Edith Head (1897-1981) was born in San Bernardino, California. In 1923, after a brief career as a schoolteacher, Head answered an advertisement for a sketch artist at Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be renamed Paramount Studios). Although she had very little artistic training, her versatility impressed Howard Greer, the chief costume designer, who hired her immediately. When Greer left Paramount in 1927, he was replaced by his assistant designer, Travis Banton. As chief designer, Banton costumed the stars at Paramount, while Head, who had been promoted to assistant designer, costumed the B-movie players and extras. When Banton left the studio in 1938, Paramount named Edith Head chief designer; she remained at the studio in this capacity until 1967. That same year she received a contract with Universal Studios, where she worked until her death in 1981. From the 1950s on, Head became a media personality through her regular appearances on the television show Art Linkletter’s House Party. She also published two books: The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to Dress for Success (1967).
During her fifty-eight-year career, Head received more than one thousand screen credits, garnered thirty-five Oscar nominations, and won the Academy Award for costume design an unprecedented eight times. She was legendary for her ability to please difficult personalities and to camouflage figure problems. She was considered particularly skilled at defining character through costume, and her “character” costumes were among her most successful, including those for Double Indemnity (1944), The Heiress (1949), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Head was especially proud of her work on The Heiress, for which she had traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to conduct period research, winning her the first of her many Academy Awards. Her collaborations with the director Alfred Hitchcock were renowned, since Head shrewdly understood the importance of costume to Hitchcock’s creative vision in his films Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), and Vertigo (1958).
Head’s designs were also occasionally responsible for influencing popular fashions. Her costumes for the Mae West film She Done Him Wrong (1933) reputedly set off a flurry of Gay Nineties-inspired fashions, while the sarong worn by Dorothy Lamour in the film The Jungle Princess (1936) continued to influence styles well into the next decade. Her costumes for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), which featured bare midriffs and fringed bolero jackets, are said to have popularized Latin American styles. Her most influential design by far was the lilac-strewn gown worn by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). The dress was a sensation in the teen market, and thousands of copies were sold.
Throughout her career, Head was criticized for taking credit for costumes she did not design and for exaggerating her influence on popular fashion. Despite these flaws, Head was undeniably one of the hardest-working talents in costume design and certainly one of the most versatile. Her intelligence and dedication secured her position both in the Hollywood studio system and in the history of fashion.
Chierichetti, David. Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003.
Epstein, Beryl Williams. “Edith Head.” In Fashion Is Our Business. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1945.
Head, Edith, and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959.
Head, Edith, with Joe Hyams. How to Dress for Success. New York: Random House, 1967.
LaVine, W. Robert. In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.