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Biography of Edith Head

Name: Edith Head
Bith Date: October 28, 1898
Death Date: October 24, 1981
Place of Birth: San Bernardino, California, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: costume designer, author, radio/television commentator
Edith Head

Edith Head (1898-1981) is widely viewed as Hollywood's most successful costume designer, as well as one of its most colorful personalities. Head was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, won eight, and designed the costumes for several hundred films.

Edith Head's birthdate was probably October 28, 1898. All records of that time period were destroyed in a courthouse fire, and Head publicly claimed to have been born in 1907 or 1908. However, since she definitely had graduated from college, married, divorced, and worked as a teacher for several years by 1923, the later birthdates are not possible. Even her family name is uncertain; Head was the name of her first husband. One biographer, Paddy Calistro, determined that her parents were probably of Jewish heritage, which Head never acknowledged. Similar uncertainty about the details of many events continued throughout Head's long life. In a Vanity Fair feature story, Amy Fine Collins reported that the designer "obstinately refused to talk about her background except in the vaguest of terms. Edith admitted, 'I have in my mind a special room with iron doors. The things I don't like I throw in there and slam the door.'"

What does seem factual about Head's childhood is that she was born in California, and then lived with her mother and stepfather in an isolated area of Nevada until she was about 12, when the family moved to Los Angeles. In her autobiography, The Dress Doctor, Head describes how her best friends were animals--dogs, cats, and donkeys--which she dressed in scraps of material. She also was interested in gymnastics, a sport for which her small frame (five-feet-one-inch at adulthood) was well suited.

Won First Studio Job by Deception

Head graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a major in French, before going on to receive her master's from Stanford. Then she became a teacher, first at an exclusive finishing school and then at the Hollywood School for Girls, where she taught the children of many famous film personalities. When she was asked by her school to teach an additional course in art, she enrolled in night classes, where she met the sister of the man who would become her first husband, Charles Head. "After 15 years of marriage," reported Collins, "Edith sued Charles for divorce in 1938, complaining that her husband 'indulged in the use of intoxicating drinks,'" causing her "'great mental anguish.'" Although Head made only a passing reference to this husband in her autobiography, she used his name professionally for her entire life.

In 1923, desperately in need of a higher-paying job after her divorce, Head answered an advertisement for a costume design artist at Paramount Studios. The chief designer, Howard Greer, was greatly impressed by the variety of work in Head's portfolio--everything from fashion designs to interior decoration plans. It was only after she had taken the job, which paid $50 per week (double her teacher's salary), that Head confessed she had "borrowed" this work from other art school students. By then, however, Greer had decided that Head's own work was good enough for her to stay on at Paramount--where she remained until 1967 following sale of the studio, moving for her final career years to Universal Studios.

Became First Woman Design Head at Major Studio

The year after Head joined Paramount, Travis Banton was added to the design staff. He and Greer became notorious for their wild lifestyles, and in 1927 Greer left Paramount to open an exclusive shop on what is now Rodeo Drive. Banton became Head's mentor, and he began to give her the sole responsibility for designing costumes when he was too busy to do the work himself, or when he did not particularly like the actress.

Head was assigned the designs for Lupe Velez in Wolf Song (1929), but her first major project was to create gowns for Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), while Banton was busy with a Paris buying spree. The tight-fitting outfits designed by Head probably contributed to the film's huge success. Afterward, West frequently requested that Head design her costumes, noting that she loved the "insinuendo" in them. When West made her film comeback in Myra Breckinridge (1970), she insisted that her contract specify Head as her designer. Another notable Head design of the 1930s was a clinging sarong made for Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess (1936). This creation became an instant fashion hit among women of all shapes and sizes.

By the late 1930s Head's popularity was increasing, and her success was almost guaranteed when she began to outfit Barbara Stanwyck (a reportedly difficult-to-fit actress handed down to Head by Benton). Head became Stanwyck's confidante (a role she replayed with many other actresses over the years), and Stanwyck insisted that Head be written into all of her contracts, even outside of Paramount. Head's mentor Benton decided to leave Paramount for Universal Studios in 1938, and Head was selected as his successor to run the design department--a first for a woman at a major film studio. As a reward, Paramount sent Head on a trip to Europe (her first, despite her French language background and 15 years at the studio). By that time she was designing costumes for as many as 50 films per year, and routinely worked 16-hour days. As reported in The Annual Obituary, Head said she was "a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dressmaker, pincushion, historian, nursemaid, and purchasing agent."

Second Husband Became Lifelong Companion

In the early 1930s Head met the Paramount art director Wiard (Bill) Ihnen, himself the winner of two Academy Awards. In 1940, apparently on a whim, Head (42) and Ihnen (52) chartered a small plane, flew to Las Vegas, and were married, much to the surprise of all who knew them. Ihnen had never married and was known as a "confirmed bachelor" (a code often used at the time to refer to a gay man). In turn, by then Head had adopted her unusual trademark appearance: large-framed dark glasses, inconspicuous tailored suits, and long bangs on her forehead. However, according to her entry in The Annual Obituary, Head admitted that at night she wore "wild colors and evening pants, anything I want, but when I'm at the studio, I'm always little Edith in the dark glasses and the beige suit. That's how I survived." Ihnen and Head shared the remainder of their lives together, most of it living at a Los Angeles hacienda named Casa Ladera, which Ihnen decorated in bright Mexican style. Head had a separate bedroom, furnished in the French Provincial style that she had used in her previous home. She and Ihnen maintained a companionable relationship until he died in 1979, at the age of 91.

Won Eight Academy Awards

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to institute a "best costume" Oscar for films released in 1948. Head arrived at the award ceremonies, assuming that she would receive the award for the elegant costumes she had created for The Emperor Waltz. She was stunned when the award went instead to the designers for Joan of Arc. However, Head made up for this defeat, winning four Oscars in the following three years.

Head won the 1949 Oscar for Olivia De Haviland's mid-19th century costumes in the black-and-white film The Heiress. In 1950 Head won two Oscars: one for Cecil B. DeMille's color biblical spectacle, Samson and Delilah (a project she had thoroughly detested because DeMille insisted that costumes be approved by a group of designers); and the other for the black-and-white film All About Eve, for which she had designed Bette Davis's costumes. The 1951 Oscar for best black-and-white costume design went to Head for outfitting Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. A strapless bouffant dress worn by Taylor in the film became an immensely popular outfit when it was sold to the public under the Edith Head label. (This film also marked the beginning of a long friendship between Head and Taylor, who reportedly lived with Head and Ihnen when her marriage to Richard Burton was in trouble).

In 1953 Head won another Oscar for the film Roman Holiday, in which Head worked with the rising star Audrey Hepburn. The following year Head won another Oscar for a Hepburn film, Sabrina. This award led to controversy over who actually designed some of the costumes. Hepburn had chosen to wear several costumes created by the young Paris designer, Hubert de Givenchy, rather than let Head design everything. Givenchy was shocked to see that he received no credit in the final film; and, when Head received her award for the film, she did not mention him. In fact, she repeatedly claimed that she had designed dresses actually made by Givenchy.

After Sabrina, Head did not receive another Oscar until 1960, for The Facts of Life. Her eighth and final Oscar came after she had switched to Universal Studios, for The Sting (1973), the first film for which she received an award for outfitting male stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Head has won more Academy Awards than any other woman. Actress Arlene Dahl stated in Vanity Fair that Head "referred to her Oscars as 'my children.'"

In addition to these award-winning films, Head worked on hundreds of other films, earning a total of 35 Academy Award nominations. One of her most notable partnerships was with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom she worked on 11 films. These included designs for Grace Kelly's costumes in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and for Kim Novak's in Vertigo. Head considered Kelly and To Catch a Thief her favorite star and film.

Remained Active While Elderly

During the 1950s Head became a fashion commentator on the Art Linkletter television show, House Party. "She was my dress doctor," recalled Linkletter in the Vanity Fair piece. "The first time Edith was on she was so introverted.... Then I coached her until she felt comfortable ... It was remarkable to see this shy, retiring designer suddenly become a national personality!" By the late 1950s, Hollywood had moved away from elaborate costume dramas, and Head was working on only a few films per year. She used some of her time to move into new areas. In 1959, she wrote The Dress Doctor, a retelling of her career that became an instant best-seller. However, some details of the book remain questionable. According to Vanity Fair, it is even acknowledged now that the sketches in the book, attributed to Head, were drawn by her assistant, Grace Sprague.

After she moved to Universal Studios in the late 1960s, Head's film work was further reduced. She began new work, such as writing a syndicated fashion column and serving as president of the Costume Designers Guild for three years (1966-1969). With her friend June Van Dyke, Head began to hold costume fashion shows, supposedly with original costumes from films. However, numerous sources insisted that many of these costumes were reproductions, and that some were not even Head's designs.

In 1970 Head was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease and her husband also was in poor health. However, Head continued to work through the following decade. Her final film work was for Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which was released in 1982 after her death. Head's husband died in 1979, and Head herself finally succumbed to her illness on October 24, 1981. Her funeral was attended by crowds of Hollywood stars, as well as costume fitters and studio guards. Bette Davis (who kept a Head gown from All About Eve on permanent display in her home) gave the eulogy, calling Head "the queen of her profession."

Associated Organizations

Further Reading

  • Chierichetti, David, Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer, HarperCollins, 2003.
  • Epstein, Beryl Williams, Fashion Is Our Business, J.B. Lippincott, 1945.
  • Head, Edith, and Jane Kesner Ardmore, The Dress Doctor, Little, Brown and Company, 1959.
  • Head, Edith, and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head's Hollywood, Dutton, 1983.
  • LaVine, W. Robert, In a Glamorous Fashion, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980.
  • Podell, Janet, editor, The Annual Obituary 1981, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
  • Vanity Fair, March 1998.
  • Internet Movie Database, (March 4, 1998).

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