The Unpredictable Rise of Legendary Costume Designer Edith Head: How one woman rose to the occasion
“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it." — Edith Head
Edith Head (1897 - 1981) was barely five feet tall, referred to her Oscars as “my children,” and — even though for many decades she had dressed some of the world’s biggest stars — preferred simple thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits herself. The American designer, who won a record eight Academy Awards for Costume Design between 1949 and 1973, is the most awarded woman in the Academy’s history.
Max Posener and Anne E. Levy married in 1895, just before the arrival of their daughter Edith Clarie Posener. The child was born into modest circumstances in San Bernardino, California. In an attempt to become a business owner, her father opened a small haberdashery in their area, but it failed within a year. It’s unlikely that the short-lived endeavor had any impact on the Posener’s future career choices, but it’s also hard to dispute the possibility.
Ultimately, the marriage of her parents did not survive. By the time Edith was ten, her mom remarried, this time to a mining engineer by the name of Frank Spare. Because of the nature of his profession, the family moved often, but the time they spent in Searchlight, Nevada, seems to have stayed with Edith: “I didn’t have what you would call an artistic or cultural background. We lived in the desert and we had burros and jackrabbits and things like that.”
Though Edith’s parents were both Jewish, Frank was Catholic and Edith ostensibly became one as well. Edith grew up in Texas and Nevada before moving to Los Angeles with her mother after her step-father and mother separated. By 1919, Edith received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Letters and Sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University a year later.
She entered the workforce by becoming a French language teacher at Bishop's School in La Jolla. One year later, she started teaching Spanish at the Hollywood School for Girls. Wanting a higher salary, she promoted herself as an art teacher, even though she had only briefly studied the subject in high school. To improve her passibility as an art educator, she took evening classes at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art College.
While at Chouinard Art College, Edith met Charles Head, the brother of one of her classmates. The two married in 1923, but the relationship wouldn’t last. After a few years, the couple decided to separate, and then followed up with divorce several years after that. Still, Edith continued to use Charles’ last name professionally until her death, even though she did marry designer and award-winning art director Wiard Ihnen (1897 - 1979) in 1940.
The same year Edith met Charles, she answered an ad for a “sketch artist” at Paramount Pictures, which — at the time — was one of the leading studios in Hollywood. She met with Howard Greer, the head of the company’s costume design, and presented him with an eclectic portfolio, despite lacking art, design, and costumed design experience. The 26-year-old language teacher was hired and began work as a costume designer the following year.
Years later, she admitted that her portfolio was so impressive and diverse because it didn’t actually feature any of her work; apparently, Edith wanted the job so much that she resorted to “borrowing” the works of her classmates to get it. More importantly, however, was the fact that her tenacity resonated with Greer; he knew that she cheated on the application but respected the fact that she was willing to do what it took to get her foot in the door.
But her language background also played a role. “The only reason I survived to stay on his staff as a sketch girl was the fact that I had a background of speaking foreign languages,” Edith said. “They were making foreign versions of films and I was the only one who could talk readily with the foreign stars.” Paramount, a rising studio with a killer roster hired a language teacher with little to no real design experience, and it changed everything.
Edith was featured in studio publicity materials from the mid-1920s, but she was initially overshadowed by Paramount's lead designers, first by Howard Greer who hired and trained her, and then by Travis Banton, Greer’s successor. She started by assisting each on films, designing for background actors and smaller characters, and even changed her sketching style to mimic the popular Banton sketches when presenting designs to directors and producers.
The designers showed Edith that it was crucial to establish a rapport between star and designer. So, as her career progressed, commencing with The Wanderer (1925), Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects — which eventually included virtually every top female star in Hollywood — with whom she consulted extensively. Perhaps that is the main reason Edith Head succeeded.
But there were other reasons, too. Edith made herself essential on set. Because Banton had a drinking problem, so when he couldn’t, Edith picked up the slack and got the job done, earning her title as “The Doctor.” She got her big break in 1993, when she designed the costumes for She Done Him Wrong starring Mae West (1893 -1980). “This allowed Edith the chance to finally design a wardrobe of beautiful period gowns that would be credited to her on screen.”
Although she was a more restrained designer than either Banton or Greer, she became a high-profile costume designer in her own right in the 1930s. Of course, Banton’s departure in 1938 — a departure that, according to different sources, may have been aided by Edith — helped her reach her full potential. One of her biggest (unintentional) moments was starting the sarong craze, when she designed the costumes for The Jungle Princess (1936).
By 1938, Edith Head became the chief costume designer at Paramount. She gained further 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 of the Academy Award for Costume Design further boosted her career, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz (1948).
“What we do is a cross between magic and camouflage. We ask the public to believe that every time they see an actress or actor that they are a different person.” — Edith Head
In 1946, Head began working with director Alfred Hitchcock on Notorious. "The clothes couldn't be smart in the ordinary sense," she remarked. The creatives discovered that they were like-minded and shared the same bluntness. So when Gulf & Western Industries gained control of Paramount in 1973 and declined to renew her contract, though she’s been with the company for 44 years, Hitchcock invited her to move to Universal Studios, which she did at 70 years old.
There, she had her own cottage with its front door hung with a gold shingle in the shape of a woman's body. It’s also where she earned her eight and final Academy Award for her work on The Sting in 1973. Edith, who is said to have preferred designing for men, remarked: ''It was the first time that the costume design Oscar went to a picture with no female star.'' But her love of design was never restricted to a gender.
In the late 1970s Edith designed a woman's uniform for the United States Coast Guard, because of the increasing number of women in the Coast Guard. Her goal was to create something that “should last for 30 years or more.” The uniform features a neckerchief that provides both a splash of color to the uniform and utilitarian appeal. She called it a highlight in her career and received the Meritorious Public Service Award for her efforts.
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. The movie was released in theaters just after her death and was dedicated to her memory. Head died on October 24, 1981, just four days before her 84th birthday.
In a business known for temperament, Edith Head managed to survive more through her ability to please quixotic directors and stars than for her design creativity, a distinction that even she acknowledged. 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 to date.