Head, Edith (1897–1981)

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Head, Edith (1897–1981)

Last great costume designer under contract to a major Hollywood studio, who greatly influenced fashion trends during her 58-year career in the movies and won a record 8 Academy Awards while being nominated for 35. Name variations: Edith Spare. Born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, on October 28, 1897, according to county records (although Head claimed birthplace as Searchlight, Nevada, and early years in Mexico); died at Good Samaritan Hospital on October 24, 1981, several days before her 84th birthday, attributed to myelofibrosis myeloid, a rare disease of the bone marrow, or myeloid metaplasia, a progressive blood disease; daughter of Max Posener and Anna (Levy) Posener; following parents' divorce, adopted stepfather's surname, Spare, and grew up in desert mining town of Searchlight, Nevada; graduated from Redding, California, elementary school, 1911; graduated with honors in French from University of California at Berkeley; earned master's degree in Romance languages at Stanford University; studied art at Otis Art Institute and Chouinard School of Art, both Los Angeles; married Charles Head, in early 1920s (divorced 1938); married Bill (Wiard Boppo) Ihnen, on September 8, 1940 (died 1979).

Moved to Los Angeles at age 12 to an apartment at the YWCA (1909); taught Spanish at the Bishop School in La Jolla, then French at the Hollywood School for Girls; hired as sketch artist at Paramount (1923); became assistant designer (1929), then chief designer (1938); when contract was not renewed after a corporate merger, moved to Universal Studios (1967); also worked on films at other studios, including MGM, Warner Bros., Columbia and Fox; designed uniforms for Pan Am World Airways and the United Nations tour guides; served as fashion editor of Holiday magazine; made many radio and television appearances; lectured on dress to women's clubs and traveled the U.S. and abroad with her Hollywood costume fashion show.

Selected publications:

(with Jane Kesner Ardmore) The Dress Doctor (Little, Brown, 1959); (with Joe Hyams) How to Dress for Success (Random House, 1967); (with Paddy Calistro) Edith Head's Hollywood (E.P. Dutton, 1983).

Won Academy Awards for costume design in black-and-white and color film (sometimes with associates as indicated): (with Gile Steele) The Heiress (b&w, 1949); (with Charles LeMaire) All About Eve (b&w, 1950); (with Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen , Gile Steele, Gwen Wakeling) Samson & Delilah (color, 1950); A Place in the Sun (b&w, 1951); Roman Holiday (b&w, 1953); Sabrina (b&w, 1954); (with Edward Stevenson) The Facts of Life (b&w, 1960); The Sting (color, 1973).

Academy Award nominations for costume design in black-and-white and color film include: The Emperor Waltz (color, 1948); Carrie (b&w, 1952); (with Dorothy Jeakins, Miles White) The Greatest Show on Earth (color, 1955); The Rose Tattoo (b&w, 1955); To Catch a Thief (color, 1955); The Proud and the Profane (b&w, 1956); (with Ralph Jester, John Jensen, Dorothy Jeakins, Arnold Friberg) The Ten Commandments (color, 1956); (with Hubert de Givenchy) Funny Face (color, 1957); (with Ralph Jester, John Jensen) The Buccaneer (color, 1958); Career (b&w, 1959); The Five Pennies (color, 1959); Pepe (color, 1960); Pocketful of Miracles (color, 1961); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (b&w, 1962); My Geisha (color, 1962); Love with the Proper Stranger (b&w, 1963); A New Kind of Love (color, 1963); Wives and Lovers (b&w, 1963); A House Is Not a Home (b&w, 1964); (with Moss Mabry) What a Way to Go (color, 1964); The Slender Thread (b&w, 1965); (with Bill Thomas) Inside Daisy Clover (color, 1965); The Oscar (color, 1966); Sweet Charity (color, 1969); Airport (1970); The Man Who Would Be King (color, 1975).

Edith Head was a Hollywood institution. For 58 years, she generated costumes for legendary film stars in a wide variety of roles. Those same costumes then influenced fashions. Though Edith Head grew up, along with the American film industry, in California, her beginnings were far from glamorous. Born in 1897 in San Bernardino, Head thought of her childhood as "boring and unimportant." She was the daughter of Max Posener and Anna Levy Posener but was secretive about her maiden name, Edith Claire Posener, and claimed that she had lived in Mexico during her early years. (Head had an abiding interest in things Mexican, as reflected in the Spanish-style hacienda that served as her residence for most of her Hollywood career.) After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother and mining-engineer stepfather to a mining town, Searchlight, in the Nevada desert. Back in Los Angeles at age 12, she lived in an apartment at the YWCA, the reason for her lifelong interest in gymnastics. In college, she adopted the dark glasses that became her trademark: "I think they became a protective coloration from the beginning, so effective that I never had any sense of being part of the campus at all; I was a spectator." Head rarely smiled because of some bad teeth that were finally fixed after many years in Hollywood. "I always wanted to look like Shirley Temple," she recalled, "but the mirror told me I was a zero with thick glasses and straight hair. It was years before I had any confidence and learned to smile." Her hairstyle evolved from that of a short bob with bangs (à la silent-film star Louise Brooks ) to her signature bangs and bun later in life. At 5′1″, Head dressed simply, in neutral colors.

Her degrees in French and Spanish from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford led to a job in 1923 teaching French at the exclusive Hollywood School for Girls, where filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille's daughters, Cecilia De Mille and Katherine De Mille , were among her students. In the early years of the film industry, each studio churned out movies at a rate of 50 to 60 a year. When Head worked at the Hollywood School and Cecil B. De Mille was filming his spectaculars, school would close so that teachers and students could watch the filming at the Famous Players-Lasky studio (later Paramount) at Sunset and Vine. Edith Head was intrigued.

She also taught art classes and studied at night at the Otis Art Institute, later transferring to Chouinard. She specialized in seascapes. While at Chouinard, she met and married Charles Head, the brother of another art student, but it was an unhappy marriage. A salesman for the Super Refined Metals Company, Charles traveled often and drank heavily. Edith, a staunch Catholic, would try to maintain her marriage but socialized without her husband; few of her friends and colleagues knew him. They would divorce in 1938. In 1940, she would marry her second husband, good friend Bill Ihnen, an Academy Award-winning art director.

By the mid-1920s, Hollywood was a movie center, and the men who ran it had often started their careers in some aspect of the garment business; image was intrinsic to the cinema. The influence of film costumes on fashion seems to have been inevitable. Costume designers became recognized, emerging from anonymity as major contributors to the look of period films. Fan magazines launched in the '20s, as well as fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, perpetuated the cult of celebrity, provided outlets for film publicity, and printed fashion articles for their readership. But in the beginning California had few fashion sources to support the burgeoning film industry—actors often used their personal wardrobes in early films and shooting schedules allowed no time for shopping or dressmakers—so the studios had to supply special costumes for epics, period films, musicals and Westerns. By the 1930s and the start of talking pictures, major studios would house wardrobe departments that operated like small factories, employing up to 200 workers—cutters, fitters, tailors, staff beaders, furriers, milliners, armorers, jewelers, and researchers. Studios would produce hundreds of costumes to project an actor's role. Costumes would be routinely photographed to see how they would appear on camera; the results would be used for publicity. Costumes would be elegant and smart, and the numerous fashion ideas they generated would be adopted by the public, everything from Greta Garbo 's beret to Claudette Colbert 's hem length. Styles adapted from the movies would be manufactured and merchandised widely; thus Hollywood would make fashion. Given the backdrop of the Depression, Hollywood glamour would seem even more desirable to millions of moviegoers.

In 1923, Head answered an ad for a sketch artist at Paramount, then Hollywood's most important studio, to work on a De Mille picture, The Golden Bed. Her colleagues at art school, who had dared her to seek the job, had all chipped in drawings for her portfolio. The subterfuge was needed; Head was ill-trained for sketching the human body. Because art from so many sources reflected a range of styles, Howard Greer, the studio's chief designer, was impressed by Head's apparent versatility and hired her. (In the '20s, most major studio costume departments were run by men.) Her ruse was discovered the first day on the job, but, instead of firing her, Greer pumped her for ideas for the movie. She offered some, he liked them, and he and assistant designer Travis Banton trained her to enlarge and colorize costume designers' original small drawings, called croquis. Greer also allowed her to watch him drape the garments. "It was like watching the drawings come to life," she recalled. As a beginner, Head, though shy, willingly accepted every assignment. She rolled and painted fabric, handed pins to the seamstress, and, as part of the fitting-room team, watched or took notes as the designers, head fitters, and wardrobe women worked on a costume.

Head, told to create a candy-ball sequence for The Golden Bed, featured actors with peppermint stick fingernails, lollipop beards, and chocolate necklaces for her first design challenge. She forgot, however, that camera lights were hot, and candy melted. The embarrassing incident almost ended Head's fledgling career, but De Mille's designer Claire West salvaged the work, and critics called the sequence "colorful."

In the 1920s, MGM's motto—and Holly-wood's—was "Make it big. Do it right. Give it class." "Sex, sets, and costumes" was the formula for De Mille's riveting spectacles shot at Paramount. Historical accuracy was not an issue; exaggeration had commercial value. "I want clothes that will make people gasp when they see them," De Mille directed the wardrobe department. "Don't design anything anybody could possibly buy in a store." Hollywood costumes were made to be photographed, not worn; some were so tight, they could only be worn standing up, or were made in several versions to accommodate sitting. Unlike retail fashion, they fit the technical needs of the film, complemented the story, and interpreted the characters. In those days, Head would recall, a "designer was as important as a star. When you said Garbo, you thought of Adrian; when you said Dietrich, you said Banton. The magic of an Adrian or Banton dress was part of the selling of a picture. Sets, costumes, and makeup just aren't considered the art forms they used to be."

In 1929, when Greer resigned because of problems with alcohol, Banton was promoted chief designer, and Head became Banton's assistant. "He was a god there," said Head. "Nobody

dared oppose him about anything, including budgets." Banton was known for his glamorous designs, especially for film icon Marlene Dietrich . "He was a marvelous designer," Edith recalled. He helped her develop her potential as a designer, gradually assigning her to stars he did not have the time or inclination to handle. One such was Clara Bow , the "It" girl, who projected a sexy image on-screen. Offscreen, Bow had no fashion sense and insisted on wearing high heels and ankle socks with every outfit, even bathing suits and gowns. Head also soothed the ego of Latin beauty Lupe Velez , who was put out for being passed off to a mere assistant designer, by speaking Spanish with her to gain trust.

I make people into what they are not—ten years older or younger, fatter or thinner, more handsome or more ridiculous, glamorous or sexy or horrible. The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage.

—Edith Head

On She Done Him Wrong (1933), Head's first important film and her first on-screen credit, she began a successful working relationship with Mae West , an actress who infuriated the censors with her bawdy dialogue. Her voluptuous figure and huge hats were hallmarks of her personal style. "Edith is the only designer who can dress Mae West as Mae West," said West, "tight enough to show I'm a woman, but loose enough to show I'm a lady." Head consulted with Mae West extensively, because the star knew what worked for her and preferred gowns with "a little insinuendo about them." Edith emphasized Mae's height, using chevrons and other optical illusions on her costumes. Financially, She Done Him Wrong helped Paramount out of a sticky financial situation and helped launch Edith Head's career.

Technicolor was first used in 1934 and presented new challenges to designers who were accustomed to working in black and white and using costumes in odd color combinations to photograph in the proper shades of gray. Colors appeared unnatural in early films, and designers and art directors worked with Technicolor consultants, including Natalie Kalmus , to correct erratic hues. Clothing had to be dyed just the right shade for a desired effect.

Like his predecessor Howard Greer, Travis Banton also had a problem with alcohol, and in 1938 he left the studio to work in private couture. Edith Head was named chief designer of Paramount, the first woman with sole responsibility for a major studio's costume department. She would remain there for 29 years. When Head took over, Paramount was by then the least glamorous of the studios, specializing in B pictures, which had sustained the studios after the Depression. The work schedule was hectic. "You could just make it if you worked every day until midnight and weekends. In some ways it was easier than today," she said in later years, "because we knew way in advance what pictures we were going to do and who would be in them." She also knew the tastes of actresses under studio contract, and B-picture directors were not so involved with costumes as directors of major motion pictures.

Head's name appeared on numerous films, and she considered these challenges great training. "I was never going to be the world's greatest costume designer," she said, "but there was no reason I could not be the smartest…. I have always said that I am a better politician than I am a designer. I know who to please." Her discussions with new clients encompassed their likes and dislikes, and she took them into consideration as she designed costumes to satisfy the film's requirements. "When you talk with an actress, it's a little like a doctor diagnosing a patient…. You have to make the stars feel like you are designing with them," she advised. "When I've designed a square neckline and a star wants it round, I don't argue with her." The director's perspective was also important to Head; she discussed everything with the director first and showed several sketches after these discussions. Some had definitive ideas about characterization through costuming; others left it up to her. Over the years, she cooperated with producers, directors, cinematographers, sound recorders, choreographers, actors, and art directors. Some suggest that this attitude contributed to her Oscar count—all those professionals vote for the Academy Awards.

In 1941's The Lady Eve, Edith Head's talent for camouflage transformed Barbara Stanwyck into a fashion trendsetter and paved the way for her glamour roles. It also made Head famous after 18 years of hard work. The Lady Eve required Head to transform Stanwyck from a gambler to an aristocrat. For the gambler, she dressed Stanwyck in contrasting black and white or solid black or white. As the British noble-woman, Stanwyck wore luxurious fabrics in subtle colors. Using a belt that was wider in back and narrower in front, Head raised Stanwyck's waistline and disguised a low derriere. The Latin flavor of her gowns influenced world fashion, and the studio gave her costumes full publicity. Head created both on- and off-screen wardrobes for Stanwyck, and for the next seven years she was written into Stanwyck's contracts and loaned out to other studios to do the actress' costume design.

Wartime meant shortages to the film industry. The L-85 government directive limited the amount of fabric used in garments—no pleats, ruffles, cuffs, long jackets or other extras were allowed. This situation spurred Head's creativity and won her acclaim. For The Road to Morocco (1942), she substituted sheer cotton for silk and painted kidskin gold to simulate gold metallic trim. The Road comedies of the '40s, featuring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour , enabled Head to experiment with exotic styles to reflect film locations. (This was not the first time she had designed for Lamour. Head's sarong for the actress in Jungle Princess would forever be associated with the Lamour image. Sewn into her sarong, Lamour was given matching underwear to satisfy the censors.) Head also supported the war effort with her fashion updates to women: "All designers are turning to cotton. Silk is out of style for 1942…. Double-duty clothes will cut down on budgets. Coats with zip-in, changeable linings and suits with reversible jackets are the fashion news."

Ginger Rogers presented design challenges to Head. In The Major and the Minor (1942), Rogers had to metamorphize from a 31-year-old to a 12-year-old in full view of the camera. Wrote Head:

Ginger appeared first in a simple belted blouse that could be quickly unbelted into a low-slung middy blouse, a knee-length plaid skirt that could be hiked up above her knees easily, stockings that could be crumpled down to look like anklets, and a wide-brimmed hat that looked extremely ingenue with two blond pigtails hanging out.

Head also designed the most expensive gown in Hollywood history for Rogers—a mink overskirt lined with sequins and worn over a matching sequined bodysuit in a dream sequence in Lady in the Dark (1944). But costume budgets fell after World War II, and the star system and extravagant treatment began to break down. Between 1942 and 1946, Head sensed changes in her field: "I felt that in the future, clothes would get more and more comfortable, and I tried to employ that theory in the film. Once people began to wear easy clothes, I knew it would be impossible to get them into restrictive garments again."

Head regarded her 1949 film The Heiress, based on Henry James' Washington Square, as "possibly the most perfect picture I have ever done." "Every dress was perfect," said Olivia de Havilland , the star of the film. "Just putting them on, I became these women and I knew right where they were in the story. Edith even came to New York with me before The Heiress and we studied the underwear at the Brooklyn Museum so it would be absolutely authentic." The clothes reflected both the Victorian era with its crinolines and the Edwardian era with its bustles. Edith and director William Wyler discussed the costumes' role in story development. As an unfashionable spinster, the heiress Catherine Sloper is dressed simply (to communicate her insecurity, Head designed clothing of luxurious fabrics but without the right fit—there were gaps and wrinkles); when she meets a lover, her costumes are overdone (too much ribbon and lace to reflect unsophisticated taste); when the lover deserts the heiress, her costumes become dark and tailored; and when she executes her plan of revenge against her returning lover, the costumes are beautiful, self-confident and exciting. Even though the movie was filmed in black and white, Head asked de Havilland her preference in color of the gown she wears at the end of the film, when she extracts her revenge. The actress chose a soft mauve, a period color signifying vulnerability and femininity which photographed as a soft, misty white. The Heiress won an Academy Award for Best Costumes that year.

In 1948, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established an award for Best Costume in two categories—color films and black and white. (In 1967, they were merged as one.) The Oscars originally were designed to award costumes that moved the story along. By the end of her career, Head had received 8 Oscars, the most awarded to any designer, and a record number of 35 nominations. Costume designer Bob Mackie, who worked as a sketch artist for Head during the '60s, called her "the ultimate survivor. She was an executive very much ahead of her time. She knew how to delegate. She knew how to get the best out of everyone. I really admired her." According to Mackie, "By the time she edited the sketches, everything looked like Edith Head designed it. That's what was important. That was a big part of her talent." Costume consultant Robert L. Green noted, "She was the greatest diplomat in Hollywood. She was willing to make compromises. That's why she has so many Oscars." Other designers and colleagues viewed her differently. Her biographer Paddy Calistro writes that some of her colleagues from the 1950s—fitters, sketch artists, and seamstresses—maintained that, if Head thought it necessary, she would claim others' work and ideas as her own.

Head was aware that her public image would help her to maintain her position at the studio. Although extremely nervous at the beginning, she made monthly appearances on Art Linkletter's radio show, "House Party," offering fashion advice and tidbits about the stars. (At her request, he would critique her performance, teaching her how to be more conversational and less timid). Later when Linkletter moved to television, she went with him as his most popular guest, doing instant makeovers of audience members. Head tirelessly promoted Hollywood as the world's fashion center, gave fashion advice to Photoplay readers who sent her full-length photographs of themselves, and received her own fan mail from women wondering how they could adapt on-screen looks for the office. Beginning in the early 1950s, with June Van Dyke , Head staged Hollywood fashion shows around the country and abroad, complete with models resembling the original stars who wore the dresses. Vogue Patterns sold some of her designs, which would become a major source of income in the 1970s and a way to maintain her visibility.

By the early 1950s, movies were competing with television, causing the reemergence of epics. C.B. De Mille offered the public a "Bible story with sex appeal" in Samson and Delilah (1949). Head disliked working with the "egotistical, tactless" De Mille who had no respect for historical accuracy. The censors provided more obstacles: though it was acceptable to show Victor Mature's navel, it was not acceptable to unveil Hedy Lamarr 's. (Designers tried to get around the censors by stuffing pearls in women's navels.) De Mille demanded 20 to 30 sketches per costume—the average picture required three to four—and kept copies of accepted sketches to ensure that the final product was what he had approved. For a scene featuring Delilah on her throne just before Samson pulls down the walls of the temple, De Mille demanded a costume with feathers; the rest was up to Head. On De Mille's ranch, her staff collected almost 2,000 peacock feathers during molting season which were subsequently sewn and glued onto a cape for Lamarr (the cape is currently on display at the De Mille estate in Los Angeles). The film garnered incredible publicity, including a fashion show featuring the cape and Seventh Avenue's version of Delilah gowns. The lack of costume authenticity bothered Head, but she won an Oscar for the extravaganza.

For Sunset Boulevard (1950), silent-film star Gloria Swanson returned to the screen. Her character, Norma Desmond, bore a resemblance to Swanson as a movie star past her prime, but Norma was also on the verge of madness. Swanson, who had designed and manufactured clothes herself, asked to work with Edith Head. "It became a project where I actually designed with the star instead of for her, because she was recreating a past that she knew and I didn't," said Head. The resulting costumes were contemporary but reminiscent of the silent-film era. The black-and-white film showcased clothes with discordant notes, such as a black velvet afternoon suit trimmed in ermine fur. Edith used tulle, brocade, taffeta, leopard-printed crepe, and fur trim. The resulting clothes, bizarre and dreamlike, were for an actress lost in her own inner world. "I tried to make her look as if she was always impersonating someone," said Head.

All About Eve (1950) also reflected the passing of an era, but this time in the New York theater. Bette Davis , as middle-aged actress Margo Channing, is pushed aside by a younger actress, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter ), who is scheming her way to the top. Davis' costumes echoed Tallulah Bankhead 's style, the supposed prototype for the Channing character, especially the off-the-shoulder dress in the famous cocktail-party scene that was similar to one Bankhead wore in a Broadway play. The design came by accident. The movie dress was mistakenly made with an enlarged bodice and neckline. With no time to spare before shooting the scene, Davis pushed the neckline off her shoulders, and Head secured it with some stitches. Head said of Davis, "When she puts on something, you don't think it's a costume designed for her. You say, 'It belongs to Bette Davis.'" The film earned another Oscar for Edith Head.

Roman Holiday (1953), the story of a princess who wants to escape her role, gave Head the opportunity to work with Audrey Hepburn , a young actress with a slight figure and classic beauty. Head claimed that Hepburn had a better understanding of fashion than any star except Marlene Dietrich. But Sabrina (1954), which also starred Hepburn, created a controversy that would raise questions about Head's work on the film long after her death. This Cinderella story concerns the daughter of a chauffeur who falls in love with the son of her father's rich employers, goes to Paris, and returns as a sophisticate. Head saw the film as a perfect opportunity to be creative—" three wonderful stars and my leading lady looking like a Paris mannequin." However, director Billy Wilder wanted Hepburn to buy Paris originals from French designer Hubert de Givenchy for the film. Head was outraged at the news that she would only be designing Hepburn's clothing as the not very fashionable chauffeur's daughter before her transformation in Paris. Hepburn, who preferred Givenchy's classic, sleek style, showed Head the courturier's notebook of suggested sketches and the wardrobe she bought from him. The hit costume of the movie was a black cocktail dress with a boat neckline and tiny black bows at the shoulders; manufacturers made thousands of copies of the dress with the Sabrina neckline. Head never acknowledged that the design was actually created by Givenchy. Publicity was geared toward emphasizing the French fashion angle, and the film opened in Paris during the couture shows. "Do You Look Like Sabrina?" contests and other promotions added to the excitement. When the film, which was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, only won the 1955 costume award, Edith Head accepted it without a word of acknowledgment then or ever for Givenchy's work. The dress became part of her touring costume collection.

"Edith always thought she designed everything in town," observed Irene Heymann , Wilder's agent. "She was notorious for never giving an assistant credit, even if she hadn't done a thing." And Warren Harris, Audrey Hepburn's biographer, wrote that it was Head's clout as chief designer at Paramount that blocked Givenchy's share in the Oscar. He also observed that her habit of taking credit for other people's work was the reason for her many Oscars and her unpopularity among peers. Harris also notes, however, that Edith Head was entitled to take credit for film costumes herself, according to her contract as chief of Paramount's design department.

Head regarded her clothes as "middle of the road in terms of current fashion trends" and attributed her longevity in the business to this position; she believed in moderate design to avoid dating movies. She translated the popular New Look of French couturier Christian Dior—small waists and full skirts—into a timeless look. Her restraint made her look like a fashion forecaster in A Place in the Sun (1951). Elizabeth Taylor plays a beautiful, spoiled heiress who entices Montgomery Clift away from his pregnant and plain girlfriend, Shelley Winters . In the 1950s, designers were creating a younger look, and teenager Elizabeth Taylor was a popular role model. The fashion blockbuster from the film was Taylor's debut gown. Timeless white violets were the focal point; they adorned the bodice and were sprinkled over the full tulle skirt which covered a pastel underskirt. The strapless gown highlighted Taylor's beautiful face; because of

the full bodice, her small waist was made to look smaller. Sandy Schier, costume historian, recalled, "You could go to any party that year and see at least ten women wearing that same dress." Head was as famous as the stars she dressed. She made a personal appearance in Lucy Gallant (1955), narrating a long fashion show segment which featured "Paris originals" actually designed by Head.

In the 1950s, Head began work with director Alfred Hitchcock; she would eventually design for 11 of his films. Hitchcock told her, "It's really very simple, Edith. Keep the colors quiet unless we need some dramatic impact," and Head agreed. In To Catch a Thief (1955), he saved the strong color for the climax, when Grace Kelly wore a gold lamé balloon-skirted ballgown and matching gold wig, both festooned with gold birds. Other dresses were designed as a background for a jewelry close-up shot. In Rear Window (1954), Head made Kelly look like a piece of untouchable china; her sophistication contrasted with James Stewart's scruffy photographer. "He spoke a designer's language," Head said of Hitchcock, "even though he didn't know the first thing about clothes."

By the early 1960s, the studio designer was history; the studio shopper who hunted in stores for clothes that would meet the designer's request was common. Fewer films made it difficult for Paramount to justify Edith Head's salary. When the company merged with Gulf and Western in 1967, her contract was not renewed. Without a tribute from her 44-year employer, she moved quietly to Universal as its resident costume designer. She designed only 34 movies during her eight years there; she had designed 34 movies in 1941 alone.

At Universal, after a string of mediocre movies, Head lobbied for something better. She basically dressed Butch Cassidy and the Sun-dance Kid (1969), with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, from Universal and Western Costume's stock wardrobe. Her second film with the two stars, The Sting (1973), exerted a strong influence on men's clothes—chalk-stripe suits, newsboy caps, and broad lapels; Head could not recall a previous male cast having so much influence on fashion. She made Redford's character look more naive by adding a wide-patterned tie and newsboy cap. Head found men much easier to dress than women. "It took only an hour to dress the world's two handsomest men," she said of Newman and Redford. The movie won her another Oscar. Although Head always claimed The Sting and its "perfectly accurate wardrobe" as one of her "greatest achievements," there were some rumors, according to Calistro, regarding the lack of credit for Vincent Dee and Peter Saldutti of the Universal men's wardrobe department for their contributions to the film.

After purchasing Casa Ladera in 1949 on more than five acres in Beverly Hills, Edith Head and her husband Bill Ihnen used the Spanish-style hacienda as a retreat from their Hollywood lives. At home, she wore "the kind of eye-popping housecoats I love, and colorful Mexican blouses and skirts." After 40 years of marriage, Bill Ihnen died in 1979, age 91. "It was always very important to me to be taken care of," said Head, "but Bill's greatest contribution to our marriage was his strength of character and his ability to accept my career. There were not many men like him in 1940." Even though her own health was failing, she continued her hectic work pace. Head claimed to have worked on 1,131 films throughout her career (the Edith Head's Hollywood filmography lists over 750 documented by research), but many records of her work are gone. As Paramount's chief of design, she took an interest in or expressed an opinion about all the studio's films. Edith Head died several days before her 84th birthday in 1981.


Chierchetti, David. Hollywood Costume Design. NY: Harmony Books, 1976.

Collins, Amy Fine. "When Hubert Met Audrey," in Vanity Fair. December 1995, pp. 278–296.

Harris, Warren G. Audrey Hepburn: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 1994. pp. 90–91, 102–105, 129, 137.

Head, Edith, and Paddy Calistro. Edith Head's Hollywood. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1983.

LaVine, W. Robert. In a Glamorous Fashion; The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design. NY: Scribner, 1980.

Leese, Elizabeth. Costume Design in the Movies. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1976.

Maeder, Edward. Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film. NY: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

McConathy, Dale, with Diana Vreeland. Hollywood Costume: Glamour, Glitter, Romance. NY: Abrams, 1976 (based on Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's 1974 exhibit, "Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood").

Stein, Mike. Hollywood Speaks: An Oral History. NY: Putnam, 1974. Edith Head interview, pp. 247–258.

related media:

"Edith Head: An American Film Institute Seminar on Her Work" (microfilm, pt. 1, no. 78), Beverly Hills, CA: AFI Seminars (1977).

"The Hollywood Fashion Machine" (60 mins.), aired on American Movie Classics (AMC) cable television.

Lucy Gallant (1955; color; 173 mins.), starring Charlton Heston, Jane Wyman, Thelma Ritter, Claire Trevor (Head makes an appearance as a commentator for a fashion show featuring Paris fashions, which were actually her own designs).

The Oscar (1966; color; 109 mins.), starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker , Milton Berle, Joseph Cotten, Jill St. John , Ernest Borgnine, Edie Adams , Tony Bennett (a tinsel view of Hollywood and those competing for Academy Awards, featuring many guest stars, including Head).

Laurie Norris , freelance writer, New York City