It’s the night of the Oscar’s. You’re non-industry, so you watch the pre-show to get a look at the gowns, to see who shines, who missteps, and who looks like holy hell. Then for the next several hours you’ll tune in and out, depending on whether the award is for best actress or best technical whatever. And as much as you love to see what the presenters and recipients are wearing, when it comes time for the Oscar winner for best costume design to claim his or her gold statuette, you’re likely to be looking at someone you’ve never seen before, someone whose name you’ve never heard before.
It’s not that modern costume achievements aren’t tremendous. But in a post-’60s era, when dress turned casual, with the majority of films featuring folks dressed in everyday garb, the stylist has supplanted the costume designer in popular consciousness. Witness the fact that nearly every one of you likely knows the name of the hottest stylist of all, (whose work for the Devil Wears Prada we’re dying to see) Patricia Fields.
It wasn’t always so. There was a time when the costume designer was essential to creating the actresses look. He or she hid her flaws, accentuated her assets and made her a better, more beautiful version of herself. What’s more, the work of the costume designer, rather than reflecting current dress or aping period styles, was actually influencing the dress of the movie-going public. One of the most famous of these costume designers was Adrian, whose work for stars like Greta Garbo, and most famously Joan Crawford, influenced the way women dressed and thought about glamour.
But when asked to name a costume designer, you and I will name Edith Head. Edith Head’s decades-long career in Hollywood won her more Oscars than any woman in history (eight Oscars out of 34 nominations). In fact she’d been working in Hollywood for a decade and a half before the Oscar for costume design was finally introduced in 1947. The first woman to head up the design department at a major film studio, Paramount, Head worked on hundreds of films over a period of more than 50 years for nearly every major studio. Just as importantly, she raised the profile of the costume designer by appearing on television and penning books on the craft, on dress and on her experiences in Hollywood.
Unlike Adrian, who was all about glamour, Head, while also designing over-the-top gowns for actresses like Mae West, could take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. She turned up the volume on straightforward suits for Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” or Kim Novak in “Vertigo.”
Head costumed the who’s who of Hollywood, winning Oscars for her designs for Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve,” Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun,” Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress,” and Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “The Sting,” among others. She costumed such notable star turns as Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” and Marlene Dietrich in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” A Head favorite was the gold lamé gown she designed for Grace Kelly for “To Catch A Thief.” Head loved Kelly and this was her favorite project.
“What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.”
– Edith Head
Head knew how to make a garment that moved with the actor, said what it needed to say, and never upstaged the wearer. As Lucille Ball put it, “Edie knew the truth about all of us. She knew who had flat fannies and who didn’t, but she never told.” Head not only made the garment that told the story, but flattered the wearer in the manner of haute couture, disguising flaw and highlighting asset. She created distinct, memorable images for the many strong, independent actresses she costumed, giving them the armor they required, creating costumes that defined the character, all the while negotiating outsized egos.
In the unique position of being both the first costume designer to be known for designing chic everyday wear as well as gowns and the first Hollywood designer with a singularly high profile (whipped into overdrive by studio public relations), Head’s influence on American fashion can’t be underestimated. Then, as now, American women dreamed of dressing like the stars, and Head made it possible. She designed patterns for “Vogue” (as well as uniforms for Pan Am stewardesses!). And Head took what she knew about dressing for effect on the screen and translated it into advice for the average woman in appearances on Art Linkletter’s daytime television show, and in her books “The Dress Doctor” (with its chapter, “What to Wear on Every Occasion”) and “How To Dress For Success.”
At the same time, with her own idiosyncratic look, her black lacquered bangs cutting across her forehead, and her black-rimmed glasses with the blue lenses that grew darker as she aged, Head’s mystique, the force of her personality, served as the secret weapon in the corner of many a Hollywood star. With Edith in your corner, you were golden.