Note: Due to computer glitches that twice ate huge, unrecoverable chunks of drafts for this entry, it is a day late.
Quick quiz. What woman won more Academy Awards than any other? Meryl Streep your say? Wrong. Katherine Hepburn. Nope. Sally Field. Don’t be ridiculous. The woman with eight, count ‘em eight Oscars was not an actress at all but a diminutive woman outfitted for decades in enormous round glasses, black Moe Howard bangs, tasteful two piece suites, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Who else but costume designer to the stars Edith Head.
Edith Claire Posener was born on October 28, 1897—although she would later claim 1902, a date which still shows up in articles based on her Hollywood press clippings—in San Bernardino, California. It was not a place she called home. Indeed she never had a real hometown. Her father, Max Posener, was a Jewish Russian emigrant and her mother, Anna E. Levy, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of German/Austrian Jews. In the pecking order of Jewish society in America, they were mismatched. It is likely Anna’s parents disapproved of the match and the couple eloped, or simply ran away since there is no evidence they ever married.
Max disappeared when Edith was small after a haberdashery he managed to open in San Bernardino failed. A year later, in 1905 Anna married Frank Spare, a young Catholic engineer. They were soon passing Edith off as their mutual daughter and she was raised a Catholic. Her stepfather’s profession made the family virtual nomads has he found work in mining camps around the West. The family stayed longer in Searchlight, Nevada than most towns.
Frank did earn a nice living an indulged his daughter in a first rate education. Edith graduated with a B.A. and honors in French from the University of California at Berkley in 1919 and earned her Master’s in Romance Languages from Stanford a year later.
Then she was on her own in the world. She started as a French teacher, first in a parochial school in La Jolla and then at the Hollywood School for Girls, a prestigious finishing school catering to the daughters of the booming movie business. In order to qualify for higher pay, she volunteered to teach art as well as French despite having no lessons in the subject since high school.
Edith drawing skills were extremely limited so she enrolled for night classes at the Chouinard Art College. While there she met Charles Head, the brother of a classmate. They were married in the summer of 1923. It was not a particularly happy marriage and the couple separated after a few years. They did not divorce, however until 1934, presumably because of Edith’s Catholicism. They had no children, but she gained the name she used throughout her professional life.
In 1924, bored with the life of a house wife in search of a good income, Edith naturally turned to the main local industry for work. Despite absolutely no experience in fashion or design and still limited drafting skills, he applied to Paramount Pictures for work as a costume sketch artist under the direction of studio designers. To get the job she submitted a portfolio borrowed from another student. Not the last time she would finesse her career by cutting corners here and there.
Head, however, was a quick study. Her drawing improved, and she began making suggestions. Within a year she was designing for her first picture, The Wanderer, a Raoul Walsh film starring German actress Greta Nissen and Wallace Berry. She soon became a Walsh favorite, the first of several directors who championed her career.
At first she toiled in the shadows of Paramount’s head designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton both of who, as was the custom, would often claim her work as their own for screen credits. It was a “tradition” Head continued after she got the top job long after it was both out of fashion and professionally frowned on, for which she would get a lot of criticism from fellow designers.
But within the studio, Heads work was championed not only by directors, but by leading ladies who appreciated her habit of consulting with them on her design to accommodate when possible their taste and to accentuate their best features. Most designers took a take-it-or-leave it attitude with actresses except for the handful of stars with real clout within the studio system.
Although she had enjoyed some studio publicity over the years, Head did not attract wide spread public attention until she put Dorothy Lamour in that famous sarong in 1937’s John Ford epic The Hurricane. The dress made Lamour a star—Head kept her in versions of it in the subsequent Bring Crosby/Bob Hope road pictures—and Edith a celebrity.
When Banton retired the following year, Head finally ascended to the throne as Paramount chief designer. And she would keep an iron grip on the job for 29 more years.
Paramount was toward the rear of the pack of Hollywood Major Studios, much smaller than the relentless factory at MGM which produced as many as 200 pictures a year at its peak, or Warner Bros. home of gritty urban dramas, “women’s movies”, and prestige bio-flicks. In either of those she would have had to compete with rafts of designers to get the top assignments. Paramount, on the other hand, made 20 or 30 features a year with a relatively thin stable of stars. Head got her hand on any she desired, and had time to frequently go on loan to other studios at the bequest of stars or directors she had cultivated. By the 1940’s “Costumes by Edith Head” seemed a ubiquitous credit.
In that decade she left her impression on many stars and memorable films including Paulette Goddard in Cat and the Canary; Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels and I Married a Witch; Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity; Ginger Rodgers in Lady in the Dark; Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter; and Bette Davis in June Bride.
Head’s star was rising, but she was not about to let studio publicity departments burry her contributions while hyping stars. She made herself available for interviews key entertainment reporters and gossip columnists in her debt by occasionally feeding them juicy—but never career damaging—studio gossip and usually flattering bits on the stars she cultivated. She contributed fashion articles to magazines and staged costume shows for newsreels. She even got Paramount to film a short documentary on her and her department.
Not that she was without critics, particularly among her fellow designers and those who toiled in studio wardrobe departments. She had been an outspoken opponent of unionization by costume designers. Always obsequious to authority, especially studio bosses, producers and name directors, she could be a tyrant and taskmistress over the employees under her, quick to shift blame for failures and to claim credit for their work. She defended the later by saying that their designs were always only executed at her guidance, direction, and inspiration.
Others were critical of her style, particularly in modern dress pictures calling her the Shirtwaist Queen for her frequent use of that basic style. But shirtwaists are flattering on most women’s bodies. Moreover studio bosses were explicit that designs be a “timeless” as possible, shunning passing fashion trends, so that pictures could easily be re-released, a big money maker. The result was a classic clean but elegant Edith Head style.
In 1949 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added the costume design to its annual Oscar Awards. Beginning that year with The Emperor Waltz, a Bing Crosby musical co-starring Joan Fontaine, Head would be nominated for the next 19 consecutive years—sometimes for multiple pictures in a year—and five more times after that with a total of 35 nominations. Her eight trips home with the trophy were for The Heiress with Julie Harris, 1950; Samson and Delilah with Heddy Lamarr (color), 1951; All About Eve with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (black and white), 1951; A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters, 1952; Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, 1954; Sabrina, again with Hepburn, 1954; The Facts of Life with Lucile Ball, 1960; and The Sting in 1974.
Of those films, the award for Sabrina was the most controversial. For the key sequences when Hepburn as the chauffeur’s daughter blossoms into a Paris model, the star personally picked sketches by designer Hubert de Givenchy. The outfits were constructed in Head’s wardrobe department and she did design most of the “American” clothes. She refused to give de Givenchy screen credit with her for design. Although the award was obviously mostly for his contributions, Head accepted it anyway.
Head was now a major celebrity in her own right. There were not yet famous American fashion houses, and outside of New York society hardly anyone knew the name of a haute couture American designer. Only the great Paris fashion houses were known to the public. For many ordinary American women, the highly visible Head was high fashion, not just costume design. Knock-off manufacturers kept Main Street dress shops across the country stocked with dresses and suits inspired by Head movies.
Even I, a pre-teen yahoo in Cheyenne, Wyoming knew who Edith Head was. In those days we had a full hour for lunch at school and those who could, walked home to eat. I did. And everyday Mom had Art Linkletter’s House Party, a kind of stone age talk/variety program, on the TV. Head made frequent, sometimes weekly, appearances on the show, on the show, often dishing out fashion advice to members of the audience. At home, Mom paid strict attention.
She had now added Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock to her list of director champions and a galaxy of stars including Hepburn, Taylor, Baxter, Grace Kelly, and Natalie Wood as her devoted fans.
Among her other screen triumphs in the ‘50’s and ‘60s were Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson; Rear Window and It Takes a Thief with Kelly; White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Crosby, and Danny Kaye; The Man Who Knew too Much with Doris Day; the DeMille epic Ten Commandments; Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich; Separate Tables with Rita Hayworth; Vertigo with Kim Novak; and That Kind of Woman with Sophia Loren.
Starting in 1963 with Love With a Proper Stranger through The Last Married Couple in America in 1980 Head made seven films with Wood.
Her last film for Paramount was the gaudy melodrama The Oscar, for which she naturally received another nomination for the statuette in 1967. Then Head left her longtime home at Paramount and jumped to Universal, a studio on the rise since its days as the home of classic monster movies. She followed Hitchcock there, the director with whom she worked most often.
Age and increasingly fragile health slowed her up some, but she could still pull out some claims to glory. There were five more Oscar nominations including nods for the musical Sweet Charity, the costume epic The Man Who Would Be King, and the disaster movies Airport and Airport ’77. After years of gaining glory for designing for beautiful Hollywood clothes horses, her final years were marked by films centering on men, including her final Oscar win, The Sting.
She also designed for Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. She also did work that evoked earlier years of Hollywood glory and her own screen work—Gable and Lombard with James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh, W.C. Fields and Me with Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine, and Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The latter, released in 1981, captured the look of ‘40’s film noir. Released after her death, Martin dedicated the film to her.
Head’s husband since 1940, set designer Wiard Ihnen died in 1979 of prostate cancer. The couple had no children. Although Head continued to work until the end, her health was bad. She suffered from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease. She died on October 24, 1981 four days shy of her 84th birthday. She was buried unostentatiously under a simple bronze plaque in a Catholic section of Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens removed from the flashy graves and mausoleums of the stars she had decorated.