Edith Head, costume designer extraordinaire, was born on this day in 1897! Head designed costumes for hundreds of films and dressed some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich. During her more than fifty years as a costume designer, Head was nominated for thirty-five Academy Awards and received eight. She passed away in 1981, soon after finishing costumes for Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, a Steve Martin parody of a classic film noir.
Born in California, Edith Head spent her early childhood moving frequently between mining camps in Nevada and Mexico. Living in rural areas, Head had few playmates and no siblings. As a child, Head would dress her pets and dolls in fabric scraps. Later in life, Head encourage herself by saying, "anyone who can dress a horn toad, can dress anything!"1 She also learned to speak fluent Spanish, a skill that would prove useful throughout her career.
As a teen, Head and her mother settled in Los Angeles, where Edith graduated from high school. She also went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Berkeley and a master's degree in Romance languages from Stanford University. Putting her language skills to use, Head secured a series of positions teaching languages and drawing at Los Angeles area high schools. During the evening, she took drawing classes at the Otis Art Institute and the Chouinard Art Institute. Eventually, in 1923 or 1924, Head applied for a position as a costume sketcher working under Howard Greer at Famous Players-Lasky Studio (later Paramount). Not confident of her abilities, she "borrowed" sketches from Chouinard classmates for her interview. Though Head soon confessed her deception, Greer kept her on, in part, Head believed, because of her skill with foreign languages.
After getting her start at Famous Players-Lasky, Edith Head began moving up the ladder of success. At first, she primarily designed costumes for background extras. In 1938, when Travis Banton (who had succeeded Howard Greer) left his position, Head was promoted from assistant to chief designer. In the 1940s and 50s, she often had "three hundred sketchers, drapers, cutter and finishers" working on various costume designs.2 As a costume designer, Head tried to accentuate the best features of each actress, while also taking into account the character that the actress was playing. Her costuming skill earned her a role as a trusted commentator; she was often interviewed on fashion for the everyday woman and her name was used to promote everything from shoes and hosiery to ready-to-wear fashions.
Edith Head with three female models. A hand-written note on this image indicates that the photo was taken during the Screen Directors' Fashion Show for the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face (1957). Head and Hubert de Givenchy both contributed costumes to this film.
April 1, 1957
Gift of Richard Bagley
Edith Head and Grace Kelly look at a sea of fashion sketches. Head costumed Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and designed the ice-blue satin gown that Kelly wore to receive her 1955 Academy Award for The Country Girl (1954).
Gift of Richard Bagley
1 Jorgensen, Jay. Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer. (New York: LifeTime Media, 2010) 14.
2 Williams, Beryl. Fashion Is Our Business. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1945) 142.