POSTED October 28 2013

Happy birthday, Edith Head

Edna Mode and Edith Head

Edna Mode and Edith Head

Edith Head knew who had flat hoods (Grace Kelly) and who had flat trunks (Barbara Stanwyck). “What nature’s forgotten, we fix with cotton,” was one of the costumer’s mantras. Another from the winner of eight Oscars:  “A dress should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady.”  One more for good measure: “Some women need sequins, others don’t.”

Before Alfred Hitchcock became his own brand by giving himself cameos in his films, Head branded herself by giving sartorial advice, first on radio then on television. (She styled herself as the “Dress Doctor.” To mere mortals, she advised how to make short waist and short legs seem longer.

But for the immortals she dressed (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Steve Martin, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Taylor), she accentuated the disproportional feature, creating frocks that made Hepburn’s swan neck look even longer and Stanwyck’s snake hips even snakier.

Yes, she was a a credits hog (taking proprietorship of some Givenchy designs for Hepburn on Sabrina). Head created the fringed bolero jackets for Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, the off-the shoulder satin party frock for Davis in All About Eve, the strapless gown with the bodice of tiny white violets for Taylor in A Place in the Sun,  the bohemian black capris, ballerina top and ballerina flats Hepburn wears in Sabrina, the great V-necked gown with the full chiffon skirt for Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and Steve Martin’s retro suits and ties in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the last film she designed. In The Incredibles, Brad Bird satirized Head as the designer Edna E Mode.

In an East Village club sometime in the late 1970s I saw this motto carved on a bathroom door: “Edith Head gives good dress.” Yes!

Your favorite Head confection? Story? I love the one about the costumes she designed for the Moroccan extras in The Man Who Would Be King: the extras, some thousand of them, went home and didn’t return the next day for shooting. She also designed garlands for elephants the the pachyderms ate.


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