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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Edith Head

Edith Head's design worn by Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1955)
The Ice blue French satin cost $4,000.
Edith Head Self-portrait
I started out this morning intending to write about the fine art of costume design. Some five minutes into the research phase I came to the conclusion I'd have to write a whole book to even so much as touch on the subject. Inasmuch as I have other things to do today, I decided I didn't have time for that. So, I narrowed it down a little. What's the first name that comes to mind when you think of costume design? Well, if you're into movies at all, it's probably Edith Head. I mean, anyone who has been nominated for 35 Academy Awards and won an Oscar eight time for her efforts kind of has a lock on the profession. (She probably should have won a few more, but AMPAS voters likely didn't want to seem stuck in a rut). Between 1949 and 1966, Edith Head was nominated seventeen years in a row. In fact, her first four Oscars came over three consecutive years, 1950-52. That's the most gold-plated academy statuettes ever won by a woman.

Head's design for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951).
Even Elizabeth Taylor didn't have a waist too match Head's design.
Edith Head began by designing for Mae
West in She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Edith Head went to work for Paramount Pictures in 1924 as a costume sketch artist. She was an attractive Jewish girl of twenty-seven. She got the job even though her art training was rudimentary at best, her drawing skills lamentable, and her portfolio was borrowed from a friend. Moreover, Edith had never sewn a dress in her life. She began designing costumes for silent films a year later and by 1930 was one of Hollywood's top costume designers. Her lack of formal training in drawing was, in fact, no great handicap in that fashion design anatomy, then as now, bears only slight resemblance to that of the human variety (long legs, thin waist, ample bust, long neck, and small head). The imagination, the ability to create out of thin air, that's the talent separating any successful designer from the wannabes.

Grace Kelly was one of the major film beneficiaries of Head's talent, though
Natalie Wood holds the record for having worn Edith's designs more than
any other actress (seven films).
The Sting won Head an eighth
Academy Award in 1974.
Dorothy Lamour's formfitting sarongs
for the 1937 movie, Hurricane, 
made Edith Head a household
name among1930s moviegoers.

The list of actresses who have donned Edith Head's designs reads like the proverbial "Who's Who" of Hollywood stars and starlets, beginning with Mae West (above, left) and ended with Valerie Perrine in 1976. Her final designs were, however for men, Steve Martin and Carl Reiner (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid) in 1981 just shortly before her death at the age of 83. During the course of her career, nearly all her designs were for female costumes. However, Head's final Oscar came in 1974 for the 1930s era costumes worn by Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting. Her first major notice came in 1937 for her sarong designs for Dorothy Lamour in Hurricane (above, right).

Edith Head was in Vogue.
By the 1950s, Edith Head's designs came to such popularity that they could be worn by virtually any woman in America who could afford a Vogue dressmaking pattern, the fabric, and also run a sewing machine. However, Head's designs were never intended to be high fashion or consumer products, but always simply costumes to be worn by fictional characters in motion pictures. Whether Edith Head could draw well, or sew a single stitch, it was always the inspiration that came first.

"You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it"  --Edith Head

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