The Classic Film Thread: Edith Head’s Hollywood

Very brief housekeeping – sorry for the delay on this thread, real life interferes sometimes. Also I’ve decided to move this thread to Thursdays, as Monday sees a pretty significant glut of new threads. Anyway, on with the show.

Head at a showing of her sketches at the Wright-Hepburn Webster Gallery, circa 1969

In the last thread, we learned how Head made her way from high school language teacher to an ascendant star in the world of costume design through a combination of luck and hard work. She was in the privileged position to be working under Howard Greer and Travis Banton – not only did she get to learn from their combined decades of experience, she was also there to step in when both men’s alcoholism began to get the better of them. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper spun the story that Head had conspired to oust Banton from his role as Paramount’s chief costume designer, but from the sources I’ve read, this doesn’t seem to be true. Head spoke of Banton with enormous respect:

I learned more from Travis Banton by watching him dress Carole Lombard than anything I’ve ever done – before or since. I learned more by watching him dress Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert than I could have learned in years of formal study in a design school. [H]e was the best designer, bar none, in the world. And he taught me everything I knew about designing.” – Edith Head’s Hollywood

In any case, by 1939, Edith Head was head of the show at Paramount. She had certainly earned this role – through the 1930’s, she would work on thirty to forty films a year, primarily B-movies and westerns. She kept constantly busy, and now had a team working under her who respected her enormously, and she had made friends with several stars by working closely with them, intimately knowing their likes, dislikes, and insecurities.

Barbara Stanwyck lounges in luxury in The Lady Eve (1941)

One such friend was Barbara Stanwyck, and one of Head’s first major opportunities as lead costume designer was dressing Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. This film sees Stanwyck playing a scheming card sharp who poses as an English aristocrat for the second half of the film. This gave Head a terrific opportunity – she got to design a variety of costumes for a woman she truly enjoyed working with, all while showing off the variety of her talents.

Lady Eve changed both our lives. It was Barbara’s first high-fashion picture and her biggest transition in costuming. She was already a top star, and she had an image long before I got to her. She was always playing plain Janes, women to whom clothes meant nothing.

For her gambler character, I had used sharp contrasts – black on white, all black, all white – to make her appear a tad coarse. Naturally I chose much richer, more luxurious fabrics when she was supposed to be of noble birth. I also used different colorations that would show up more subtly in black and white. I left the sequins and glitter to the lady gambler in the beginning.

Barbara made the great transition beautifully, but she told me after we saw the completed film that she wasn’t aware of changing as she was playing the role. It was a natural evolution.” – Edith Head’s Hollywood

The Lady Eve garnered Head a great deal of respect at Paramount. She worked next with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour on the Road to… pictures, and mentioned that this was one of the happiest periods of her career – working on fun films such as these provided a welcome distraction from the war that was now upending life all over the world. Wartime shortages and restrictions meant that Head’s options for costume creation were now limited. Head saw this as a welcome challenge, and felt a great sense of duty during these times (helped I’m sure in no small part by the fact that her husband was serving overseas.)

This year a woman has a new duty, as her wardrobe must reflect the spirit of sacrifice through its adaptability. It must reflect the spirit of enthusiasm through its brightness. It must reflect the spirit of determination through its lack of ostentation. This sacrifice, enthusiasm, and determination will make the woman behind the man in the defense lines a willing and inspirational factor in winning the war.” – Edith Head’s Hollywood

Bette Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve (1950)

Head’s career wouldn’t slow down for decades – she claimed to have worked on more than eleven hundred movies. It wasn’t just Head’s workhorse attitude that made her a household name, however – in addition to her work on the Paramount lot, she had also been tapped by Art Linkletter to occasionally be a featured guest on his radio program House Party. She provided tips for how the average woman could spruce up her appearance. Head was frank without being mean, and was an instant favorite of the audience. Fan letters poured in, with many women providing pictures of themselves and asking for individualized advice from Head. She obliged. Because of this entry into the homes of Americans, Head quickly became almost as famous as the celebrities she dressed.

Unless you want a sixteen-part Edith Head thread, it’s difficult to go into the detail her career demands. However, I’d be remiss to write about Head without mentioning All About Eve. Bette Davis requested Head personally for the film. This movie called for dressing Davis’s Margot Channing in the height of 1950’s fashion – wasp-wasited cocktail dresses.

Bette Davis is a perfectionist when it comes to costumes. So am I. That’s why we work together so well. …she discusses any problems long before she goes on camera. But there was a major exception in All About Eve. The off-the-shoulder dress for the big party scene as an accident. My original sketch had a square neckline and a tight bodice. I had extremely high hopes for this dress because the fabric, a brown gros de Londres photographs magnificently in black and white.

Because we were working on such a tight deadline, the dress was made up the night before Bette was scheduled to wear it. I went in early the day of the filming to make sure the dress was pressed and camera-ready. There was Bette, already in the dress, looking quizzically at her own reflection in the mirror. I was horrified. The dress didn’t fit at all. The top of the three-quarter-length sleeves had a fullness created by pleats, but someone had miscalculated and the entire bodice and neckline were too big. There was no time to save anything, and a change would delay the shooting. I told Bette not to worry, that I would personally tell [the director] what had happened.

I had just about reached the door, my knees feeling as if they were going to give out, when Bette told me to turn around and look. She pulled the neckline off her shoulders, shook one shoulder sexily, and said, ‘Don’t you like it better like this, anyway?’ It looked wonderful and I could have hugged her. With a few simple stitches I secured the neckline in place so she could move comfortably, and she left for the set.” – Edith Head’s Hollywood

Tippi Hedren before chaos takes wing in The Birds (1963)

Head continued her prolific costume work alongside television appearances, film cameos, and a couple of books about dressing well for the average American woman. She famously worked with Alfred Hitchcock on eleven films. Hitchcock admired her restrained style, and her perfectionism gelled well with his own.

When you work a great deal with a director, you know [his] likes and dislikes. Hitchcock has a complete phobia about what he calls ‘eye-catchers,’ like a scene with a woman in bright purple, or a man in an orange shirt. Unless there is a story reason for a color, we keep to muted colors, because he feels they can detract from an important action scene. He uses color actually almost like an artist, like using soft greens and cool colors for certain moods.” – Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie

In 1967, Paramount declined to renew Head’s contract, despite her forty-three years at the company, not to mention her thirty Oscar nominations and seven wins (up to that point.) Head moved to Universal, where she worked mostly in television, such as designing Agnes Moorehead‘s clothing on Bewitched. Head received her final Oscar in 1974 for her work on The Sting.

During her work on Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, director Rob Reiner noticed that Head would get extremely fatigued on set, to the point of falling asleep on set couches during breaks.

How sweet this dear little lady looked. If we had known how ill she was, we probably never would have let her take on the film. I’m glad we didn’t know. She wanted to do the project. She was on the set the day we shot the last scenes. Two weeks later she was gone.” – Edith Head’s Hollywood

Head died of myleofibrosis in the autumn of 1981, two years after the death of her husband of nearly forty years. Her indefatigable work ethic and canny politicking made her a household name in a time when costumes weren’t even eligible for Academy Awards. Though her costumes were rarely lavish or showy (excepting a few films such as DeMille’s Samson and Delilah), her costumes flattered the stars that wore them, and worked in perfect harmony with the characters they played.

My primary resource for these two threads was Edith Head’s Hollywood by Paddy Calistro, which the author worked on with Head up until her death at the age of eighty-three. Copies of this book aren’t terribly easy to find, but a used hardcover should run you $30 or so.

Bonus topic: Which is the first “classic” film you can recall seeing? Define classic however you see fit.

FEATURED FILMS

  • The Lady Eve (1941) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • Road to Singapore (1940) – the first of seven “Road to…” films – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • All About Eve (1950) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • The Birds (1963) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • Marnie (1964) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • The Sting (1977) – streaming on Amazon Prime
  • Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.
  • Samson and Delilah (1949) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.

IF YOU LIKED THIS…

  • The Heiress (1949) – Edith Head’s first Oscar-winning film. Not available to stream via traditional means – hint hint. See below!
  • Sunset Blvd. (1940) – one of Head’s proudest achievements, due to the challenge of dressing a woman in simultaneously modern and outdated clothing. streaming on Amazon Prime
  • Joan of Arc (1948) – the film to which Head bitterly lost her first Oscar nomination. available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.

COMING SOON

  • TCM
    • TCM’s theme this month is “Body Images” – how the films have shaped our notions of beauty. Below are some of those films, along with others.
      • Friday, May 14
        • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), at 8:00 PM EDT
      • Monday, May 17
        • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), at 5:30 PM EDT
        • Bullitt (1968), at 8:00 PM EDT
      • Tuesday, May 25
        • Hairspray (1988), at 6:30 PM EDT
        • The Heiress (1949), at 11:30 PM EDT
  • MeTV
    • Saturday, May 15
      • Svengoolie will be showing Fiend Without a Face (1958), at 8 PM EDT
      • Check out the recurring Svengoolie discussion thread, posted every Saturday!