Over summer Bendigo Art Gallery hosted an Edith Head exhibition. Don’t know who she is? Well you do. You love her. You might not know it, but you do. And if you don’t think you love her, you will.
She worked on the costumes for more than a thousand films in her 50 year career, she was nominated for 27 Academy Awards, won 8 Oscars, and she was the first female head of design in a film studio when appointed Head Designer at Paramount Pictures in 1939. Not to mention that Edith was the inspiration for Edna Mode in The Incredibles!
See! You know her. You love her.
So I went to the exhibition, I stared at the clothes in awe, I bought the book and read it cover to cover. I’m now officially obsessed.
Edith Head was a Hollywood costume designer in the Golden Age of film. Before movies were full of clothes that were just bought and worn, designers painstakingly studied, designed and made each costume. But it wasn’t until Edith that the film industry started to take costume design seriously; costumes were a work of art in their own right, they could convey a character’s psychology and could be used as a storytelling device.
There is so much to love about Edith. One particular thing I love about her is that when she applied to be a sketch artist at Paramount in 1924 she knew she wasn’t the best artist so she “borrowed” some sketches from her fellow art students. The drawings were so impressive she was hired on the spot, but not long after she started work her ruse was realised. By that time everyone was so enamored with Edith that they kept her, trained her and she became a costume designer extraordinaire.
Edith’s designs are arguably timeless; other designers at the time criticised her for being safe and never flamboyant enough. But the combination of Edith’s ability to predict fashion changes and her knack for dressing any human body by hiding flaws (as if Veronica Lake had a flaw*) and accentuating assets meant that her designs didn’t distract audiences from narrative and enhanced the actors.
In fact Edith’s expertise in dressing the human form led her to a lucrative side career offering fashion advice to the public via magazines, radio and television shows, and eventually books. Fans didn’t just want to know how she dressed the stars, but how she would dress them. Head said “I wasn’t always nice to those ladies, I tried to be but sometimes I’d have to be blunt. They didn’t know how they looked best and I did…”
Every star wanted Edith to dress them in a film. A single design by her could shoot someone to fame. Edith used her magical modal powers to get Barbara Stanwyck out of “working girl” roles into a high fashion films. The sarong she designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess made Lamour a star overnight. And I think that her designs for Grace Kelly in Rear Window single-handedly transformed Grace into a Princess. All she needed was a Prince.
Edith taught the world how to dress for success, and I personally think she’s still teaching.
The cup of inspiration runneth over for me at the moment. Usually I wonder what I should do with a certain influence but with Edith Head it’s more like “of these one million ideas, which should I execute? Or how many of them? And when?” When would I wear a homemade Edith-inspired gown? Should I start wearing Edith’s uniform of cream, black, brown or grey suits? Should I start making my own outfits or do I just get into sketching designs?
This is definitely one Inspiration Point that will be fruitful.
Kirby in Dreamland
*Of Veronica Lake Edith Head once said:
“Her figure problems seemed insurmountable. She was short… and very tiny – possibly the smallest normal adult I had ever seen.”
If she said that about Veronica, I’m glad she will never, ever see me.