Monday, July 27, 2009
Edith Head, the hardest working woman in show business
Not a very glamorous looking lady, perhaps, but she designed utterly glamorous costumes for over a thousand, yes, a thousand, movies, spanning the years from 1924 until 1982. She was nominated for thirty-five Academy Awards, and won eight. And you thought Meryl Streep was an over-achiever! She was a self-made woman, divorced young, who started out in costume design sketching in 1924 at Paramount, despite the fact that she had no background in costumes, design or sketching. In fact, she had an MA in Romance Languages, and had been a French teacher at a girls' school.
She preferred to work closely with the stars she was dressing, and part of her initial success was due to the fact that she began dressing actresses early in their careers, listening to what they liked to wear, explaining how they could camouflage their faults and play up their assets. As the starlets became major stars, they remained loyal to Edith and requested her, because they trusted her to make them look fabulous on the screen.
It's rare to see Edith photographed without dark glasses. She originally wore dark blue-tinted glasses, because their tint allowed her to see how fabric would photograph on black and white film. After films moved over to color, she began wearing dark-tinted glasses to appear inscrutable at all times. I love that! Despite the fact that she designed some of the most glamorous screen gowns in the history of film, Edith always wore a simple suit, dark glasses, and her dark hair in a bun. She was a working woman going to the office, after all, even if her work for the day was to design a mink-lined evening gown for a Ginger Rogers dance number.
She designed for everyone, from Mae West and Gloria Swanson to Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, from Rita Hayworth and Katherine Hepburn to Paul Newman and, of all people, Steve Martin. And she designed a great deal for Alfred Hitchcock, who had specific ideas about what his actresses should wear and why. She worked on The Birds, Marnie, Vertigo, Rear Window, Topaz, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Notorious. And she designed the costumes for To Catch a Thief.
Now, To Catch a Thief is one of my least favorite Hitchcock movies. The cinematography is gorgeous, the script is smart, and the actors are fantastic. It's a story issue for me, I think. I like more Hitchcockian suspense in my Hitchcock films. This one is a little too heavy on the romantic fluff for my taste. But the costumes? To die for! That gold lame ball gown that Grace Kelly wears to the masquerade ball at the close of the movie has to be one of the most decadently lovely dresses ever created. I want to wear it grocery shopping, for heaven's sake. It's romantic fluff formed into clothing!
Edith made a living doing what she loved to do. She was respected by those who worked with her and honored by her peers. She worked for over six decades at her craft, and we are still marvelling at her creations on film today. Could one really ask for a more wonderful life? Plus, it seems that she did all of this more or less on her own terms.
My favorite Edith Head quote. . . The studio brought Edith in to consult on the costume designs for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, with Faye Dunaway. Edith's thoughts? "I see chiffon, yards and yards of chiffon." Can you imagine the outrageous bank robbing evening gowns she might have created? Wow.
For more on Edith Head: