Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Edith Head

Okay, so was that character in The Incredibles actually based on Edith Head or not? According to the Pixar Wiki, Incredibles director Brad Bird denied it on Twitter. Whether or not you believe him is another story, although why would he lie about it? I don't know. (The Wiki cites several other possible inspirations for the character.)

In the coming-up-on-five years I've written this blog, I've rarely, if ever, talked about fashion in movies, so what better way to do so than to talk about the industry's most iconic fashion designer, winner of eight Academy Awards and the woman responsible for making some of the most beautiful men and women in Hollywood even more so?

When it comes to a fabulous dress in a movie, I mean one that will be remembered in fifty years or more, my experience is that most of the time, you just know it when you see it: that big poofy number Deborah Kerr wore when she danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I. Those slinky, matching red outfits Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Rita Hayworth's strapless body-hugger in Gilda. One could argue that it's not so much the dress as it is the woman who wears it, but I say it's a little bit of both. As for the fellas, I'll be honest, the only time I really notice what a dude's wearing in a movie is in a period piece - or maybe a genre movie! Hollywood has always been about selling glamour, and clothes were a major part of that.

Head achieved the fame she did as a costume designer despite having lied about her abilities. She learned art primarily through night school classes and claimed someone else's sketches for her own when she applied for a costume sketch artist job at Paramount in 1924. It worked, though, and by 1938 she was top dog at the studio's costume department, the first woman to hold such a position at a major studio. While she was occasionally loaned out to other studios, Paramount was her home for over forty years.

So what made her so in-demand? Let's look at five examples of her work (click on the names to see the costumes):

Note the sketch for Bette Davis'
All About Eve dress on the right.
- Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark. This eye-catching red sequin and mink number is the highlight of Head's work in this Technicolor musical based on a Broadway show. Head worked on this movie's costumes with art director Raoul Pene du Bois and ballet designer Barbara Karinska, as well as director Mitchell Leisen. There's a back and forth between the real world Rogers' character inhabits and her dream world, which explains the over-the-top context. Leisen claimed credit for designing this particular dress, but Rogers insisted it was Head. Regardless, Paramount's publicity campaign relied heavily on the dresses, especially this one.

- Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Wardrobe was also a key factor in Audrey's Oscar-winning breakthrough role, both as a princess and as a regular woman. Here's Head on the TV show You Asked For It talking about her experience with Hepburn on that movie:

- Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. And speaking of princesses... There's no shortage of fabulous outfits that Kelly wore in this one, but I've chosen to highlight the blue gown she wears when she meets Cary Grant for the first time. (Grant chose his own outfits.) I like the way that sheer sash-type thing covers one side of her upper body. 

The movie was released in 1955, but it's set less than a decade earlier, and Kelly's blue dress was inspired by Christian Dior, whose post-war "New Look" was a game-changer in women's fashions. Head enjoyed her time with Kelly to the point where she called Kelly her favorite actress to work with. Head worked with director Alfred Hitchcock on a number of other films, including Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo.

- Wayne & Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Head was no stranger to Westerns (Shane, Hatari! and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among many others), and in this one, while fashion isn't necessarily a highlight, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart both come across looking quite well. Duke's cowboy gear is pretty spiffy, what with this bib shirt and neckerchief, and he gets to dress up formally too. Jimbo, meanwhile, gets attired in some crisp and natty suits that are appropriate for his long, tall frame.

- Redford & Newman in The Sting. This film, on the other hand, was all about style, and the outfits for Robert Redford and Paul Newman were the jewel in the crown. Head worked with Peter Saldutti, Andrea Weaver and Vincent Dee, though Head's role was more of a supervisory one. While there's no truth to the story that Redford & Newman both wanted to wear blue shirts to match their eyes, what they do wear - fedoras, pinstripes, suspenders, berets, etc. - help evoke the atmosphere of Depression-era Chicago, and they wear it all very well, during a period in time when they were both immensely popular. Head's Oscar win here was her eighth. She neglected to thank her co-designers, though, and she took out an ad in the Costume Designers Guild newsletter later to rectify that.

As more information is unearthed about the Golden Age of Hollywood, what is fact and what is fiction is becoming better known, and even if the legend of Edith Head may not have been entirely earned, hers is the name people remember.

Next: Joel McCrea

Films credited to Edith Head:
Remember the Night
The Lady Eve
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Sullivan's Travels
Double Indemnity
Sorry Wrong Number
The Heiress
Sunset Boulevard
A Place in the Sun
Road to Bali

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters
William Powell
Tod Browning

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