The Classic Film Thread: Costumes by Edith Head

If you’re a classic film fan – or even if you’re not, and have only watched a handful of older films – it won’t take very long before you encounter the name Edith Head. For this week’s thread and the next, we’ll take a look at her life in the world of film, which spanned several decades, from the burgeoning world of talkies all the way to a Steve Martin comedy classic.

Edith Head with some of her Oscars, Paramount portrait, circa 1958

Edith was born in California in 1897 to a German father and American mother. Her parents divorced early in her life, and her mother soon remarried a mining engineer, whose work took Edith and her mother all over the continent.. In 1919, she earned a bachelor’s in French from UC Berkeley, and only a year later her master’s in Romance languages from Stanford. She settled quickly into a teaching job at the Hollywood School for Girls, teaching either French, or Spanish, or both (sources vary.) Wanting to make a little more money, she offered the school her additional services as an art teacher, despite her complete lack of formal training or even casual interest in the subject. When they agreed to hire her in the additional role, she scrambled to sign up for classes at the Chouinard Art College.

Edith posing with sketches, circa 1952

Head had close proximity to the world of Hollywood through her students, many of whom were the daughters of those involved in the industry in one way or another. In need of a summer job one year, and recalling her few brief experiences of passing interaction with Hollywood, she applied for a job as a sketch artist in the costume department at Paramount. Her speciality in art was in land and seascapes, meaning her portfolio for the human body was scant. To make up for this deficit, she borrowed several of her classmate’s sketches of the human form. They knew what they were getting into – Head said they were all eager to see if she could get away with the trick. In her interview at Paramount, she deftly avoided a straight out lie by saying, “This is the sort of thing we’re doing at Chouinard.” Whether the interviewer saw through this ruse or not, she was immediately hired, and put to work under Paramount’s wardrobe lead at the time, Howard Greer, at a salary of $50 a week.

An Edith Head sketch, date unknown

Head was suddenly buried in sketch work. None of it was particularly challenging or interesting, and after a while, Head considered quitting movie work out of boredom. But the money was tempting, and she saw her skills improving between her days in the Paramount offices and her nights at school. Greer noticed her skills and, most of all, her quick adaptability to notes from notoriously difficult filmmakers like DeMille. He – along with his colleague, the celebrated fashion designer Travis Banton – took a shine to Head, and began giving her more interesting work and inviting her along to professional fittings and casual outings, where Head watched every moment with a voracious curiosity. She felt that she could be given no better education about costume design than by watching the masters work, and her interest and eagerness only endeared her further to the Paramount royalty by which she was surrounded.

Head very quickly established herself as more than an assistant – Greer and Banton tossed her jobs here and there, designing clothing for extras and tertiary characters. She was given the task of designing an outfit for an elephant in DeMille’s The Wanderer. He was to be draped in flowers around his ankles and neck. Upon the elephant’s arrival at the set, the animal star promptly ate his costume. The cast and crew laughed while Head scrambled to find replacement adornments for the elephant, her first – but not last – taste of Hollywood humiliation. Despite minor setbacks like this, it was undeniable that Head’s stock at Paramount was rising, and in 1932, Head got her first shot at dressing a star.

Publicity shot from “She Done Him Wrong” (1933)

Mae West was a popular Broadway writer and actress, known for her ribald humor and oversexed persona. She had been arrested several times for various crimes of indecency, incidencies which she capitalized upon by making her work seem that much more daring. She was now taking her smash hit act to pre-code Hollywood – Paramount, specifically – and had adapted her play Diamond Lil for the screen. Because of their jet-set lifestyles, neither Banton nor Greer were available to design the film’s costumes. The job fell to Head. It may have been made slightly easier on Head that West had a specific style she cultivated. Head said of West –

“Mae couldn’t have been nicer. She…explained exactly what the Mae West image was. ‘Edith, I’m a lady but most of all I’m a sexy female – the black-velvet-and-diamonds type. I want my clothes loose enough to prove I’m a lady, but tight enough to show ’em I’m a woman.'”

With confident direction from West, Head designed clothes to make West look as glamorous as a woman could look onscreen. Creative touches from Head can be seen even in this early stage, such as the flock of birds soaring across West’s chest above. These costumes were showcased to great effect in the film She Done Him Wrong, capturing West at her most voluptuous. West was thrilled with Head’s work, and this success gave Head both confidence, and a hit film to prove her worth to Paramount.

Edith Head sketching, date unknown

More important responsibilities were quickly stacked on Head’s desk. She wasn’t dressing the major stars of the day yet, but she designed clothes worn just next to the stars, and occasionally got to design for less glamorous actors such as Shirley Temple. She watched diligently as Banton dressed the top box office draws of the day, actresses such as Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich. She was adept at making friends with these women, making them feel comfortable and listened to. Each star had her own style, and her own insecurities she wanted to camouflage and features she wanted to highlight. In listening to the stars, she endeared herself to them, a trait which would help her a great deal down the road.

While Travis Banton draped lace and silk over the bodies of the most famous women in the world, he was now willing to hand up-and-comers to Head, given that she had certainly proven herself in her thirteen year career at Paramount. Head got the chance to design an outfit for Dorothy Lamour – but it wasn’t the dripping gown Head so badly wanted to design. Instead, Lamour was starring in a sort of gender-flipped Tarzan, playing the wild-raised Ulah, in a film eventually named The Jungle Princess (this picture had several titles over the course of production.) Lamour was to be draped in a sarong throughout. Head took the challenge gamely, and researched to the nth degree everything there was to know about authentic sarongs.

Promotional card for “The Jungle Princess” (1936)

Authenticity proved a tricky hoop to jump through – sarongs weren’t traditionally worn above the waist, and although Head briefly tried to hide Lamour’s breasts under her long, natural hair, she realized swiftly there was no way she’d get anything less than a fully clothed actress past the censors. The tying proved tricky, as well – anything fastened without pins or thread looked bulky, doing little favors to Lamour’s svelte body. The tied sarong also wouldn’t stay up, and on more than one occasion Lamour accidentally flashed the cast and crew, embarrassed less by the exposure than by the breast pads she wore to fill out her bust. Head settled on sewing Lamour into her sarong every day. Still, at least the print was authentic, even if the materials and form weren’t.

Despite these offscreen challenges, the look proved to be an absolute sensation. Women wanted nothing more than to be clad poolside in sarongs, and Lamour was for several years typecast in roles that had her wearing sarongs – helped along by the fact that her beachside look made for a very popular pinup during World War II. Lamour was typecast for several years in roles that called for her to wear a sarong, and she eventually became so sick of it she burned a sarong in a publicity event to prove she was moving on from the image. She was happy to work with Head, however, and the pair would have a long working relationship even after Lamour’s sarong phase.

I was fully intending the examination of Edith Head to just be one thread, but I’ve already written much more than I was planning to, so I guess this is a two-parter! Next time we’ll look at how circumstance thrust Head into the lead costumer’s role at Paramount, and her heyday in the 40’s and 50’s.

Bonus topic: Obviously – what are some of your favorite film costumes? Do you pay much attention to film costumes?

FEATURED FILMS

  • The Wanderer (1925) – several reels of this film have been lost to the ages – a shorter cut survives, but not that I can find on streaming
  • She Done Him Wrong (1933) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • The Jungle Princess (1936) – not currently available to stream (please comment if you find it!)

IF YOU LIKED THIS…

  • The Hurricane (1937) – one of several Dorothy Lamour sarong pictures, currently streaming on Amazon Prime
  • My Little Chickadee (1940) – starring Mae West and WC Fields at a time when both of their personas had already begun to slide into self-parody, but still worth a watch, available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.

COMING SOON

  • TCM
    • TCM is still in the midst of its 26th year of 31 Days of Oscar. They’re showcasing films in straight up alphabetical order. Here’s some films of note.
      • Wednesday, April 21
        • The Philadelphia Story (1940), at 4:00 PM EDT
        • Pillow Talk (1959), at 8:00 PM EDT
      • Thursday, April 22
        • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), at 6:00 PM EDT
        • The Producers (1967), at 8:00 PM EDT
        • Psycho (1960), at 9:45 PM EDT
      • Friday, April 23
        • Rashomon (1950), at 12:15 PM EDT
        • Rear Window (1954), at 4:00 PM EDT (featuring Edith Head costumes)
        • The Red Shoes (1948), at 10:30 PM EDT
    • Check out the whole schedule, it’s a murderer’s row of amazing films (and, y’know – some others.)
  • MeTV
    • Saturday, April 24
      • Svengoolie will be showing Gargoyles (1972), at 8 PM EDT
      • Check out the recurring Svengoolie discussion thread, posted every Saturday!