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The Head Master

Young Edith Head by M.BODDi

The Head Master

Ever wonder who designed Audrey Hepburn’s safari-chic outfits in Roman Holiday? Or Bette Davis’ diva-gowns in All About Eve? Or that darling green number on Tipi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds? The answer is renowned costume designer Edith Head. She has been nominated for and won more Oscars than any other woman… ever. Forget about Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank… and even Meryl Streep.

Edith Head received 35 Academy nominations; she was nominated every year from 1948 to 1966. She won 8 awards total [The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland (1950), All About Eve (1951), Samson and Delilah starring Hedy Lamarr and Angela Lansbury (1951), A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor (1952), Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn (1954), Sabrina also starring Hepburn (1955), The Facts of Life (1961), and The Sting (1974)]. Meryl Streep was only nominated for 11 or something… to which I have only one thing to say, “Step your game up.”

Edith Head worked with many celebrated female actresses in some of the most memorable movies in the history of American film: Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments, Kim Novak in Vertigo, and Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to name a few. She spearheaded many fashionable trends such as the sarong dress a la Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane, and she was called the queen of the “shirtdress” such as that on Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

It may seem weird that I am writing about a costume designer instead of an established fashion icon. the thing about movies is that they are not exclusive to a select few; most people can afford to go see a movie. Not everyone can afford an outfit straight off the runway in Milan. Movies, actresses, costume designers… that entire industry defines specific generations; think about what Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor mean to girls who grew up in that time period where sex appeal had nothing to do with skimpy clothing and everything to do with style and class. Movies defined and reflected generations; everyone is watching. And what would Grace Kelly be without her wardrobe? Would To Catch a Thief be as great a movie as it is? Can you imagine what these movies would be like had Edith Head not made her first sketch?

Edith “Poser”… I Mean “Posener”

Something you may not know about Edith Head… she is the biggest poser; not that it matters. She was born Edith Claire Posener in Searchlight, Nevada to parents Max Posener and Anna Levy. Both of her parents were obviously Jewish, yet she claimed to be Catholic. She had no formal training in fashion design. In fact, she only got hired to work as the costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures because she used her friend’s sketches for her interview. Before breaking into the movie industry, she earned her BA in Spanish at the University of California, Berkeley, and her MA in Romance Languages at Stanford University. Afterwards she taught Spanish at Bishop’s School in La Jolla, and then taught Spanish and Art at the Hollywood School for Girls despite having no formal training in the subject. She took evening classes at the Chouinard Art College to improve her skills. She was hired by Paramount Pictures in 1924.

At that time, she was overshadowed by the preceding costume designers Howard Greer and Travis Banton. When they retired her reign began. Then, there’s the controversy of her work (or lack thereof) in Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn. Everyone knew Hubert de Givenchy designed the dress that earned Head the Oscar nod. However, because the outfits were designed in her costume department, technically she is credited for the designs. Despite everyone’s knowledge that she is not the visionary behind Hepburn’s Parisian attire, head still accepted the Academy Award. Either way, Givenchy goes on to make his own legacy, and there will never be another costume designer quite like Head; her funky haircut and signature frames help out as well. The tint of her glasses helped her visualize how her designs would look in Black & White. Her haircut was inspired by Colleen Moore’s Dutch Boy cut, and then later on by Anna May Wong’s coiffure. Original is not a word I would use to describe Edith Head, but she certainly was one of a certain kind.

Costume Designer Howard Greer

Coast Guard Couture

Costume Designer Travis Banton

Head was commissioned to design the new uniforms for the women of the United States Coast Guard in 1967. Note the chic necktie and the flattering silhouette. And those wide-leg pants are so reminiscent of the late 60s, early 70s. Looking at this makes me proud of the women who were proud to be Americans. You go Glenn Coco!

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
Hubert de Givenchy
The Dutch Boy Mascot
Colleen Moore
Anna Mae Wong
Head worked at Paramount Pictures for 44 years before switching to Universal in 1967. Unlike her predecessors, she didn’t retire… she just died. She published three books: Edith Head’s Hollywood, the Dress Doctor, and How to Dress for Success. Aside from her influence on the movie and fashion industries, Head also inspired others to make music as well. The group They Might Be Giants created a song called She Thinks She’s Edith Head (which I believe is purposefully the most ridiculous song you will ever hear). Atomic 7 entitled an entire album Gowns by Edith Head, which I haven’t heard, and I’ve stopped searching in case they are as bad as They Might Be Giants.

Grace Kelly in a gown by Edith Head

Edith Head's Hollywood

How To Dress For Success

The Dress Doctor

The Sting starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman

Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

Samson And Delilah

The Heiress

The Facts Of Life

Anne Baxter, The Ten Commandments

Grace Kelly. To Catch a Thief

Kim Novak, Vertigo

The Sarong Dress a la Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane

Head with her Illustrations

The Master at Work

Breakfast At Tiffany's

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

Steve Martin, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid


To Catch A Thief

The Hurricane

Ginger Rogers, Lady in the Dark

Lady In The Dark

The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock

The Ten Commandments


One response

  1. jsanschez

    Thank you for this post. I always would wonder who made all the delightful ensembles in all the old movies I love to watch (breakfast at tiffany’s is my all time favorite).

    July 8, 2012 at 2:57 PM

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