Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was an American costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Desig] between 1949 and 1973, making her the most awarded woman in the Academy’s history. Head is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential costume designers in film history.
Born and raised in California, Head started her career as a Spanish teacher, but was interested in design. After studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1923. She won acclaim for her design of Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, and became a household name after the Academy Award for Best Costume Design was created in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively; these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.
Head worked at Paramount for 44 years. In 1967, the company declined to renew her contract, and she was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to join Universal Pictures. There she earned her eighth and final Academy Award for her work on The Sting in 1973.
The Paramount years
In 1924, despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, the 26-year-old Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures. Later she admitted to “borrowing” other students’ sketches for her job interview. She began designing costumes for silent films, commencing with The Wanderer in 1925 and, by the 1930s, had established herself as one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers. She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967, possibly prompted by her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock, who had moved to Universal in 1960.
Head’s marriage to set designer Wiard Ihnen, on September 8, 1940, lasted until his death from prostate cancer in 1979. Over the course of her long career, she was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, annually from 1949 (the first year that the Oscar for Best Costume Design was awarded) through 1966, and won eight times – receiving more Oscars than any other person.
Although Head was featured in studio publicity from the mid-1920s, she was originally overshadowed by Paramount’s lead designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton. Head was instrumental in conspiring against Banton, and after his resignation in 1938 she became a high-profile designer in her own right. Her association with the “sarong” dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane (1937) made her well known among the general public, although Head was a more restrained designer than either Banton or Adrian. She gained public attention for the top mink-lined gown she created for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), which caused much comment owing to the mood of wartime austerity. The establishment, in 1949, of the Academy Award for Costume Design further boosted her career, giving her a record-breaking run of Award nominations and wins, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz.Head and other film designers like Adrian became well known to the public.
Head was known for her unique working style and, unlike many of her male contemporaries, usually consulted extensively with the female stars with whom she worked. As a result, she was a favorite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, Head was frequently “loaned out” by Paramount to other studios at the request of their female stars. She herself always dressed very plainly, preferring thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits.
In 1946, Head worked for the first time with director Alfred Hitchcock. They worked together on his spy film Notorious. Head, who worked for Paramount, was loaned to Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) pictures to work with Hitchcock on this film. In this time period it was more often found that costume designers would design to reflect their own style. Head had a different outlook on this. She felt that it was more important to design pieces that reflected the character. During their time working on this movie, Head and Hitchcock found that they were like-minded and had the same bluntness in their careers and attitudes. The costumes she designed for this film reflected restraint and the need to blend in. This style suited what Hitchcock was looking for since he did not want the clothes to be the focal point. The two would go on to work together many more times.
On February 3, 1955 (Season 5 Episode 21), Edith Head appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life. She and her partner won a total of $1,540. Her winnings were donated to charity.
Head also authored two books describing her career and design philosophy, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967). These books were re-edited in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
The Universal years
In 1967, at the age of 70, she left Paramount Pictures and joined Universal Pictures, where she remained until her death in 1981. By this point, Hollywood was rapidly changing from what it had been during Head’s heyday in the 1930s-1940s. Studio-based production was giving way to outdoors and on-scene shooting, and many of the actresses from that era whom she worked with and knew intimately had retired or were working less. She thus turned more of her attention to TV, where some old friends such as Olivia de Havilland had begun working. She designed Endora’s clothing on Bewitched, and made a cameo appearance in 1973 on the detective series Columbo beside Anne Baxter, playing herself and displaying her Oscars to date. In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting.
In the late 1970s Edith Head was asked to design a woman’s uniform for the United States Coast Guard, because of the increasing number of women in the Coast Guard. Head called the assignment a highlight in her career and received the Meritorious Public Service Award for her efforts. Her designs for a TV mini-series based on the novel Little Women were well received. Her last film project was the black-and-white comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), starring Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, a job Head was chosen for because of her expertise on 1940s fashions. She modeled Martin and Reiner’s outfits on classic film noir and the movie, released in theaters just after her death, was dedicated to her memory.