Dec 8, 2014 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
If you’re a fan of retro movies, chances are very high you’ve admired an Edith Head design. Her reign over the American costume designing industry spanned for decades and launched the careers of many of the stars we still admire today. Like most legends, her story didn’t start with a clear trajectory toward greatness. Born in 1897, she studied at University of California at Berkeley and went on to get her Masters in Romance Languages from Stanford. She married her first husband, Charles Head, and started teaching French at The Hollywood School For Girls. Soon she was asked if she could start teaching the art class – she said yes. Only problem? She couldn’t draw!
Not daunted by lack of know-how, she began taking evening art classes to stay one step ahead of her pupils. However, teaching – even two courses – was not providing her with a stable income. Edith decided that working for a studio in the costume department would be a better career move. Borrowing sketches from her art class friends, she took an interview with Paramount Studios in the mid-1920s. Much to her surprise, she was immediately hired on and thus began her epic relationship with film and fashion.
When she started with Paramount, Howard Greer was the head costume designer. Greer took her under his wing, teaching Edith how to draw with his technique. Soon Travis Banton was added to the team and Edith was assigned the “up and coming” starlets. She was given strict instruction to not cater to these women – simply dress them and move on to the next task. But that wasn’t her style. Edith met with each lady, asking them about preferences, assessing their shape, and getting to know them. As a result, each woman graced the screen in comfort and confidence. Perhaps this is one of the best quotes summarizing her approach.
“While other designers were busy starring their clothes in a film, Edith was making clothes to suit a character and for her, the character always came first.” – Bette Davis
Edith’s legendary people skills were put to the test early on with Clara Bow. By all accounts, Travis Banton should have dressed Clara for her role in Wings, but the two of them did not get along at all. Edith was allowed to take over as designer and she did not disappoint. Her consistent process of getting to know her stars not only made for better costumes, but it meant she was building an invaluable network of fans and friends.
This focus on getting to know people and wanting people to get to know her, ushered in many successes. By 1933 she was named Chief Designer at Paramount, a feat for that day and age when men dominated most aspects of movie-making. Edith was instrumental in convincing the Academy to create a costume design category and by 1948 that wish came true. During her career she took home eight Academy Awards and was nominated a stunning thirty five times. But her professional successes never overshadowed her ultimate goal: master every aspect of the movie industry and create her styles based on the characters who wore them as well as the directors who made the stories come to life.
Edith left Paramount in 1967, joining Universal Pictures and translating her talents to the small screen. She also received a unique honor, being asked to design the women’s uniform for the United States Coast Guard. As a publicity master mind, she appeared on many radio and television programs and even wrote two books. Her personal style – plain but powerful – made her into arguably more of an icon than any of her creations. She passed away in 1981, after making a successful career and lasting friendships.
Edith was truly a force within the fashion and film industries. While it’s tough to narrow them down, some of her most iconic films/looks include: Dorothy Lamour’s sarong dress in 1937’s The Hurricane, the mink-lined gown Ginger Rogers daringly wore in Lady in the Dark (1944), Audrey Hepburn’s American film debut in Roman Holiday, the tulle gown Elizabeth Taylor shined in for A Place in the Sun, Mae West’s sultry looks for She Done Him Wrong, the black velvet gown for Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, and the color story she created for Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief.
For our readers: What’s your favorite Edith Head film?