Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer

One of my Christmas presents was the book Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgensen. With fashion in the movies one of the regular features on Classiq and Edith Head having been one of the most famous and prolific designers in Hollywood I’ve been very curious about this book and have been waiting for it to find its way to my library and to my insatiable desire to learn more about fashion and film. Despite the book’s title, I have my reservations considering Edith Head Hollywood’s greatest designer. Nor do I think that she had a dazzling creativity. But I do think she was a serious, passionate designer, relentless worker and a maverick of self promotion. She was a very determined, persevering person, struggling every day to stay at the top of her profession. This would ensure her a career spanning nearly six decades of quality work, thirty-five Academy Award nominations and eight Oscars.

What I love about the book is that it is very thoroughly researched, covering Edith’s career decade by decade, with details on designs and stories behind the productions. It also includes never-before-seen sketches, costume tests, behind-the-scene photos of Edith and the stars, quotes and anecdotes of some of the silver screen’s biggest stars. It describes very well the entire costume design process, from research to the major part clothes played in the advancement of a character and that the script had to be in perfect harmony with the costumes. Edith Head thought of all the details to the character, to the scene, down to the last thing. This was one of her greatest assets.

Another thing I like is its accuracy and objectivity. It states very clearly the fiery policy of the Hollywood studio system: very often the head designer alone would take credit for all the costumes in a film even though the levels of contribution were so various, from an entire team of sketch artists and designers behind the head designer, to pulling clothing from stock, sometimes shopping right off the racks of the department stores or using the creations of Paris couturiers.

An episode that would cast a shadow over Edith Head’s career and would bring her many critics was the one regarding the film Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn. Audrey wanted to wear real Paris fashion in the movie and she traveled to Paris to meet Hubert de Givenchy. He didn’t have time to design the clothes specifically for her character, but Audrey borrowed enough clothes from the collection he was working on. All that was left for Edith and her department to do was to create a dress from a sketch by Givenchy and to manufacture duplicates that would be needed in case a dress was soiled during production. Since there was no contract between Paramount and Givenchy, there was no legal obligation for the studio to credit his designs. Ethics did not apply in this case. Both Audrey and Givenchy were shocked when Edith Head’s singular credit appeared on the film. What was even more hard to believe and forgive was her winning an Oscar for the costumes in Sabrina and not even then acknowledge or thank Givenchy.

Despite this unfortunate episode involving Audrey Hepburn, Edith Head developed close work relationships and even friendships with many stars and style icons: Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Shirley MacLane, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Baxter. They all praised Edith’s talent, professionalism and dedication to her craft. The fact is that Edith Head has had a great influence over women’s fashion. She realized early on the value of publicity and she became as famous as the stars she designed for, the most influential costume designer of the twentieth century.

Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

photos: by me from the book Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer

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