Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Edith Head: Hollywood's greatest costumier

"You can have anything you want in life if you have the dress for it" according to Edith. For my birthday last week I got a couple of books on this formidable woman and after reading for 5 minutes I knew I had to blog about her!

The dust cover to The Dress Doctor reads: "Long before celebrity stylists became as renowned as the Oscar-winning film stars they advise, Head was dressing Hollywood's most fashionable women and men on screen and off and lending her sartorial wisdom to women across the country on radio and television. In 1959, she published a best-selling memoir and style guide, The Dress Doctor, in which she shared tips on style and dozens of entertaining anecdotes on Hollywood's A-list with her fans".

Edith on Audrey Hepburn: 'Audrey knows more about fashion than any actress save Dietrich. Her fittings are the ten-hour, not the ten-minute, variety. To sketches for Roman Holiday, she added a few of her own preferences: simpler necklines, wider belts.

'Audrey and I went shopping in San Francisco; she wanted me as confrere and audience. Shopping is her idea of fun, and no wonder - no matter what she tried on she looked simply delicious. "And now let's celebrate," she'd say when we were exhausted, and that meant heading for the nearest confectionery to devour two of the biggest, fattest, most chocolatey French pastries. When she lived in Holland during the war, food was scarce and she developed a passion for chocolate'

The style guide offers advice on what to wear for every kind of social occasion, from garden parties to roller skating. Even breakfast gets a mention: 'It's good psychology to start the day with bright colours, so choose something gay in a washable fabric. Breakfast coat, brunch coat, house dress, smock, skirt and shirt, or slacks and shirt + apron if you're cooking, shoes - sandals or flats'. Got that?

Of Bette Davis (right) Edith says: 'She thinks like a businessman. Hers is a truly organised point of view, and working with her I felt like I was in conference with a bank president. You can see the authority on screen, in her walk, her voice, her actions; there is not a trace of indecision - she's the same on screen and off'. Want proof? Here it is.

Edith takes her role as sartorial adviser seriously: 'Every woman's task is to be a do-it-yourself dress doctor, and the person she must know is herself. Every woman, like every actress, is capable of being visually translated into many different women. A woman in a bath tub has little personality, she is just a woman without clothes. Clothes not only can make the woman - they can make her several different women. There's no one style, there's a style for a mood: a tailored woman at work, a siren at night, a feminine, attractive creature at a luncheon, an efficient chairwoman of a PTA meeting'.

Mae West is another one of her favourites. 'I designed thirty or forty pounds of jewellery for Mae to wear as Diamond Lil in She Done Him Wrong. I first found pictures of period jewellery to show her. "Fine, honey" she said, "just make the stones bigger". You can see Mae in all her glittering glory in this brilliant clip from the movie.

'"I like 'em tight, girls," she said, and tight they were; there wasn't a costume in which she could lie, bend, or sit. To afford her some small relaxation, we improvised a reclining board; it had armrests and was tilted at an angle, and there she leaned between scenes in glittering splendour, the jewels winking from her hourglass gown, and dazzling from her throat, ears, wrists, and every finger.

'Once, I made a skin-tight black nightgown and over it, a chiffon and diamond negligee that gave the effect of a spider web. On the shoulder I perched a huge diamond spider, anchored by adhesive tape. When Mae wore this on the set, the whistles and screams sounded as if the Queen Mary were docking in New York harbour. Mae had switched the diamond spider to a more. . strategic spot. It took half an hour to quiet the hilarity and get Cary Grant and the crew back to work'.

The Dress Doctor
features beautiful illustrations by Bil Donovan on every page, bringing the book to life.

Superhero costume designer Edna Mode in The Incredibles (2004) is said to be based on Edith Head, as indicated in this brilliant clip.


  1. Great post - I also love a bit of Edith! Have you read her 'How to Dress for Success'? That's packed full of advice too. One fearsome tip being to stand with a paper bag on your head (with eyeholes cut out naturally!) to analyse the flaws in your figure and decide how to disguise them - what an awful thought, it can't have done anything for the insecurities of those Hollywood starlets!

  2. How hilarious about the paper bag... she really was merciless.

    Thanks for commenting Frances x