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All About Eve. Funny Face. Sunset Blvd. Rear Window. Sabrina. A Place in the Sun. The Ten Commandments. Scores of cinema classics of the last century had one thing in common: Edith Head (1897-1981). She racked up an unprecedented 35 Oscar nods and 400 film credits over the course of a fifty-year career, and changed the fashion world forever with her timeless creations that continue to resonate and inspire present-day designers, fashion followers, and film-lovers.
Edith Head is the definitive portrait of the most influential costume designer of the twentieth century. Within these pages, historian, photographer, and collector Jay Jorgensen brings together rare, never-before-seen sketches, fabric samples, costume tests, and behind-the-scenes photos from the Edith Head Archives. Thoroughly researched and masterfully produced, the book features quotes and anecdotes from some of the silver screen’s biggest stars, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, Audrey Hepburn, and Bette Davis. It documents Head’s career stitch-by-stitch, from the 1930s Westerns to the classic All About Eve, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and beyond. Jorgenson also chronicles the star designer’s personal life, from her mysterious childhood to the controversial portfolio that landed her first job in a movie costume department and on to legendary status.
Edith Head captures the politics of Hollywood, the golden era of studios and starlets, the designer’s ongoing battles with the censors over hemlines, and her unyielding dedication to the craft. Stunningly illustrated with more than 350 images, Head’s legacy lives on in this lavish and comprehensive volume.
Grace Kelly on Oscar night 1955, in a dress and coat designed by Edith Head.
For Walter Albrecht
"WHAT WE DO IS A CROSS BETWEEN MAGIC AND CAMOUFLAGE. WE ASK THE PUBLIC TO BELIEVE THAT EVERY TIME THEY SEE AN ACTRESS OR ACTOR THAT THEY ARE A DIFFERENT PERSON."
—Edith Head, 1958.
INTRODUCTION by Sandy Powell
EDITH HEAD CLAIMED SHE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO SEW. THIS WASN'T TRUE—HER MOTHER TAUGHT HER WHEN SHE WAS YOUNG. SHE ONLY SAID SHE COULDN'T SO AS TO AVOID BEING ASKED TO DO SEWING DEMONSTRATIONS ON HER MANY TELEVISION APPEARANCES, OR AT LADIES' LUNCHEONS AND FASHION SHOWS. I ALSO LEARNED TO SEW AT AN EARLY AGE, AND BELIEVE IT IS ESSENTIAL FOR UNDERSTANDING THE DESIGN PROCESS.
Costume designers, like many others working in a creative field, are led to their vocation by a series of epiphanies. My first was seeing a show called Flowers, by avant garde dancer and choreographer Lindsay Kemp, in my teens. It reinforced my love of costume and theatricality. Although I look to contemporary fashion for inspiration, whether designing a modern or period film, I never wanted to be a fashion designer. To me it seemed too restricting. I was more interested in the idea of using clothes to bring characters to life in theatre or film, to make them believable as well as look good.
Under the Hollywood studio system, Edith Head was contracted to design as many films as the studio assigned to her, whether she wanted to or not. My experience of working in film has been very different. I'm fortunate in that I can choose my projects based on the scripts and directors with whom I'd like to work. But our careers began on a similar path. We both went to art school, and started working for little or no money.
Whenever I'm asked advice on becoming a costume designer I always say that practical experience is the most valuable asset—you just have to get out there and do it. Edith did just that.
Although the life of a costume designer may appear glamorous, it isn't. There is never enough time or money. Things can—and do—go wrong. Actors or directors can change their minds about a costume, sometimes moments before shooting, and a designer must quickly find an alternative. Schedules can suddenly change. A costume can get damaged. A costume designer must be resourceful and able to solve problems in an instant as any delay in shooting can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many actors have strong opinions about their character and what they should wear. There are egos and insecurities to deal with, changes of direction, and crises of confidence. About 80 percent of what a costume designer does is psychology; only 20 percent of it is art.
Nearly every costume designed for a film has a story behind its creation. While doing research for The Young Victoria, I was given access to the archives at Kensington Palace and allowed to see and touch some of Queen Victoria's gowns. Martin Scorsese once gave me an entire film to watch just to see the stripe on a collar.
This book isn't so much a biography of Edith Head, the woman, but more of a biography of the clothes that she designed. Here are some of their stories.
Academy Award-winning costume designer of Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria
Edith examines fabrics in her salon at Paramount
THE EARLY YEARS
Edith (far right) and a group of friends are entertained by Anna Spare (top row, center)
Edith Claire Posenor, circa 1904.
EDITH HEAD WAS ONE OF HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST DESIGNERS. AN AMAZING WOMAN WHO WORKED IN A FIELD THAT WAS DOMINATED BY MEN IN THE 1930S AND 1940S, SHE DESIGNED COSTUMES FOR MORE THAN 1,100 FILMS. CONSIDERED TO HAVE HAD ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC AND CELEBRATED CAREERS IN THE HISTORY OF MOTION PICTURES, SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THIRTY-FIVE ACADEMY AWARDS AND WON EIGHT OF THEM.
Head was praised for her intelligence and diplomacy by co-workers and viewed as a plagiarist and publicity seeker by some other designers. For Edith Head, the character always came first. Edith Head was driven by her passion to create a second skin for actors and actresses. Her mission was to help them effectively serve the needs of the character. Additionally, she had to meet the needs of the entire film along with the demands of the directors and studio bosses with their numerous dictates, whims, and requirements. She was a talented artist who wanted to get it right for everyone.
Screen legend Bette Davis said of the designer: "Through the work of a fine costume designer, an actor or actress can become the character. We may rehearse our lines, our movements, and our expressions, but until we finally slip into the costumes does everything come together so that we actually become the character. If we are not comfortable in those clothes, if they do not project the character, the costume designer has failed us. Edith Head never failed."
Edith's childhood years were never up for discussion, even with friends. When interviewed, Edith always shared a few charming anecdotes, but never went into any detail. She would often purposely lie about her parents or mislead people about the cities in which she grew up, or even where she was born. Almost all of what is known about Edith's childhood is through the persistence of David Chierichetti, her friend and biographer, who, overtime, was able to dig deeper into some of the more painful details of Edith's childhood. Edith's father, Max Posenor, emigrated from Prussia in 1876. He was one of the millions of Jews that came to the United States in the 1800s seeking better opportunities and to escape from religious persecution and political insurrections. Edith's mother, Anna Levy, was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1874. There is no record of Max and Anna ever being married, though Chierichetti uncovered a 1900 census report in which Max listed himself as being married for five years. The couple lived in various cities in Southern California, including San Bernardino where their daughter Edith Claire Posenor was born on October 28, 1897. Max had opened a haberdashery, but it failed shortly after Edith's birth, and the family relocated to El Paso, Texas.
In the 1900 census, Max lists himself as living with Anna and Edith in El Paso. But a year later, Anna married Frank Spare, a mining engineer, in San Bernardino. There is no record of Anna divorcing Max, or Frank Spare adopting Edith, but as the couple moved from mining town to mining town, it was assumed by people that Edith was the couple's biological child.
In early photographs of a young Edith, she appears to be well cared for, despite the rough conditions that existed in mining camps during that period. In her autobiography The Dress Doctor, Edith describes how, even though the family was not very affluent, her mother always tried to make a nice home. Edith was well-dressed, and the family had enough income to be able to take a few trips across the country when Edith was five and eight.
The family moved around so much that later, Edith couldn't remember all the towns in which the family lived. But when writing The Dress Doctor, Edith focused on one particular photograph in her collection to describe her childhood—an image of a solitary Edith sitting on the porch of an unpainted house in Searchlight, Nevada. The isolation shown in the photograph of the young girl looking out onto the barren desert must have summed up Edith's feelings about her childhood better than any other for her. She said hated the desert and dreamed of big cities and having lots of playmates.
Edith on the porch of the family home in Searchlight, Nevada, circa 1905.
Edith's need for friends, imaginary or otherwise, can best be illustrated by the designer's description of how she found solace by making small figures out of the pliable greasewood that grew on the desert floor. She often threw tea parties with guests including, Tom, Edith's black cat, her white dog, Dina, dressed in doll clothes, and various other animals including burros, adorned with feathers, ribbons, and necklaces of crepe paper. Edith fashioned a table out of a cardboard packing box and a tablecloth from one of her mother's red-checked linen towels. She created a doll house out of old wooden boxes and furnished it with cigar boxes wrapped in scraps of old gloves, pulled from a sock bag in which she kept scraps of fabric she constantly collected. That scrap bag was, according to Edith, her most treasured possession.
Although Edith occasionally owned a doll, she often relied on some of the homed toads she found lying in the sand to dress up and play in her makeshift doll house. "I had no other children for playmates," Edith once said. "Naturally, all of my intensive imagination in child's play had to be connected into activities I could pursue alone. In later years, struggling as a dress designer, I used to tell myself, 'anyone who can dress a horn toad, can dress anything!'"
Surely one of the great tragedies which began in Edith's childhood was that some of her front teeth never grew in properly. Being taunted, in only the way children can be cruel, Edith was called "Beaver" by several of her classmates. Edith stopped smiling so that no one could see her teeth, making the already shy Edith even more introverted. Even years later, after her teeth were fixed, she rarely smiled.
Another childhood memory that Edith said contributed to her survival capabilities in Hollywood, involved her mother finding her asleep on a wood pile with a rattlesnake coiled up sleeping next to her. Edith said she had no fear. Her theory was that if you left them alone, they would leave you alone.
Edith, sixth from left, while teaching at The Bishop's School, 1919.
Jean Arthur, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Leone Lane were the personification of young, modern women of the 1920's in The Saturday Night Kid.
THE BIG CITY BECKONS
In 1911, Edith finished elementary school in Redding, California. As Edith matured, Frank Spare's opportunities for work narrowed. Edith told David Chierichetti that the family ended up in some very unsavory locales in Mexico, where Edith and her mother were expected to cook and clean for the camp's occupants.
Anna Spare decided that mining camp life was not what she had envisioned for Edith or herself, and brought Edith to Los Angeles to attend high school in 1914. Though records do show that Edith had attended grade school, she would say later, "I lived in mining camps until I was ready to go to high school. I've never gone to grade school. I do not know the multiplication tables. I do not know the names of the captains of the fleet. I know nothing I should know." It was probably in Mexico that her education suffered the most, having to rely on only what her mother could teach her. But Edith learned to speak Spanish, and the experience was most likely the genesis of Edith's love of Mexican culture and heritage.
Edith and Anna moved in with Mittie Morgan, Anna's best friend, in downtown Los Angeles, and Edith began attending Los Angeles High School. Edith became very involved in extracurricular activities, including acting the lead in the school play. She now seemed to have the city life that she'd longed for back in Searchlight. Los Angeles was experiencing a huge migration of people who were arriving by the carload to work in the area's booming aircraft and film industries, to speculate in oil drilling, or to catch the religious fervor of the charismatic minister Aimee Semple McPherson.
A portrait of Edith circa 1923, taken around the time she was being courted by Charles Head.
"ALL OF MY INTENSIVE IMAGINATION IN CHILD'S PLAY HAD TO BE CONNECTED INTO ACTIVITIES I COULD PURSUE ALONE. IN LATER YEARS, STRUGGLlNG AS A DRESS DESIGNER, I USED TO TELL MYSELF, 'ANYONE WHO CAN DRESS A HORN TOAD, CAN DRESS ANYTHING! '"
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered World War I. Though Southern California was not impacted greatly by the war, many of the area's young men were sent overseas to fight. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Edith enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to continue her education. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Letters and Sciences with honors in French in 1919. A year later she received a master's degree in romance languages from Stanford University. Returning to Los Angeles, Edith was fortunate to find a temporary job teaching French at the Bishop School in La Jolla, California. Still relatively new, the school had been founded in 1909 by The Right Reverend Joseph Horsfall Johnson, Bishop of Los Angeles. Most of the school's buildings were completed only a few years before Edith began teaching there. Edith's serious comportment probably helped her to fit right in with the school teachers at an upscale Catholic school. "I have a theory that once you've taught, you can do anything," Edith would say later.
When the teaching position ended in the summer of 1921, Edith Head found an even more exciting position—one that would introduce her to the personal world of some of Hollywood's most powerful figures. That September, she began teaching French and art at Hollywood School for Girls. The school was located on North La Brea Avenue, north of Hollywood Boulevard and south of Franklin Avenue. It was known for its "open air" concept in which its students could learn outdoors. The school became a favorite of motion picture personnel for their children. Even though it was primarily for girls, boys, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joel McCrea, attended.
Anna DeMille, sister-in-law of director Cecil B. DeMille was wary of sending her daughter Agnes (later a great choreographer), to public school and enrolled her at The Hollywood School for Girls. Cecil B. DeMille then sent his daughters Cecilia and Katharine to the school. Field trips were given to the Famous Players-Lasky Studio on days when DeMille was filming a big scene, and both students and teachers went to observe.
In order to earn more money, Edith was also teaching art at the school; having exaggerated her qualifications, she was not particularly adept at the subject. To compensate, Edith enrolled in evening art classes at the Otis Art Institute, and would mold her own lessons for the girls on what she had learned the previous week in class. Edith continued her art studies at The Chouinard Art Institute, founded by painter Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, who had opened the school that year.
Betty Head, a classmate of Edith's at Chouinard, decided to play matchmaker between her brother Charles and Edith. Charles Head was a tall, handsome, personable young man with a job as a traveling salesman for The Super Refined Metals Company. Edith fell in love, and the pair courted in between the long empty spells when Charles was traveling for business. On July 25, 1923, they were married in Los Angeles and went on a honeymoon before Charles went back to his sales trips.
In 1919 World War I came to and end, bringing with it an era that was filled with new modern technologies such as cars, radios, and movies, all of which helped to make a break with the past. Architecture became more streamlined, jazz infused excitement into music, and a new breed of woman, the flapper, raised their hemlines above their knees, bobbed their hair and started smoking. Ironically, the 1920's also ushered in Prohibition, outlawing the selling of most alcohol in the United States. In response, clandestine clubs called speakeasies opened, where the alcohol flowed, patrons watched live floor shows and danced the night away. Speakeasy owners often bribed police to leave them alone or give them advance notice of raids.
Edith Head was just in her mid-20s, as Los Angeles became caught up in the Jazz Age. She bobbed her hair in the style of silent film star Colleen Moore. Photographs show her dressed fashionably for the day, despite her somewhat low pay as a teacher. Frank and Anna Spare were now living in Los Angeles, and Edith visited them during the long stretches of time when Charles was out of town. While she knew that Charles liked to drink, it was becoming more obvious to her that he had a problem with alcohol.
Edith with her first husband Charles Head, in 1923
THE DECEPTION WORKS
Edith (far right) assists at a fitting for actress Wynne Gibson (second from right) in 1933.
AS THE SUMMER OF 1924 APPROACHED, EDITH NEEDED TO FIND A TEMPORARY WAY TO SUPPORT CHARLES AND HERSELF THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER WHEN SHE WOULD NOT BE TEACHING. EDITH SAWA CLASSIFIED AD IN THE Los Angeles Times THAT FAMOUS PLAYERS-LASKY STUDIO (WHICH WOULD EVENTUALLY BECOME PARAMOUNT), HAD AN OPENING FOR A SKETCH ARTIST WORKING UNDER HOWARD GREER, THE STUDIO'S CHIEF DESIGNER. GREER HAD COME TO THE STUDIO TO WORK FOR CLAIRE WEST ON CECIL B. DEMILLE'S The Ten Commandments (1923).
Prior to that, he had worked for Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) in both her New York and Chicago salons, as well as for Paris designers Paul Poiret and Molyneux. At the time, he was designing for the studio's biggest stars including Bessie Love, Jetta Goudal, Pola Negri, and Anna Q. Nilsson.
Because Edith didn't feel her own work was adequate enough, she asked some of her classmates at Chouinard if she could borrow their drawings to show in her portfolio for her interview. She brought a selection of seascapes, landscapes, portraits and costume designs. Edith stopped short of actually saying the drawings were hers, and Greer complimented her on the versatility shown in the drawings, not realizing they had been created by several different artists. Edith never really expected to get the job, but she was hired on the spot and offered $40.00 a week.
When Howard Greer published his memoirs Designing Male in 1949, he described the interview and how he subsequently kept Edith on after her ruse was revealed:
"Today every studio would turn away fifty eager young designers daily who would gladly give a right arm for a beginner's job," Greer wrote, "but back in the early silent days one had to advertise for help. We placed an ad in the papers and a young girl, with a face like a pussy cat crossed with a Fujita drawing, appeared with a carpetbag full of sketches. There were architectural drawings, plans for interior decoration, magazine illustrations, and fashion designs. Struck dumb with admiration for anyone possessed of such diverse talents, I hired the gal on the spot. She came to work the next morning and looked out from under her bangs with the expression of a frightened terrier. She was anxious to please, but she was obviously ill at ease.
An early publicity photograph of Edith from 1928
"WE PLACED AN AD IN THE PAPERS AND A YOUNG GIRL, WITH A FACE LIKE A PUSSY CAT CROSSED WITH A FUJITA DRAWING, APPEARED WITH A CARPETBAG FULL OF SKETCHES."
Designer Howard Greer greets one of his private clients in the 1920's
'Don't be upset,' I assured her. 'It won't take long to get onto the hang of things.'
'I'm not worried about 'that," she stammered, 'but I have the most awful confession to make! You see, when I was faced with my first interview, I was suddenly seized with panic! I was afraid that if I didn't have a lot of wonderful sketches, I'd never get the job.'
'But they were wonderful. All of them!'
'That's just it! They weren't any of them mine! I just went through the art school where I've been studying and picked up everybody's sketches I could lay my hands on!'
She might easily have saved her breath and her confession, for her own talents soon proved she was more than worthy for the job."
Years later, Edith would say "you know when you're very young, you have no sense of morality, I guess. I thought it was very amusing to get this big portfolio. It never occurred to me it was quite dishonest."
Edith's new salary was a considerable improvement over her old teacher's salary. She was put in a room in the costume department with twelve other sketch artists. Howard Greer taught her to draw in his style, so that when he presented his sketches to stars and producers, her sketches would be virtually indistinguishable from his own. "When I worked with a designer, I would sketch in their style, and I would more or less become indoctrinated to that type of designing," Edith said later.
Before the unionization of the film industry, the wardrobe work-rooms at the studios allowed Edith to help wherever she was needed. Her Spanish skills made her indispensible to Greer, since she was able to communicate with the seamstresses and foreign stars, where he could not. "The only reason I survived to stay on his staff as a sketch girl was the fact that I had a background of speaking foreign languages," Edith said. "They were making foreign versions of films and I was the only one who could talk readily with the foreign stars. When I was asked to add a bustle or a hoop skirt, I knew exactly what they were talking about."
LIFE AT THE STUDIO
Howard Greer described the studio as a "sprawling conglomeration of sheds, barns and stages covering two city blocks that had not too long before been citrus groves and avocado ranches. Gray-painted buildings housed the moguls, writers, librarians, directors, auditors, bookkeepers, and technicians in cozy and democratic proximity. Boardwalks led from one office door to another there was no snobbery, no social inequality, and very little political chicanery during working hours.
"The area known as the Ladies Wardrobe was situated on the second floor of a concrete mausoleum on the northwest corner of the lot. On the ground floor was the Men's Wardrobe, easily identified by the strong and pungent male odor of well-worn shoes. shirts, and uniforms; while upstairs was the more refined and ladylike smell of tarnished metal, cloth, stale make-up, and scorched material on ironing boards. Several cramped cubicles served as offices, two slightly larger cubicles served as fitting rooms, a spacious stockroom was piled high with laces, brocades, and glittering embroideries, an enormous workroom housed the seamstresses, and a yawning cavity of a place held the completed, used, and discarded costumes."
A drawing by Edith, in the style of Howard Greer, for a dress for Geta Nissen in The Wanderer.
"WHEN YOU'RE VERY YOUNG, YOU HAVE NO SENSE OF MORALITY, I GUESS. I THOUGHT IT WAS VERY AMUSING TO GET THIS BIG PORTFOLIO. IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME IT WAS QUITE DISHONEST."
"TO THE IMMATURE MIND OF THE MOVIE FAN, IT WAS AN INSULTTO CLOTHE AN HEIRESS IN ANYTHING REMOTELY RESEMBLING THE COMMONPLACE MODES OF OUR OWN WARDROBE."
Travis Banton became Edith's mentor and she became his protector.
Paramount's stock wardrobe department consisted of about 50,000 costumes, including costumes from every time period and of every ethnicity. New costumes were added constantly as films were produced. Costume budgets for a star could be very elaborate. Within a year, a studio could spend $100,000 on costumes for Marion Davies or $150,000 on costumes for Gloria Swanson. Frank Richardson, who began at Paramount in 1924, and stayed for over fifty years, oversaw the business end of the costume department. He took a no-nonsense approach, and came to have a genuine respect for Edith, and she for him. He would come to her aid many times over the years when she needed a diplomatic solution to a problem.
Edith learned how to read a script and map out a wardrobe plot for a movie. A wardrobe plot would list the character and description of the costume and the sequence in which it was used. The costumer could check off which phase of production the costume was in. These included whether a sketch had been made and approved, if the outfit was being made or had been fitted, if jewelry, props and wigs had been made, if the outfit was ready to show to the director or producer, and if the outfit had final approval.
The film preparation time could run anywhere from two to eight weeks. A Cecil B. DeMille spectacular would take longer, from as little as fifteen months or up to three years. Depending on what was in production at the time, the department could have as few as eight people working or as many as fifty.
Designing for film was a radically different undertaking than simply designing ready-to-wear clothing. Howard Greer, who had worked in the best couture salons of the day, lamented the difference: "New York and Paris disdainfully looked down their noses at the dresses we designed in Hollywood. Well, maybe they were vulgar, but they did
- On Sale
- Sep 19, 2023
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Running Press