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Head, Edith

dress costume ability paramount

B. 1897

D. October 26, 1981

Birthplace: San Bernardino, California

Awards: Academy Award for Costume Design: The Heiress (1949), All About Eve (1950), Samson and Delilah (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Facts of Life (1960) The Sting , 1973
         Motion Picture and Television Fund, Tribute to Edith Head, 1998

From 1938 to 1967, Edith Head ruled at Paramount Studios, working on more than 1,000 movies, winning eight Academy Awards, and being nominated thirty-five times. She is Hollywood’s most successful costume designer, if not the most popular.

In 1923 she answered a Los Angeles Times ad for a sketch artist, and although her portfolio was composed of other people’s designs she had “borrowed” from a local art school, she impressed Howard Greer, then the head of Paramount Studio’s costume department. Working with both Greer and another new addition to Paramount, Travis Banton, the young Edith Head learned from the best. Her first film, She Done Him Wrong (1933), starred Mae West. Their collaboration was a tremendous success, and years later, when Mae West was cast with Raquel Welch in Myra Breckenridge (1970), she asked that Edith Head be brought in from Universal Studios, where she was then working, to dress West for the film.

Her next, and perhaps most enduring, alliance was with actress Barbara Stanwyck, for whom she created gorgeous costumes and a sexy image. Beginning with Interns Can’t Take Money (1937) and continuing with The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944), their professional relationship and great friendship resulted in tremendous recognition for both, as Head transformed Stanwyck from an unglamorous actress to a woman of beauty and style, primarily by dressing her in clothing that hid her figure flaws.

That ability to “mother” actresses, to listen to their fears and to advise them, is what made superstars, such as Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, and Loretta Young, revere her. Her difficulties came when actresses, such as Audrey Hepburn, made clear their desires to work with other costume designers. It was Head’s seemingly guiltless ability to accept the Academy Award for Sabrina (1954), without even acknowledging the efforts of Hubert de Givenchy, and to take credit for his Sabrina neckline (the bateau neck with a tie at each shoulder), even when it became clear that the famous dress was not her idea. It is for this and other similar incidents that many in Hollywood do not remember her kindly. However, no one denies her amazing ability to keep pace with the fashion zeitgeist. While most famous costumers are remembered for designs of a certain period, her garments never looked dated. Alfred Hitchcock was among those who admired her ability to advance his plots by dressing his characters so appropriately.

Perhaps her most influential dress is the one Elizabeth Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun (1951). It was so popular that it was reproduced and sold, bearing Edith Head’s label, in department stores all over the United States. The famous strapless confection, with its layers of tulle and fabric violets, was worn by thousands of prom goers and high school graduates that year.

Head was popular with the public. She appeared on television talk shows and published two books: The Dress Doctor (1959), which landed on the best-seller list, and How to Dress for Success (1967). Head’s last movie was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid , released in 1982, just after her death. From her first creations to her final ones, Edith Head earned her reputation as the “director’s designer.”

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