I love fashion but I love fashion history even more. That’s all I read about lately and I’m even taking a class, which I’ve mentioned before.
In this class (Fashion Icons of the 20th Century) every three weeks we have to write a short paper and make a presentation on an icon or trend during the time period we have just studied. The latest was 1930s-1950s and I chose Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head.
Here’s my paper. Enjoy!
Edith Head (1897-1981) worked in Hollywood for over 40 years costuming hundreds of films. She received 34 Academy Award nominations for Best Costumes and won a record 8 times. She dressed such stars Mae West, Lupe Levez, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn, to name only a few. An icon of her era and beyond, she was the inspiration behind the Edna Mode character in the 2004 animated film, The Incredibles.
A former French language teacher, Edith got her start in Hollywood in 1924 after applying for a job as an illustrator in the costume department of Paramount Picture Studios. She didn’t know a thing about drawing but got the job using students’ work as her own. (A story she told on herself years later.)
Edith stayed with Paramount for the next two decades working her way up from assistant to taking over as Head Costumer in 1938. It was during that time that she developed her own personal style. Self-conscious about her appearance she kept her look simple, dressing in tailored suits and sporting a chignon with slick bangs inspired by actress Anna Mae Wong. Her signature accessory was round rimmed glasses with dark lenses, which she wore indoors and out to hide her one crossed eye.
Just as she masked her own flaws, Edith was a master at masking the flaws of the stars she dressed. A thick neck, plump figure, short legs – she knew all the tricks to hide, disguise, and distract. For example, Bette Davis refused to wear a bra and suffered from a sagging bust-line. In the film, All About Eve Edith designed an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress for Davis with built-in support and mid-length sleeves edged with fur, which distracted the eye from the offending area. She won an Oscar for that film in 1950 and the dress is almost as memorable as the film itself.
Although Edith was sometimes criticized for her lack of innovative design, she wasn’t an Oscar winner for nothing. Among her more memorable designs were:
• The sarong she put Dorothy Lamour in for The Jungle Princess (1936) inspired the fashion trend for tropical fabrics and sarong draping in dresses – a popular choice for evening wear throughout the 1940s.
• The strapless evening gown she designed for Elizabeth Taylor in the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun was a smash hit with fashion critics and women across the country, who anxiously bought copies at local department stores. The gown featured a fitted bodice covered in small velvet violets and layers of ivory tulle over a yellow underskirt. Strapless gowns became a popular option for proms and dances and are still a go-to choice. (Edith won an Oscar for this film, too.)
Not only did Edith create iconic looks for stars but she was an icon herself thanks to her specific personal style and her savvy self-promotion. Unlike her peers she was happy to interact with the public. All through the 1950s she appeared on radio shows and eventually television offering advice to women about style and how to dress. She wrote a book called The Dress Doctor and a syndicated newspaper column. Edith became as well known as the stars she dressed.
Edith left Paramount in 1967 to work at Universal Studios where she remained until her death in 1981.
Chierichetti, David. The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer Edith Head. New York: Harper Collins. 2003.
Head, Edith. The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style, From A to Z. New York: Harper Collins, reprint 2008. (Original copyright 1959.)