Nobody has poked, prodded and seen the frilly knickers of more vintage movie stars than Edith Head. Yet despite her glamorous line-up of colleagues, Head was never overshadowed throughout her career as a costume designer to Hollywood’s greatest. Edith Head, the quirky, owlish looking woman, made herself stand out and be honoured. In her own words: ‘modesty is unbecoming’. Abby Clyndes takes a closer look.

Edith is a woman you have to make your own mind up about. She was undoubtedly a great designer and her legendary work is still being reproduced today. Pieces such as Dorothy Lamour’s sarong in The Jungle Princess are iconic. Head won eight Academy Awards, which is more than any other woman in history, and was nominated for an impressive 35.

She was much loved by the stars she worked with because she consulted with them on what they wanted and genuinely cared about her designs and the women wearing them.

Despite this, controversy surrounds her career. Although she created some notable designs, she was also a touch partial to claiming other designer’s credit. To begin with, she used another artist’s sketches to get a job in the costume department with Paramount.

Later she claimed credit for Gievency’s designs in Sabrina and promptly won the Oscar for his costumes . This misdemeanour wasn’t revealed until after her death in 1981.

So is she a designer to be celebrated, or was Head a clever and ruthless woman who got to the top of Hollywood at all costs? Edith didn’t just design costumes, she was stylist to the nation.

She regularly appeared on TV and radio offering fashion and style advice and also wrote the book The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style. Whatever you conclude about her methods concerning her design ethics, it can’t be denied that she was, in her own right, a great influence on fashion and women everywhere.

Despite her ‘force to be reckoned with’ approach to life, Edith’s own signature style was rather simple and subdued. She was a curious looking woman who seemed to prefer simple, classy suits and was never seen without her signature round glasses and trademark fringe. She looked quite severe and school teacher-esque but her outfits coupled with her glasses give her a unique and distinctive look.

In many ways, Head is something of an enigma, she was obviously a talented designer but at the same time she could be completely dishonest or unfair. Whatever you might think of her, her influence on costume design and Hollywood are still apparent today.

8 Responses

  1. Some Like it

    I suppose all designers are quirky! That is probably what makes them so creative. I agree with you – despite her own controversies, Edith Head made an impressive line of work and is still looked up to today. thanks!

  2. Helen

    Ooooh! That thing she did with the Givenchy “Sabrina” costumes was astonishingly mean! I’m amazed she got away with it for so long. When I read about that in an Audrey H book, it also said that she had a room of costume designers and would sign her name on their designs. Can you imagine???

  3. Starlight

    Superb article Q. Lena! Thank kew for bringing so many iconic moments from history to the Queens of Vintage Readers! xxxoo

  4. Vanessa C

    Oh, Helen… I might be about to drop a bombshell: most big-name designers nurture a stable of young talent, releasing under that big name the designs of which they approve (with perhaps a tweak here and there). Anyone remember Michael Kors trying desperately to recruit Michael Vosovic to his fold in season two of *Project Runway*?!

    Having said that, it’s for this very reason that I too have never really accepted Edith Head as a designer, but seen her instead as a super-successful stylist–ahead of her time in that respect, given the modern phenomenon that is the celebrity stylist. The extent of her influence, though, is remarkable: I don’t see anyone paying tribute to Rachel Zoe (for example) in the form of a cartoon character such as Edna Mode of Pixar’s *The Incredibles*, do you?!

  5. Virginia

    Audrey selected her “post transformation” wardrobe in Sabrina from Givenchy’s ready-to-wear line in Paris and because of the extra money it would cost the film company, was asked by production to write it off as a personal expense. Thus Givenchy’s name was strictly off the record and Edith got film credit (she did in fact design all of Sabrina’s pre-transformation clothes). Also, her name was the one credited no matter who in her department designed the costumes (in any Paramount film) because she was the head (no pun intended) of the wardrobe department. That’s just the way Hollywood worked.

  6. Gary Chapman

    There was a touch of mystery and intrigue surrounding the costuming of Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) – which was the film version of the stage show Diamond Lil (1928). Head is still credited by some as creating the unique ‘Mae West look’. The original ‘Mae West look’ in fact was created by Dolly Tree in Diamond Lil and used by Mae West and subsequent designers thereafter…