Occasionally I will write about those “behind the scenes” people who were involved in the making of classic films in classic New York City. Today I’m saluting the queen of costume design, Edith Head.
The costume designer helps tell the story with clothes and no one did it better than Edith Head. From films as varied as The Heiress to Vertigo to The Ten Commandments, Head had the distinction of being the most Oscar nominated woman in cinema history with thirty-five nominations. She still holds the record for 8 career wins.
During her long career, Head was the costume designer for some of the most important movie stars during Hollywood’s golden years. As far as classic New York City films, Head was the costume designer for two films closely related to NYC–Rear Window and All About Eve.
Before I talk about Head’s contributions to these films however, let’s first take a look back at where it all started. Born Edith Claire Posener on October 28, 1897 in San Bernadino California, Head was the daughter of Max Posener and Anna Levey. The marriage didn’t last however, and eventually Head’s mother married Frank Spare, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania.
Head attended U.C. Berkeley and received her masters degree in French from Stanford University. After graduating, she became a French teacher at the Hollywood School for Girls where two of her pupils were Cecelia and Katherine DeMille, daughters of director Cecil B. DeMille. In an effort to make more money, Head got a second job at the school as an art teacher. There was only one problem, however–Head didn’t really know how to draw. In order to remedy this, Head took night classes at Chouinard Art College, where she not only acquired drawing talents, she also acquired a husband. On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her classmates, Betty Head.
During the summer months when school was out, Head applied as a sketch artist in the costume department at the Famous Players Lasky Studios (which later became Paramount Studios). Though she was still learning the ropes as an artist, Head got the job by borrowing sketches from her fellow classmates. As Head proclaimed, “I didn’t steal them, I asked everybody in the class for a few costume design sketches. And I had the most fantastic assortment you’ve ever seen in your life…It never occurred to me that it was quite dishonest. And all the students thought that it was fun, too, just like a dare to see if I could get the job. I didn’t say the work was mine, I said, ‘This is the sort of thing we do in our school. “
But while her career was going full steam, unfortunately, her marriage to Head did not. In 1936, Head divorced her husband but retained his surname for the remainder of her life. She didn’t remain single for very long however as she married set designer Wiard Ihnen on September 8, 1940.
Over time, Head worked her way up as assistant to Paramount’s top designers, Howard Greer and Travis Banton. After both left the studio, Head took over, becoming the first female top designer and there she remained for the next forty years.
Among her many achievements, Head designed the uniforms that were worn for decades by Paramount security guards, wrote several books, was a character in a murder mystery novel, was the the Oscars’ first fashion consultant and of course, designed costumes for two high profile actresses in two high profile classic movies taking place in classic NYC– Bette Davis in All About Eve and Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
All About Eve 1950 — Bette Davis
As Hollywood folklore tells it, Claudette Colbert was the original choice for the role of Margo Channing. But as Hollywood fairy tales oftentimes go, Colbert had to bow out of the role as she injured herself on the set of her previous film, Three Came Home. Bad news for Colbert. Great news for Davis. Really great news for Head who was hand picked by Davis to be her personal costume designer for the film. (Hollywood Scoop Number 1–Charles Le Maire, who was the head of the wardrobe department at 20th Century Fox and was hired to dress the other cast members, was not thrilled at this arrangement but as he knew quite well, what Bette Davis, wants, Bette Davis gets!)
Being the great actress that she was, Davis was a perfectionist when it came to her costumes. But being that her figure was hard to fit, (especially since she refused to wear a bra!) almost put the production on hold and was almost a professional disaster for Head. (Hollywood Scoop Number 2 –Hollywood folklore has it that Davis’ iconic off the shoulder party dress wasn’t originally conceived as off the shoulder. Apparently the measurements weren’t taken properly which caused the dress to continuously fall off Davis’ shoulders. Ready to face the wrath of Davis for this blunder, Head prepared herself for the worst. But the worst did not happen. As Head recalls in her memoir:
“Because we were working on such a tight deadline, the dress was made up the night before Bette was scheduled to wear it. I went in early the day of the filming to make sure the dress was pressed and camera-ready. There was Bette, already in the dress, looking quizzically at her own reflection in the mirror. I was horrified, The dress didn’t fit at all. The top of the three quarter length sleeves had a fullness created by pleats, but someone has miscalculated and the entire bodice and neckline were too big. There was no time to save anything, and a change would delay the shooting. I told Bette not to worry, that I would personally tell Joe Mankiewicz what had happened.
I had just about reached the door, my knees feeling as if they were going to give out, when Bette told me to turn around and look. She pulled the neckline off her shoulders, shook one shoulder sexly and said, “Don’t you like it better like this anyway?’”)
Of course, Head loved it and this teamwork helped her to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design. Talk about a happy Hollywood ending!
(Hollywood Scoop Number 3–Bette Davis later bought the dress for herself because she loved it so much!)
The iconic party dress. (I love this dress even more knowing that it was made of BROWN silk with SABLE-trimmed pockets!)
“Her life was all about glamour in the most glamorous place in the world, Hollywood,” Bette Davis once said of her.
Rear Window 1954- Grace Kelly
And it was in Grace Kelly that Head found her perfect muse. With her innate sophistication and beauty, Kelly brought a look that was perfect to showcase some of Head’s most glamorous pieces. (Hollywood Scoop Number 4– When asked who her favorite actress was to dress, Head had this to say–“If I had to pick a favorite actress (which I don’t really like to do, but people always want to know), it would be Grace Kelly.”)
For those not familiar with the movie, Rear Window tells the story of LB “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart), an action photographer who has been laid up in a wheelchair with a broken leg and in an effort to keep himself entertained, spies on his fellow Greenwich Village neighbors. On one of these occasions, he witnesses what he believes to be a murder and during the course of the film, he tries to convince his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and the police of what he saw. There is also the side story of Lisa wanting to marry him but Jeff believes that Lisa is too glamorous and fragile to be flying around the world with him.
(Hollywood Scoop number 5–In his notes to Head for preparation of Rear Window, director Alfred Hitchcock (with whom Head had a strong working relationship), stated he wanted Grace Kelly to “look like a piece of Dresden china, nearly untouchable”.)
Wearing my all time favorite Edith Head costume, which I lovingly call THE dress, Kelly first appears on screen, as her character Lisa Fremont describes it, in her “fresh from the Paris plane” dress. With its “fitted black bodice, off the shoulder, deep “V” cut neckline, cap sleeves, mid-calf chiffon tulle full skirt with a spray bunch pattern on the hip area”, Kelly looks like a high fashion ballerina. Finishing off the look is a black patent leather belt, a white chiffon shoulder wrap, white elbow-length silk gloves, a single strand of pearls and black high heeled strapped sandals. Simply breathtaking!
And while this dress is an absolute show stopper in its own right, it also helps tell a lot about Lisa (and maybe a bit about Grace Kelly, too). The black top, one could theorize, represents Lisa’s hidden sexuality while the frilly white skirt represents Lisa’s perfectly icy exterior. (As any Hitchcock fan knows, he truly loved his icily, sexy blondes!)
When we next see Kelly, she’s “wearing a pleated silk organza little black dress, with translucent cap sleeves”. It could be said that Head created this particular dress for this particular scene as it is the point in the movie when things take a “dark” turn and Lisa starts believing Jeff’s theory about his neighbor.
Kelly’s next ensemble is a sleek mint green suit with a pop up collar, a white silk halter top, finished off with a white pillbox hat, a half veil and finally a pearl bracelet with some solid ornate lockets (talk about a statement piece!) I call this outfit, “Lisa’s getting down to business” outfit as this is the point in the movie when Lisa teams up with Jeff to encourage the police to take the case seriously.
This is also the point in the movie when Lisa “gets down to business” in another way– when she opens her Mark Cross overnight case (a piece that I drool over every time I see it) and pulls out her overnight clothes…a lacy white nightgown with matching slippers.
(Hollywood Scoop Number 6–Legend has it that when Hitchcock saw Kelly in the nightgown, he wanted Head to sew in some falsies to up the cleavage factor. Kelly however, decided to handle the situation her own way…she simply straightened her back and stuck out her chest. Hitchcock was none the wiser!)
For the last two thirds of the movie, Head dressed Kelly in a simply styled shirtwaist dress that was feminine yet functional. After all, it was in this part of the film that Hitchcock had Kelly climbing fire escapes and in and out of windows–all while wearing the most stylish heels, of course! This particular dress shows that Lisa Fremont is feminine and stylish yet she also possesses an adventurous streak.
In the final scene, we see Lisa perusing an adventure novel, dressed in blue jeans, a casual men’s button down shirt with penny loafers. This look was Head’s way of suggesting that Lisa is actually Jeff’s type after all. Her transformation is now complete. Or is it? When she looks over at Jeff and sees he’s sound asleep, she pulls out the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Once a glamour girl, always a glamour girl!
Though it’s quite hard to believe, Head wasn’t even nominated for her work in Rear Window BUT she did win that year however, for her work in Sabrina.
(Hollywood Scoop Number 7 — Though they were good friends off screen, Head felt slighted when Kelly didn’t ask her to design her wedding dress for her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. That honor went to fellow costume designer Helen Rose who designed the costumes in Kelly’s film, High Society.)
(Hollywood Scoop Number 8 — Head did however, design Kelly’s after-wedding grey going away suit.)
(Hollywood Scoop Number 9– Head also designed the mint green gown which Kelly wore at the 1955 Oscars when she was awarded Best Actress for her performance in The Country Girl. At $4,000 and made from French duchesse satin, it was considered the most expensive Oscar gown ever made for its time and to this day, it’s still rated as best remembered Oscar gown.)
(Hollywood Scoop Number 10 — Kelly, who was actually quite frugal and kept and wore things many times over, wore this gown three times–once for the premiere of The Country Girl, once for the cover of Life magazine and finally on the night of her Oscar win.)
Edith Head was such a force in old Hollywood, that she even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the only costume designer to receive such an honor.
At her funeral in 1981, her good friend Bette Davis spoke of her uniqueness saying in part, “A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. She will never be replaced. Her contribution to our industry in her field of design, her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman – none of us who worked with her will ever forgot. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”
Indeed, there never was.