Edith Head, power and fashion Hollywood

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

“A dress should be tight enough to show you are a woman and loose enough to prove you are a lady”
“You can get anything you want if you dress for it”.

Edith Head

In this piece we will be making a brief review of the life of Edith Head, one of the most celebrated costume designers of the XX century and a must-know name for every self respected cinema and fashion aficionado. She is, sometimes unknowingly, the reason why so many of us love classic Hollywood films, and her work is key to understand the evolution of western fashion over the past century, shaping the taste of the audiences through the screen.

Even today, her name casts a long shadow over the most successful and awarded shows of recent years, from Mad Men to Marvelous Mrs. Meisel and, of course, The Queens Gambit. Also her name goes hand in hand with the memory of the most chic and beloved classic stars, such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. To give you an idea of who are we talking about, to this day she remains the most laureated person in Hollywood, winning a record of 8 Academy Award for Best Costume Design, over a span of 24 years.

Born in California in a jewish family she exemplifies how far talent and faith in yourself can take you: she began her professional life working as a French teacher in a girl’s school, but, after a tour around the Paramount Studios she decided that costume design was the job for her. Since she didn’t had any experience in fashion design, drawing or art in general, she took night lessons at the Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. Meanwhile, and as to prove that sometimes the end does justify the means, she used some sketches borrowed from a friend to pass an entry level job interview at the studios, starting to work there as sketch drawer in 1924.

In the following years she consolidated her presence at the studios, gaining recognition and eclipsing other male designers thanks to the bonds she forged with all the feminine stars of the company, who supported her and even recommended her to occasional works for other studios.

As head of costume designer her job was to conceive the aesthetics of the film’s clothes and accessories and overlook its making and use on everyone showing in front of the camera, from the starring actors to the last extra. Obviously, she would be more absorbed by the main actors and actresses wardrobes, to whom she would end up advising extensively on fashion, in and out the screen. One of the peak works of her career was Grace Kelly’s costumes for Rear Window (1954), in which the outfits of her role, Lisa, are an integral part of the plot, reflecting in contrast with those of James Stewart, the tensions on the starring couple.

For instance, Lisa’s first look, an impossibly chic evening ensemble in black and white (see gallery image) triggers a lover’s fight while by the happy end of the film she wears jeans and a checked shirt while secretly reading Harper’s Bazaar, proving she has James Stewart wrapped around her finger and has persuaded him that she’s not too sophisticated to live with him. This is the beauty of costume design, to use the clothes to ground the characters and make them cohesive with their personalities (just as it should be in real life, really…)

Edith Head’s talent is behind some of the most timeless Hollywood classics: All about Eve (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The man who killed Liberty Valance (1962), El Dorado (1962), etc. as well as the best Alfred Hitchcock’s films: the aforementioned Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963).

Always a strong-willed woman, when after 44 glorious years at the Paramount Studios, the company didn’t renew her contract, 70-year-old Head switched to the Universal Studios without blinking twice, where she would continue working until her death at 83. Also, she expertly exploited hew well deserved fame among the public publishing two books in which she poured her wisdom, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to dress for success (1967), both easy to find today.

Her sultry and exquisite creativity contrasts with her no non-sense approach to her own professional outfits. Being herself a firm believer in the work uniform, for her that meant plain suits, subtle but elegant makeup, blunt bangs and, of course, her iconic blue-lensed glasses. This unusual accessory, which originally helped her to see how colors would really showed in black and white films, later become such a key element of her professional identity that is with them how she is forever remembered by the public. Even younger audiences are still influenced by her thanks to the beloved character of Edna Mode from Pixar’s saga The incredibles, a last homage to this woman to whom Hollywood will forever be in great debt.

Find out more: Jorgensen, Jay (2010). Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. Running Press.

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