For many people, Edith Head and film costume design are synonymous. Other designers may have been more flamboyantly creative, or more consistently original, but no one did more to earn this art form popular recognition. Her guiding principle was that costume should support, rather than compete with, story and character development. Better than most, perhaps, she understood that clothing is not merely a matter of adornment, but a potent method of communication working in tandem with film’s sound and other visual elements. Her longevity, her productivity, her frequent touches of genius, and her talent for self-promotion secured her a celebrity status rare among Hollywood’s legions of production artists. Moviegoers have long remained oblivious to the identities of those who work in the shadow of the stars, but they seem to have found a place in their consciousness for this tiny, austere-looking woman who wove illusions out of beads and cloth.
Unlike most of her peers,
Head entered film costuming without relevant training or experience. When Howard Greer, Paramount’s chief designer, hired her as a sketch artist in 1923, she was a high school teacher of French and art looking for a way to supplement her income. She learned quickly, however, honing her skills by observing the masters at work. From Greer, she learned the value of attention to detail. From Travis Banton, another outstanding member of Paramount’s design team, she learned how to fabricate the highest standards of glamor and elegance.
In her early years at the studio, Head mainly dressed minor characters and animals, and generated wardrobes for the countless B-pictures then in production. Gradually she progressed to creating costumes for stars with whom the senior designers lacked the time or inclination to work. Among her first major assignments were Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, and Mae West. Head became Paramount’s chief designer in 1938, when Banton, who replaced Greer as head designer in 1927, left to start a couture business. She remained at the studio for another three decades, working with most of Hollywood’s major actresses and some of its best-known actors. When Paramount was sold in 1967, she became chief designer at Universal, where she worked until her death.
During her career, which spanned nearly six decades, Head’s productivity achieved legendary proportions. In 1940 alone, she supervised costumes for 47 films. She is estimated to have contributed to more than 1,000 movies during her lifetime. In terms of formal recognition, her record is equally staggering. She received 34 Academy Award nominations, of which eight resulted in an Oscar. Costume design did not become an Academy Award category until 1948. For the first 19 years in which this honor was given, Head was nominated at least once every year. Had the award been introduced earlier, she would surely have earned additional nominations for such distinctive creations as Dorothy Lamour’s sarongs in The Jungle Princess or Barbara Stanwyck’s Latin-inspired garments for The Lady Eve.
Much of her best work was executed in the 1950s, when glamor and high-fashion were the keynotes of costume design. Among the enduring images her designs helped promote were Grace Kelly’s refined allure in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, Elizabeth Taylor’s incandescent sensuality in A Place in the Sun, Audrey Hepburn’s chic individuality in Sabrina, Bette Davis’s mature sophistication in All about Eve, and Gloria Swanson’s anachronistic glamor in Sunset Boulevard.