How Edith Head gave Hollywood its dress sense

Winner of eight Oscars, she was film’s greatest ever costume designer

By Melanie Abrams, November 8, 2012
Tippi Hedren dressed by Edith Head in Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie Photo: Courtesy of BFI

Tippi Hedren dressed by Edith Head in Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie Photo: Courtesy of BFI

With a record -breaking eight Oscars and a whopping 35 nominations, Edith Claire Posenor is a Hollywood legend. As a trailblazer for women in the film industry, she leads the way. Meryl Streep doesn’t come close.

Better known as Edith Head, as she became after marriage, she remains Hollywood’s best-known costume designer, who transformed the glamorous on-screen clothes into everyday fashion for the average cinema-goer.

“She told the story of the film through her costumes and shared what we do with the public,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Hollywood Costume, and a designer herself whose credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

As head designer at Paramount Pictures from 1938 to 1967 and at Universal Studios until her death in 1981, Head worked on over 1,000 films, including a long collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on seminal movies such as To Catch A Thief and Rear Window.

But it was Head’s regular slots on radio and TV, her magazine columns and books dishing out no-nonsense style advice that propelled her to superstardom. She created her own line of clothes and toured her fashion shows across the United States.

“She kept an eye out for how her work could be adapted to the home budget,” says Simon McCallum, of the British Film Institute.

Her designs added a unique atmosphere to the films she dressed. According to Mary Vogt, costume designer for Men in Black and Batman Returns: “Edith Head’s sharp, graphic, costume designs for Alfred Hitchcock’s heroines are distinct and sophisticated while creating a mood of mystery, restraint and tension”.

Head preferred to focus on what was right for the character rather than the fashions of the day. The rich fabrics and furs she used in Sunset Boulevard, for example, immediately suggested faded film legend Norma Desmond’s enormous wealth.

Head in her trademark bob and dark glasses. Photo: Courtesy of BFI and Running Press

Head in her trademark bob and dark glasses. Photo: Courtesy of BFI and Running Press

Yet some costumes did set trends. Head’s chic turban, Capri pants and sweatshirt for Hepburn’s Moon River scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s became the look of the early 1960s.

Head’s approach made the audience believe in the characters. “Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments looks sensational in her sheer blue, draped dress, for example. The film is pure Hollywood and nothing to do with reality and yet you believe she was a great Queen of Egypt because the costumes were absolutely her character,” says Landis.

Head, who was born into a Jewish immigrant family in 1897, began work at Paramount Pictures in 1924 in a summer holiday job as a sketch artist. Her costumes for the silent screen siren, Clara Bow, and sex symbol Mae West demonstrated that she could handle major talent and led to her appointment as head designer, a post she held for an astonishing 43 years — at a time when few high-profile women were working behind the cameras in Hollywood.

Her talent for diplomacy kept her at the top. “She knew how to work with people, which a lot of her colleagues didn’t,” says McCallum.

Actors trusted her. “They felt secure. She helped them to maintain an image,” says Landis. For Paul Newman in Hud, she chose clothes that hugged his physique and played up his persona as the sexy, arrogant anti-hero.
Her influence remains strong.

According to biographer Jay Jorgensen: “Her timeless costumes have kept the films she dressed fresh. Grace Kelly’s elegant blue and white dress in To Catch A Thief could still be worn on today’s red carpet.”

‘Hollywood Costumes’ is at the V&A until January 27 2013. Details: 020 7907 7073, ‘Edith Head: A Complete Treasury of the Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer’ by Jay Jorgensen is published by Running Press at £45

Last updated: 12:16pm, November 8 2012