretation of a character became the visual embodiment of the directorial thought process. Olivia de Haviland's subtly ill-fitting costumes for the opening scenes of The Heiress, or Gloria Swanson's clothes for Sunset Boulevard, with their simultaneous references to the 1920s and the 1950s, remain superb examples of characterization. Head often said that even without a soundtrack the story of The Heiress could be understood through its costumes.
One of the most challenging problems for any theatrical designer is so-called "modern dress." A motion picture may be shot up to two years before it is shown to the public but clothing must not betray this fact by seeming dated. If so versatile a designer may be said to have a trademark, Head's would be a clean and simple line with a minimum of detail, in a subdued palette. Head produced timeless classics which never competed with the performer and never took focus from the storyline. It was all, she said, "a matter of camouflage and magic."
updated by Nelly Rhodes