How Edith Head took Hollywood by storm

Legendary costume designer Edith Head was often identified as a short woman sporting bangs, a two-piece suit, and large glasses. The fashion icon who dressed Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn would have turned 116 today. 

Google
Edith Head, the costume designer behind countless Hollywood hits, is honored by a Google Doodle today on what would have been her 116th birthday.

"You can lead a horse to water and you can even make it drink, but you can't make actresses wear what they don't want to wear," Edith Head once said. 

The critically acclaimed costume designer dominated Hollywood's fashion sets in the 20th century, winning a whopping eight Academy Awards – the most for any woman. Head is most notably recognized for dressing Audrey Hepburn in the film that threw her into the spotlight – "Roman Holiday." The story of a wealthy princess longing for a normal life required both ball gowns and plain clothing, a feat that won Head best costume design for a black-and-white film in 1954. 

"You see, she's supposed to be a princess disguised as an ordinary girl on the streets of Rome. So we made her a simple costume, so she wouldn't look different," Head says about dressing Hepburn in the video above.

Head nabbed the same Academy Award for her designs in "Sabrina," a year later, although prominent French designer Hubert de Givenchy also contributed a good deal to Hepburn's wardrobe. 

Perhaps Head's greatest achievement is the one that excited wistful teenage girls in the 1950s: Elizabeth Taylor's dress in "A Place in the Sun." The knockout strapless bouffant gown, laced with daisies, sparked a prom fashion trend. 

Head rose to the top without much traditional training. She miraculously landed a job as an assistant to Paramount's head designer Howard Greer after showing him drawings that were not even her own – she used sketches donated by her peers at Chouinard Art Institute. She later worked as assistant designer under Travis Banton, and when Banton resigned, Head finally had her time to shine.  

Even before clothing Hepburn and Taylor, Head shared a few Oscars with other designers: one for the Biblical dress style in the 1949 Paramount film "Samson and Delilah," and another for "All About Eve," in which icon Bette Davis was portrayed as a classy, older Broadway star (Davis would later deliver the eulogy at Head's funeral). 

Head maintained a strong relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, dressing celebrities such as Grace Kelly in his films. The Telegraph reports that when Novak confronted Head about her dislike of a grey suit she was supposed to wear in "Vertigo," Head replied, "why don't you go and discuss that with Mr. Hitchcock?"

"Every different director has another language – for instance, Hitchcock does not like any bright color ever, unless the story says 'there goes the girl in a red dress,'" Head said in a 1975 interview

But the "dress doctor" might have left a larger impact in Hollywood's  female fashion than prom dresses. The Guardian's Andrew Pulber writes that Head's costumes for Hitchcock reflected the "dismantling of apparently perfect women."

"The coordinated suits and neat frocks worn by the likes of Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak were the most obvious part of the amoury of the 1950s American woman that Hitchcock sought to subvert and undermine," he writes. "As a creative collaboration, it worked brilliantly." 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.