Edith Head: American film and television costumer (1897 - 1981) | Biography
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Edith Head
American film and television costumer

Edith Head

Edith Head
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American film and television costumer
Was Fashion designer Costume designer
From United States of America
Field Fashion
Gender female
Birth 28 October 1897, San Bernardino, San Bernardino County, California, U.S.A.
Death 24 October 1981, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.A. (aged 84 years)
Spouse: Wiard Ihnen
The details (from wikipedia)


Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was an American costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, starting with The Heiress (1949) and ending with The Sting (1973).

Born and raised in California, Head managed to get a job as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures, without any relevant training. She first acquired notability for Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong dress, and then became a household name after the Academy Awards created a new category of Costume Designer in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively, and these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.

After 43 years she left Paramount for Universal, possibly because of her successful partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, and also adapted her skills for television.

Early life and career

She was born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy. Her father, born in January 1858, was a naturalized American citizen from Germany, who came to the United States in 1876. Her mother was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1875, the daughter of an Austrian father and a Bavarian mother. It is not known where Max and Anna met, but they married in 1895, per the 1900 United States Federal Census records. Just before Edith's birth, Max Posener opened a small haberdashery in San Bernardino which failed within a year. In 1905 Anna married mining engineer Frank Spare, from Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently as Spare's jobs moved. The only place Head could later recall living in during her early years was Searchlight, Nevada. Frank and Anna Spare passed Edith off as their mutual child. As Frank Spare was a Catholic, Edith ostensibly became one as well.

In 1919, Edith received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1920 earned a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University. She became a language teacher with her first position as a replacement at Bishop's School in La Jolla teaching French. After one year, she took a position teaching French at the Hollywood School for Girls. Wanting a slightly higher salary, she told the school that she could also teach art, even though she had only briefly studied the discipline in high school. To improve her drawing skills, at this point rudimentary, she took evening classes at the Chouinard Art College.

On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 1936 after a number of years of separation, she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death.

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 student's 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 1948 through to 1966, and won eight times – receiving more Oscars than any other woman.

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 it countering the mood of wartime austerity. The establishment, in 1949, of the category of an Academy Award for Costume Designer further boosted her career, because it began her 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 low-key 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.

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 $1540. Her winnings were donated to charity.

Head also authored two books, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967), describing her career and design philosophy. These books have been 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, and made a cameo appearance in 1973 on the detective series Columbo beside Anne Baxter, playing herself and displaying her Oscars to date.[1] In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting.

During 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. She also did Endora's clothing on Bewitched.


Head died on October 24, 1981, four days before her 84th birthday, from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Edith Head's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6504 Hollywood Boulevard.

Actors and actresses designed for

Among the actresses Edith Head designed for were:

  • Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, 1933; Myra Breckinridge, 1970; Sextette, 1978
  • Frances Farmer in Rhythm on the Range, 1936, and Ebb Tide, 1937
  • Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane, 1937; in most of "The Road" movies.
  • Paulette Goddard in The Cat and the Canary, 1939
  • Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels, 1941; I Married a Witch, 1942
  • Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, both 1941; Double Indemnity, 1944; My Reputation, 1946
  • Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, 1944
  • Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell in The Uninvited, 1944
  • Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, 1946
  • Betty Hutton in Incendiary Blonde, 1945; The Perils of Pauline, 1947
  • Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter, 1947
  • Bette Davis in June Bride (1948); All About Eve, 1950
  • Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, 1949
  • Hedy Lamarr and Angela Lansbury in Samson and Delilah, 1949
  • Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, 1950
  • Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, 1951; Elephant Walk, 1954
  • Joan Fontaine in Something to Live For, 1952
  • Carmen Miranda in Scared Stiff 1953
  • Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953; Sabrina, 1954; Funny Face, 1957; Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961
  • Ann Robinson in The War of the Worlds, 1953
  • Grace Kelly in Rear Window, 1954; To Catch a Thief, 1955
  • Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, 1954
  • Jane Wyman in Lucy Gallant, 1955
  • Shirley MacLaine in Artists and Models, 1955; The Matchmaker, 1958; What a Way to Go!, 1964
  • Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956
  • Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments, 1956
  • Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, 1957
  • Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables, 1958
  • Kim Novak in Vertigo, 1958
  • Clark Gable and Doris Day in Teacher's Pet (1958 film), 1958
  • Sophia Loren in That Kind of Woman, 1959; Heller in Pink Tights, 1960
  • Rhonda Fleming in Alias Jesse James, 1959
  • Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger, 1963; Sex and the Single Girl, 1964; Inside Daisy Clover, 1965; The Great Race, 1965; Penelope, 1966; This Property Is Condemned, 1966; The Last Married Couple in America, 1980
  • Tippi Hedren in The Birds, 1963; Marnie, 1964
  • Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, 1967
  • Claude Jade in Topaz, 1969
  • Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, 1975
  • Jill Clayburgh in Gable and Lombard, 1976
  • Valerie Perrine in W.C. Fields and Me, 1976

Among the actors Edith Head designed for were:

  • Danny Kaye in White Christmas, 1954
  • Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, 1982

Academy Awards

Head received eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, more than any other person, from a total of 35 nominations.

  • 1949 – Color – The Emperor Waltz
  • 1950 – Black and White – The Heiresswon
  • 1951 – Color – Samson and Delilahwon
  • 1951 – Black and White – All About Evewon
  • 1952 – Black and White – A Place in the Sunwon
  • 1953 – Color – The Greatest Show on Earth
  • 1953 – Black and White – Carrie
  • 1954 – Black and White – Roman Holidaywon
    • Note: Although Edith Head won an Oscar for Best Costumes, the Capri Collection (Capri Skirt, Capri Blouse, Capri Belt, Capri Pants) was, in fact, designed by the European fashion designer Sonja de Lennart. However, since the outfits were actually made in Edith Head's Roman temporary Atelier of the sorelle Fontana—that acted as the costume department—Edith Head, Paramount's costume designer, used only her name without giving credit to the original designer, Sonja de Lennart, as it was pretty common at that time in history. Costume designers around the world used only their names, regardless who created the costumes. Sonja de Lennart's Capri Pants were sewn and used in the next movie, Sabrina, by Hubert de Givenchy.
  • 1955 – Black and White – Sabrinawon
    • Note: Although Edith Head won an Oscar for Best Costumes, most of Audrey Hepburn's "Parisian" ensembles were, in fact, designed by Hubert de Givenchy and chosen by the star herself. However, since the outfits were actually made in Edith Head's Paramount Studios costume department, some felt that doing so created enough of a technicality to nominate Head, instead of Givenchy. And, indeed, since she refused to have her name alongside Givenchy's in the credits, she was given credit for the costumes.
  • 1956 – Color – To Catch a Thief
  • 1956 – Black and White – The Rose Tattoo
  • 1957 – Color – The Ten Commandments
  • 1957 – Black and White – The Proud and Profane
  • 1958 – Best Costume Design – Funny Face
  • 1959 – Best Costume Design, Black and White or Color – The Buccaneer
  • 1960 – Color – The Five Pennies
  • 1960 – Black and White – Career
  • 1961 – Color – Pepe
  • 1961 – Black and White – The Facts of Lifewon
  • 1962 – Color – Pocketful of Miracles
  • 1963 – Color – My Geisha
  • 1963 – Black and White – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • 1964 – Color – A New Kind of Love
  • 1964 – Black and White – Wives and Lovers
  • 1964 – Black and White – Love with the Proper Stranger
  • 1965 – Color – What a Way to Go!
  • 1965 – Black and White – A House Is Not a Home
  • 1966 – Color – Inside Daisy Clover
  • 1966 – Black and White – The Slender Thread
  • 1967 – Color – The Oscar

Note: After 1967, the Academy no longer distinguished between awards for color and black and white films.

  • 1970 – Sweet Charity
  • 1971 – Airport
  • 1974 – The Stingwon
  • 1976 – The Man Who Would Be King
  • 1978 – Airport '77

Guest appearances

Head made a brief appearance in Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star (1973) acting as herself, the clothing designer for Anne Baxter's character. Her Oscars were displayed on a desk in the scene.

Again as herself, she appeared in the film Lucy Gallant (1955) as the emcee of a fashion show. She also appeared in The Pleasure of His Company (1961) as she showed dresses for Debbie Reynolds' wedding in the film, and in The Oscar (1966) in three short, non-speaking scenes opposite Elke Sommer's character, a sketch artist turned costume designer like Head herself.

Posthumous references

In 1999 the group They Might Be Giants released a song on their album, Long Tall Weekend, entitled "(She Thinks She's) Edith Head."

As part of a series of stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service in February 2003, commemorating the behind-the-camera personnel who make movies, Head was featured on one to honor costume design.

On October 28, 2013, Internet search engine Google commemorated Head's 116th birthday with a Google Doodle.

The one-woman play A Conversation with Edith Head premiered in Canada in 2014 at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. Inspired by the book Edith Head's Hollywood, the play was by Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen and starred and was directed by Susan Claassen. Among the key props used in the production were a size 2 dress purportedly made by Edith Head for Grace Kelly and illustrations of Head's designs. Audience members were given the opportunity of an unscripted meet and greet with Claassen while in character as Edith Head after the show.

An Edith Head costume collection from the Paramount Pictures Archive left Hollywood—for just the second time—to be shown exclusively at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster in "Designing Woman: Edith Head at Paramount 1924-1967" as presented by the Fox Foundation from June 7 through August 17, 2014.

Many people think the costume designer Edna Mode in the 2004 Pixar movie The Incredibles was largely based on Edith Head, however according to director Brad Bird, who voiced the character, she was not.

A fictionalized version of Edith Head appears as one of the protagonists in the mystery novels by Renee Patrick, Design for Dying (2016) and Dangerous to Know (2017), published by Forge Books.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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