Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Edith Head - Dress Doctor

Originally published on the Coletterie blog.

Edith Head (1897-1981) American

Grace Kelly in Rear Window, 1954.

Edith Head taught art at the Hollywood School for Girls before applying for a job as a sketch artist at Paramount Pictures under Travis Banton. After years working as assistant to Banton at Paramount, she eventually succeeded him as head designer. She eventually moved to Universal Pictures where she stayed until her death. She would become one of the last great designers to work under the studio contract system before it was disbanded in the late 1940s.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, 1941.

Head was responsible for the on-screen looks of Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy Lamour (she designed her first sarong), Gloria Swanson, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor. She was famous for catering to the more difficult actresses and was a genius at coping with figure problems. For instance, the actress Barbara Stanwyck was thought to have a long waist and a lower rear end than the average female. Head devised a solution by fashioning jet waistbands wider in the front then tapering them narrower at the back creating an illusion that her proportions were correct. Examples of this can be seen in Stanwyck’s first high fashion picture, The Lady Eve (1941), in which Head created 25 separate costumes for the actress.

Edith Head

Head would become almost as famous for her own personal look of jet-black hair, severely cut bangs and thick black rimmed glasses, as for the costumes and wardrobes that she designed. In the early 1930s stars paid the studio wardrobe departments to make their off-screen wardrobes as well.  Her forte was simplicity and elegance as epitomized in her famous full-skirted ensemble for Grace Kelly’s character in Rear Window.

Ginger Rogers, Lady In The Dark, 1944.

Her films: Double Indemnity (1944), Roman Holiday (1953), White Christmas (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Sweet Charity (1969), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Advance 9291

Advance 9292

Home Sewing Connection: She designed patterns for the Vogue American Designer collection and for Advance American Designer patterns when she was at Paramount.

Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, 1955.

Her style, innovations, and influence on fashion:
  • She was the first female head designer at a major studio.
  • Head applied for her first sketch artist job with a portfolio consisting of her student’s sketches mixed in with her own after hearing that Paramount was looking for someone capable of variety.
Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
  • She fought to get sole designer credit on all her movies with Audrey Hepburn despite the star being primarily dressed by Hubert Givenchy. This point and the above one about obtaining her studio job  by plagiarism has made her my least favorite of the movie designers.
  • She received more than 1,000 screen credits, 35 Oscar nominations, and won the Academy Award eight times for costume design.
Edith Head sketch.
  • Her most popular success was the lilac blossom-covered tulle ball gown worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1951’s A Place in the Sun. Copies of this dress flew out of the stores for that year’s prom season.
  • Published two books, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to Dress for Success (1967).
Sources: Edith Head’s Hollywood (1983) Edith Head; The World’s Most Influential Fashion Designers (2010) Noel Palomo-Lovinski; Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer (2003) David Chierichetti.

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