Style

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Edith Head

If costume designers are my superheroes, then Edith Head is like Batman, Superman, and all of the X-Men wrapped up in one.

When I was in junior high, I saw the Halloween episode of Roseanne, in which Darlene Conner dresses up like Tippi Hedren from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds. I was awestruck, and not just because of how cool she looked with all the crows sticking out of her costume, or because I wanted to steal that idea for my own, but because I LOVED the outfit Tippi wore in that movie, which I had seen for the first time a few weeks prior. Her tailored, pale-green skirt suit is so prominent in the film it almost deserves its own line in the credits. Later, I found out that Edith Head was the designer behind that legendary outfit, and I became an instant fan.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been more influenced by the costumes from my favorite movies than by what I generally see on the runway. The ability to create a wardrobe that not only fits a character’s personality perfectly, but also plants itself in the audience’s memory forever, is pretty much a superpower. And if costume designers are my superheroes, then Edith Head is like Batman, Superman, and all of the X-Men wrapped up in one.

Before getting into Edith’s kick-ass achievements, we have to talk about how she was basically a pioneer of the fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy. When she applied for a position as a sketch designer at the studio that would later become Paramount, Edith brought in a portfolio of drawings that she had borrowed from her art school classmates. The head designer was so impressed with the diversity of her work, she was hired on the spot. Now I am NOT cosigning any sort of Edith Head-type shenanigans when trying to get your dream gig, but we can totally admire her ballsiness, and the fact that she owned up and confessed to her boss afterwards (who somehow didn’t fire her!). Edith later said, “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.”

She ended up proving her talents. In fact, she had the most fascinating career: she contributed to more than 1,000 movies, she was nominated for 35 Oscars, and she won eight of them. In 1940 alone, she designed the costumes for nearly 50 movies! Did she sleep?! Can regular people even do that? She dressed practically every famous actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Mae West, Grace Kelly, Veronica Lake, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers…THE LIST GOES ON! The silver screen spilled over with her most iconic designs: the overdose of leopard print on Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950); the black-and-white poofy dream that is Grace Kelly’s centerpiece dress in Rear Window (1954); the sharp-edged ensembles in All About Eve (1950). The story goes that the silk dress Bette Davis wears in the Eve’s famous party scene didn’t fit her, causing Edith to freak out right before the scene was supposed to be shot. Bette pulled off the neckline, shook a shoulder, and said, “Don’t you like it better like this anyway?”

Edith butted heads with the director Cecil B. DeMille on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949). DeMille wanted Hedy Lamarr to wear a peacock-feather cape made from real feathers; Edith wanted to keep the design authentic to the setting, and she wasn’t convinced peacocks were in the desert region during Biblical times. (She did it anyway, THANK GAWD.) She was also responsible for the strapless, petal-sprinkled gown that Elizabeth Taylor wears in the scene where she meets Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951). That dress was copied by every prom queen during that decade. Shewt, I would copy it today.

Some of Edith’s most famous designs. Clockwise from top left: Mae West in She Done Him Wrong; Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah; Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday; Grace Kelly in Rear Window.

I really appreciate Edith’s versatility. She knew how to dress a woman no matter what her body type, from Mae West’s bangin’ curves to Audrey Hepburn’s tiny waist. And she wasn’t limited to women’s clothes—she made my favorite classic hunk, Paul Newman, look sharp in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). But Edith’s own style was completely devoid of the glamour she bestowed on the stars she worked with: she wore blunt bangs; round, tinted glasses; neutral-colored suits. Though seemingly subtle, her look was memorable—but maybe the clothes were only half of it. Maybe it was Edith, the powerhouse herself, that stood out. The formidable Joan Crawford called her “a sturdy woman, emotionally,” adding, “When that little thing walks into a room, you know she’s there.” NOW…WHO’S GONNA SAY THAT ABOUT LI’L OLE ME?

Edith was an inspiration for so many reasons. During a time when there were not many women in powerful positions in Hollywood, she was the first female head designer at a major studio. Not only did she influence the fashion of many celebrities back in the day, she also designed patterns that everyday women could make themselves, and she created the uniforms for Pan Am’s flight attendants. Her impact is still felt to this day. Michael Kors’s 2008 ready-to-wear collection took inspiration from Edith’s creations in The Birds. They Might Be Giants have a song called “She Thinks She’s Edith Head.” And Edna Mode in The Incredibles, anyone? It was never confirmed to be a legit homage, but I KNOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HER!

Edith once famously said, “You can do anything you want in life if you dress for it.” This statement is so dear to my clothes-loving heart, because I truly believe in the magic of power dressing. Do yourself a favor: start filling up your Netflix queue with Edith’s movies, pay close attention to her works of art, and be inspired. ♦

28 Comments

  • DreamBoat September 26th, 2012 3:06 PM

    AHHHH EDITH HEAD.
    She is so freaking fabulous and lovely. Definitely my favorite designer.

  • Susann September 26th, 2012 3:11 PM

    I was in such awe of the dresses Grace Kelly wore in “To Catch a Thief” that Edith Head immediately became a styling hero for me too :)

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • Flower September 26th, 2012 3:11 PM

    I completely agree about Tipi’s green suit. She seems so elegant and composed at the beginning and then even though the costume doesn’t change the whole insanity sets in and it’s really awesome.

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Emma S. September 26th, 2012 3:27 PM

    Edith Head 4 Ever. Love this, Marie.

  • notajellybean September 26th, 2012 3:40 PM

    OMG Edith Head is the literal definition of Best Thing Ever. I love that this month there have been so many classic movie related articles – I write a classic movie blog and have a classic movie tumblr so it’s awesome to see some on Rookie :-D All of the costume design for all her movies are awesome and she was such a fabulous woman!

  • Runaway September 26th, 2012 3:54 PM

    Fashion wise, this is definitely one of my favourite articles in Rookie. I just LOVE Edith Head!!!

  • Ginny September 26th, 2012 4:02 PM

    Edith Head is the bomb.

  • I.ila September 26th, 2012 4:37 PM

    This is the best! I was waiting for this to happen. I fell in love with her work after watching To Catch a Thief a billion times.

  • dgw September 26th, 2012 5:45 PM

    Her costumes for Grace Kelly in Rear Window are fabulous as well.

  • missblack September 26th, 2012 7:03 PM

    Oh my GOD I used to watch this thing about her that was on the White Christmas special features and I have been literally obsessed with her for soooo long – she was an absolute genius.

    Little&Trivial

  • Jessica W September 26th, 2012 7:12 PM

    Fashion creatives are so inspiring… They’re the perfect combo of headstrong confidence and vulnerability (a product of being in such a changeable industry).
    What an incredible woman.

    The Lovelorn

  • bee1000 September 26th, 2012 7:29 PM

    It has nothing to do with the actual Edith Head, but I feel an obligation to share a link to They Might Be Giants’ song “Edith Head”

    http://grooveshark.com/s/Edith+Head+TMBG/3zxX20?src=5

    “She thinks she’s Edith Head/Or Helen Gurley Brown/Or some other cultural figure/We don’t know a lot about”

  • darksideoftherainbow September 26th, 2012 7:30 PM

    can i tell you that one of the reasons that i’m so excited to see “the girl” on hbo is the suit sienna miller wears as tippi?! SO PUMPED. i’m in love with it and every time i watch the birds or walk by as my mom is watching it it makes me want to dress that ladylike. so beautiful and works so well with the story and is so representative of the times! the part about her boss not firing her when she confessed to lying reminded so much of christina applegate and her boss tells her that she’ll “grow out of it” in don’t tell mom the babysitter’s dead. i loved that. also, paul newman is my favorite, too!! the magic of power dressing and dressing for what you want reminded me of gay talese and the men.style video where he talks about the art of tailoring.

    i loved this so very much. thank you so much, rookie, for always showing me something i didn’t know about or didn’t look into. rookie and the people you feature are always so inspiring and interesting!

    <3

  • fatale September 26th, 2012 7:47 PM

    !! edith was a genius, great to see her featured here.

  • Limey September 26th, 2012 7:57 PM

    I love Edith Head, but there are a lot of costumes that she got credit for that she didn’t actually make. The costumes in Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart were actually done by Givenchy, but Edith Head was given the credit.

    Nevertheless, she’s a great designer and I’ve always admired her costumes!

  • Slovene18 September 26th, 2012 9:27 PM

    Omg I love Edith Head so much! All her designs are amazing, White Christmas is definitely my favorite. Can I get clothes like that, please?

  • Lascelles September 26th, 2012 9:49 PM

    Odd. Voice of Edna Mode is a guy and the animation creator. The same for LSP …anyway, Edna, who was almost Lily Tomlin, was probably a big mix of a lot of things. I agree with Ebert, that the look was probably Edith, visually, in part (I don’t think she was that short) but just pinning it on one person is probably wrong… anyway, if true, I hope she was not THAT rude :D NO CAPES!!! WIN!!! :D

    http://movies.radiofree.com/interviews/theincre_brad_bird.shtml
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcArCF-wEkU
    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20041114/ANSWERMAN/411140309

  • TessaTheTeenageWitch September 26th, 2012 11:53 PM

    My Mum bought me a glass mannequin head to put my school hat on (as you do) and when she gave it to me she declared that she had named it Edith.

    I asked her why and she replied: “The best Head in Hollywood is Edith Head. You cannot just own a head and NOT call it Edith!”

  • eireann September 27th, 2012 12:59 AM

    Such an interesting article! What a cool lady! xox

  • ivoire September 27th, 2012 2:35 AM

    I watched this thing where they said edith head was the designer of the clothes in an audrey hepburn movie but it was really actually givenchy or s/t

  • hillary September 27th, 2012 3:17 AM

    new idol.
    ’nuff said.

  • Caden September 27th, 2012 3:44 AM

    I have an interview for a diploma of costume design .. tomorrow!!!

    Your timing never ceases to amaze me.

    PS That peacock dress is to die for..

  • Suz September 27th, 2012 8:08 AM

    What a wonderful blog! You must come see my play, A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD-www.edithhead.biz! Check out our tour dates and let me know if we will be in a place near you! It is a privilege to keep Miss Head’s legacy alive!

  • Tara September 27th, 2012 8:31 AM

    edith head is a genius and I love her and I love this.

  • miss_kayce September 27th, 2012 1:53 PM

    yes yes YES!!! i’m so unbelievably happy to see a post somewhere about edith head… this amazingly talented woman rarely gets her due.

    team edith 5ever. :)

  • insteadofanelephant September 27th, 2012 2:01 PM

    ahh this is an awesome article

    XX

    instead of an elephant

  • Dirtygrrrl September 27th, 2012 6:21 PM

    I love edith her designs are beautiful! Great artical <3

    dirtygrrrl.tumblr.com

  • tove October 6th, 2012 4:42 PM

    God, she’s such an inspiration, I absolutely adore her personal look and I have no doubts that Edna = Edith.