Edith Head, the self-proclaimed dress doctor, was one of Hollywood’s greatest costume designers. In her prolific career, which spanned approximately 60 years, she clothed stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, Lucille Ball, and Ingrid Bergman, worked closely with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and received eight Academy Awards.
Her drive to succeed perhaps can be summarized in a single quote of hers: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”
And dress for it she did. Knowing her own style well, she chose to wear professional – never flashy – clothing, often black and white. Her dark glasses finished her signature look and had the added benefit of hiding her eyes to give her the enigmatic quality she wanted.
Before her Hollywood days, Head worked as a teacher. After seeing Paramount Studio’s advertisement for a sketch artist, she decided to apply. The only problem: she didn’t know how to draw.
So she borrowed sketches from her art students with their consent and built “her” portfolio. The result was a collection that impressed so much that she was hired on the spot.
But while her beginning may have been a ruse, she wasted no time in learning the craft in order to succeed. In 1938, she became the first female head of Paramount’s costume department.
“It’s one of the most exciting and also difficult professions in the entire world because it’s not just straight costume design. It’s also camouflage,” she said.
In fact, Head had the knack for hiding actor’s insecurities – such as Barbara Stanwyck's low waistline or Audrey Hepburn's collarbone – by using the costume.
“Everybody in pictures, in a way, is a prima donna. And everybody secretly thinks their work is the most important. I know mine is," she said. “What I really do is magic.”
She also would ask actresses what they liked to wear, and more importantly perhaps, what they felt looked good on them.
“Fit the dress to the girl, not the girl to the dress,” was her advice.
As a result, stars remained loyal to her and actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, and Jane Wyman even had it written into their contracts that Head would work on the costumes.
“She became one of our stars literally. Not only a star in fashion, but a star for magazines, for television, for every form of media,” said Paramount producer A.C. Lyles.
In fact, Head sold her designs to Vogue, started a fashion line, and even appeared on The Art Linkletter Show to do make-overs.
Bette Davis said, “Through the work of a fine costume designer, an actor or actress can become the character… If we are not comfortable in those clothes, if they do not project the character, the costume designer has failed us. Edith Head never failed.”
Head’s final credited film work was in 1982’s Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid, completed before she turned eighty-four.
She said, “I think that I have been tremendously lucky because I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful career. I’ve dressed the greatest stars in the world. I’ve worked with the greatest producers, the greatest directors.”