Edith Head: Designer to the Stars

Today’s post was written by Laney Stevenson, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park.

Although fashion may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of government records and the holdings of the National Archives, fashion and dress has, and continues to be, a significant aspect of life for many women (and men!) across generations and around the world. In celebration of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to share the stories of women in NARA records and to bring to light the accomplishments and achievements of women in the past.

The following article was a United States Information Service (USIS) Feature Story from May 1959 on the life and work of prominent costume designer Edith Head, whose career in Hollywood spanned over five decades, earning her eight Academy Awards for Costume Design, the most any woman has received.

The story and photographs are from Record Group 306, Records of the U. S. Information Agency, Press and Publications Service, Feature Packets with Recurring Subjects, 1953-1959 (NAID 1105040).

Edith Head, for 21 years the chief costume designer at Paramount Studio, studies the sketches of gowns she is planning for a forthcoming film. Her artistry has brought her six Motion Picture Academy Awards. The creations of this internationally known artist have influenced the taste of countless movie-goers around the world.

She Dresses the Stars by Kathleen Ayres

HOLLYWOOD, California – “Fashion is a language. Some know it, some learn it and some never will learn.” The speaker, Edith Head, is one of the most famous of all “linguists” in this medium. As chief costume designer at the Paramount Studio for 21 years, she has been dressing many of the most glamorous film stars and has garnered six Motion Picture Academy Award “Oscars” for her artistry.

Miss Head had intended to be a language expert of quite a different kind. With a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, she was teaching French and Spanish at the Hollywood School for Girls when, with time on her hands, she decided to continue the art courses she had started in college. At Otis Institute and later at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles she specialized in life classes and design.

An aptitude for drawing, combined with a strong interest in design, led her to do fashion sketches for her own pleasure. Then, with daughters of film stars in her classes, the Hollywood atmosphere became contagious. In 1923, Miss Head took her sketches to Paramount’s designer who immediately gave the erstwhile teacher a job as a sketch artist.

Marked from the beginning for success, she was made assistant chief of the design department when that job became vacant. In 1938 Edith Head became the first woman to achieve the post of chief designer in a major studio.

A diminutive dynamo whose black hair and dark eyes complement her vibrant personality, Paramount’s sage of design has helped to make Hollywood one of the fashion capitals of the world. Her creations have influenced the taste and wardrobes of countless film fans everywhere.

From Mae West’s flamboyant “Gay Nineties” costumes, which were Miss Head’s first big job, to the sleek and sophisticated wardrobe worn by Rita Hayworth in her recent picture, “Separate Tables,” Edith Head has been plying her craft by what she calls “part magic, part camouflage and part design.”

In 1941 Olivia de Havilland’s costumes in “The Heiress” brought Miss Head her first Oscar. The following year the Academy gave her two awards – one for the color film “Samson and Delilah,” starring Hedy Lamarr, another for the black-and-white film “All About Eve,” with Bette Davis in the stellar role. In 1951, her creations for Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun” brought the designer her fourth award. The next two statuettes were for Audrey Hepburn pictures – “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina.” On eight other occasions she was nominated for the costume designer’s award. She has won more than any other person in her field.

Every sketch created by Edith Head, chief costume designer at Paramount Studio, is approved by the producer, director and star before work is started on the costume. Here Miss Head (right) discusses a costume drawing with Jane Wyman. They will decide how the actress’s preference in color and fabric can be adapted to the requirements of sets, lighting, and color.

This titan of the fashion world has seen great changes in film costuming during her more than three-decade career. Recalling her early days when “we dressed stars like nothing human,” she says, “after all, it was the fabulous era and the movies were very young.”

Part of the box-office appeal of such stars as Kay Francis and Carole Lombard, whose makeup and clothes were copied on a world-wide scale, was the aura of glamor that surrounded them. That their magnificent furs and jewels had absolutely no relationship to reality and practically none to the story didn’t seem to bother anyone.

“Today,” says Miss Head, “quite the reverse is true. Clothes have an important share in setting the mood of scenes, showing audiences the character portrayed and in developing the story. “Realism is our aim now. If the script calls for a business girl, we try to give her a wardrobe that her real-life counterpart could afford to wear.”

But she notes that stars are still glamorous and it is the business of the designer to emphasize the particular beauty of each, not to create a fashion plate. “Now, instead of the clothes making the star, we largely depend on the star making the clothes. For example, a whole new fashion was created by Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in ‘Sabrina.’”

Dressing a star is a complicated business. Miss Head, somewhat jocularly, sums it up this way: “Within the limitations set by the story, the actress’s figure, the censor, good taste, the budget, the color expert, the set decorator, the sound technician, the cameraman, the director, and my own creativeness, I simply give the actress what she wants. And I don’t try to push anything down her throat.”

Japanese-born Nobu McCarthy (center) examines the miniature figure on which Edith Head (left) created a preliminary design for the actress’s costumes in “Geisha Boy.” Pat Barto (right), Miss Head’s assistant designer at Paramount Studio, watches the work of the fitter.

Miss Head has some 300 sketchers, drapers, cutters, fitters, and finishers carrying out her ideas, but she is involved in each step of the operation. Supervising her staff, she combines a knowledge of each individual job – and sometimes she works on half a dozen or more films at the same time – with the added talents of executive and trouble shooter.

Designing all her own clothes and many of her own materials, Miss Head twice a year creates a silhouette for herself and a theme which she carries out in different colors and fabrics. Her pet theory of design – for herself and her clients – is simplicity. You can’t disguise weight with tight clothes, and more than two colors in a costume are apt to be distracting, but she is an advocate of three shades of the same color in a costume – for example, a dark brown dress with beige and cocoa accessories.

These and many other helpful tips Miss Head passes on in her monthly television fashion clinic. She also spends many hours a week giving fashion commentaries at shows and luncheons, and has broadcast on short-wave radio to South America. A strong believer in interchange of ideas among designers, Miss Head sends sketches to many fashion magazines in Europe, South America, and Mexico, where she spent her childhood.

The Latin American influence is strong in many of her designs. She has recently written a book, “The Dress Doctor,” which she describes as “a kind of recipe reference where a housewife can look for the proper dress to wear at any occasion.”

Granting that her career means a lot of work, Miss Head says, “every new picture and every new player is a new challenge, and I get an immense satisfaction in meeting it.”

In a workroom at Paramount Studio, Edith Head (right) drapes a wedding gown on a figure made to the measurements of the star who will wear it. “Only the finest materials and workmanship can pass on the screen because of close-ups,” says Miss Head, who has been Paramount’s first lady of fashion since 1938.

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