She Thinks She’s Edith Head

Edith Head designed costumes for 469 movies in her 54-year career, yet she never fashioned anything as iconic as Marilyn Monroe’s subway-lofted cream sundress, or John Travolta’s white disco suit, or James Dean’s red Rebel Without A Cause jacket. While the pop culture impact of those outfits must make costume designers William Travilla, Patrizia von Brandenstein, and Moss Mabry, respectively, glow with personal pride, it hasn’t made them household names. But Edith Head, instantly recognizable with her severe onyx bangs, owly blue-tint sunglasses (originally worn for judging how colored fabric will look in black and white) and mirthless, tightlipped mien, was famous all on her own.

But it’s not that Head never designed anything emblematic. Dorothy Lamour’s Polynesian sarong ensembles for the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies were Head’s invention. The off-the-shoulder brown silk dress she created for Bette Davis is All About Eve‘s strongest visual cue (its lazy décolletage was a rare mistake for Head — or one of her assistants — who had mis-measured the strap length, but Davis liked the dress better when slipping off her shoulders). Movie buffs who got their start prowling through the Guinness Book of World Records will recognize the dress made by Head’s workshop for Ginger Rogers in Lady In The Dark. This slit-front skirt and bodice encrusted with glass beads and lined with mink, to the tune of $35,000 wartime dollars, is still the most expensive gown ever made for a film.

But those kinds of extravagances were rare, even when designing for costume epics like The Ten Commandments or semi-melodramatic noirs like Sunset Boulevard or outrageous sex farces like Myra Breckenridge. Edith Head, unlike her former employee Bob Mackie, never wanted to make clothes that stood out of their own accord. Creating the illusion of an actor’s perfection was her paramount responsibility. If there was no way to tell that a wraparound silhouette hid Dorothy Lamour’s enormous caboose, or that without the proper support Bette Davis’s breasts sagged to her navel (as will happen when one believes, as Davis did, that underwire bras caused cancer), or that Audrey Hepburn’s arms were frighteningly scrawny and her neck as sinewy as a stewing hen’s, then Head’s designs had done their job.

“Edith Head”, the deadly serious schoolmarm of fashion who could often be seen dispensing style advice on Art Linkletter’s House Party, or spied by visitors riding the tourist tram through Universal Studios, was the self-created shell of a shy little girl who’d endured a penurious and unhappy childhood. Head had always been tight-lipped on the specifics, but biographer (and longtime friend) David Chierichetti finally unlocked some vague and unhappy details — possibly unwed mother, lonely, nomadic travels on the north and south of the Mexican border following her mining engineer stepfather’s jobs, several years without formal education. Despite a rough start, she proved smart enough to enroll at UC Berkeley and later Stanford, where she earned a Masters in Romance Languages. She gained her new last name during this period as well, marrying the charming (and burgeoning alcoholic) Charles Head, a traveling salesman whose glib knack of bending the rules made an influence on Edith. (She divorced Charles and married Wiard Ihnen in 1940, a happy and lasting partnership that put the lie to all rumors about her purported lesbianism — apparently the suspicion one pays for being severe, unbeautiful, and employed to showcase women’s bodies.)

Head was not a liar per se, but her undependable childhood had made her an expert in judiciously withholding the truth. She was too ambitious — and too insecure — to not fudge possibly damning facts when the moment called for it. When costume designer Howard Greer advertised for a sketch artist who showed great versatility, Head got the job. So what if the portfolio she presented was cobbled together from swiped and re-signed sketches made by classmates at the art school where she was taking night classes? She didn’t actually tell Greer “This is my work”, instead opting for the more amorphous “This is the sort of thing we do at my school.” Ethics aside, Edith was in Hollywood.

And once she arrived, she charged forward like a woman possessed. Six day workweeks were the norm and seven day weeks were not unheard of; partially because of the studios (Paramount first, then Universal) and their increasing demand for more oomph for less time and money, but also because of Head’s own ambition. She was rewarded for her industriousness with 32 Academy Awards nominations (a feat made more understandable by the fact that before 1967 there were separate categories for color and black and white) that bore the fruit of eight Oscars; an achievement especially impressive since the category was only first created in 1948, leaving a full 21 years of Head’s career ineligible for recognition.

It’s difficult to cite outstanding examples of Head’s work, simply because her ultimate goal was to create clothes that would make the audience notice the performer instead. To appreciate her talent takes careful, conscious separation of movie star voltage from the quietly supporting wardrobe. For Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), Head designed the gowns and day dresses for Grace Kelly’s Francie, the American heiress with enough of a roguish streak to fall for reformed cat burglar Cary Grant. When we first meet Francie, she’s wearing an arctic-blue gown; appropriate because of her designation (in the previous year’s Rear Window) as Hitchcock’s newest “ice blonde”. She’s crazy about Grant, and Head dresses her in one crisp summery frock after another — tan with screened white flowers, pink with white trim and matching gloves, all girlishly gorgeous but with delicately high collars (no hanky panky, please, but do notice me) — to express the intent of a well-bred girl on the prowl.

Much ado is made about the gold lame Marie Antoinette costume festooned with sculpted birds that Kelly wears in the final costume party scene, but the hoop of the skirt is so ungodly wide that Kelly looks ridiculous gliding comically across the parquet like a gilded Scrubbing Bubble. It’s an earlier scene that proves Head’s notice-without-noticing talent more clearly. Kelly, wearing a Zen-elegant white strapless gown [similar to the gown Head designed for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951)] is trying to tempt Grant into relieving her of her diamonds (and perhaps something else). She steps into the dark and the swath of shadow from the window decapitates her, leaving only the dress and the necklace visible. In the absence of that unparalleled bone structure now threaded through the Monaco royal family’s DNA, all eyes should go to that splendid gown. But instead all we notice is the heavy duty jewels. That’s the point, and Head’s costume supports the director’s intent beautifully.

Michael Sarne is no Alfred Hitchcock, but Head’s crew aimed to support his vision just as completely for his undiscovered camp classic/bizarrely decadent fiasco Myra Breckenridge (1970). It’s not the sort of movie the prudish Head would have approved of. Rex Reed (yes, the film critic) stars as Myron Breckenridge, a young man who undergoes a sex change operation (“You know, once we cut it off it won’t grow back,” counsels the doctor in the far-out, mylar-paneled surgical theater) and becomes Myra (Raquel Welch). This overtly mannered grande dame in disco-camp Joan Crawford suits then invades a hippy-dippy acting school in order to re-educate the masses about classic film and peg a young stud named Rusty. Welch’s costumes are fun, in a sassy, nostalgic way, but, as the opening credits make clear, they were designed by Theodora Van Runkle, an up-and-comer who had made a splash with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Clyde style. Head was threatened by the press’s interest in the young, bohemian-looking Van Runkle but cast member Mae West’s request for Head to personally create her costumes softened the blow. Head’s stark dichromatic designs — white sheath gown with fist-sized black frogs and beefeater’s headdress, or flying saucer brim hats with trailing swaths of black and white tulle, or, in Mae’s only color outfit, a pink beaded gown topped with a flamingo-colored Vegas showgirl headdress — fit in with Van Runkle’s concept while still supporting West’s unique presence.

Myra Breckenridge was a difficult project for Head, especially when you consider that during this time she was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder that required constant blood transfusions. As her disease progressed (and the economics of movie wardrobes changed so that off-the-rack costumes were preferable to custom made garments), she worked less frequently. Still, she managed at least a couple films per year. Her final job was for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir spoof with the twist of incorporating old movie scenes into a new storyline, so that star Steve Martin is seen (in reverse shots) sharing a phone call with Humphrey Bogart or cocktails with Ingrid Bergman. Head’s reproductions of costumes of the era (often outfits she had originally designed) added tremendously to the seamless marriage of old and new footage, but she regrettably did not live to see the end result. The film is dedicated to her “and to all the brilliant technical and creative people who worked on the films of the 1940s and 1950s”.

But Head’s legacy endures. Even as late as 2004, Pixar’s The Incredibles contained a minor character named “Edna Mode”, a squat designer of superhero costumes, possessed of familiar straight bangs, black-rimmed saucer glasses, and unsmiling pronouncements. Now what real life example could have given director Brad Bird that idea of how a costume designer should look? Edith Head may have devised thousands of masquerades in her storied career, but her most lasting disguise was the one she devised for herself.

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