EST. 2009

October 28, 2014

That Costume Queen

"WE MAY REHEARSE OUR LINES, OUR MOVEMENTS, AND OUR EXPRESSIONS," Bette Davis writes in the foreword to Edith Head's Hollywood, "but not until we finally slip into the costumes does everything come together so that we actually become the character. If we are not comfortable in those clothes, if they do not project the character, the costume designer has failed us. Edith Head never failed."

Bette Davis was just one of countless actors for whom Edith Head worked her sartorial magic. As chief designer at Paramount's costume department, Head designed for hundreds of films, starred in by some of Hollywood's most stellar leading ladies: Grace Kelly, Anne Baxter, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and Tippi Hedren, to name a few.

With a motto asserting that "the audience should notice the actors, not the clothes" Head created costumes that were flattering to the actors, but ultimately essential to the roles they played. It's hard to think of Anne Baxter's Nefertiri gowns without thinking of Anne Baxter, or Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond ensembles without thinking of Gloria Swanson. There is no other skirt suit for Tippi Hedren to be attacked by "the birds" in, and no other anything for Audrey Hepburn to do her Funny Face dance in. Under Head's charge, the roles, actors and costumes appeared one and whole, in a congruence we now seldom see in contemporary film.

For a position she somewhat cheated her way into, Edith Head proved phenomenally deserving. In 1924, with no relevant training or experience, she applied for a costume sketch artist job at Paramount, using illustrations that weren't even her own. A decade later, she was chief designer, and with the establishment of the Academy Awards category for costume design, Head went on to make history with 35 nominations and eight wins. She still holds the record for the woman with the most number of Oscars.

Edith Head worked industriously until her death in 1981, ending a career that spanned 57 years. For what would have been her 116th birthday, on this day last year, Head was commemorated with a Google Doodle featuring six of her costumes.

It feels almost serendipitous for a person, born just days before Halloween, to fashion a career in costume design. "Between magic and camouflage," as she herself put it, Head's work embodies the might and the mirth of costume, in transforming its wearers, and how other people perceive those wearers. "What a costume designer does" she said, "is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he's become a different person."

Comforting to know that we can emulate new personas with clothing and costume. What will you wear today?

Edith Head, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, and Anne Baxter, images from,,,,,,