Edith Head

Active - 1927 - 1982  |   Born - Oct 28, 1897 in San Bernardino, California, United States  |   Died - Oct 24, 1981   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Romance, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Along with composer Max Steiner and cinematographer James Wong Howe, American costume designer Edith Head was one of the few behind-the-scenes movie technicians that the general public knew by name. Holding a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MA from Stanford, Ms. Head spent her early professional years as a language and art teacher. Reportedly, she also tried her luck as a movie starlet in 1923. While attracted to films, Ms. Head was more at home designing for them than appearing in them. She joined the costume department of Paramount in 1932, graduating to head designer in the late '30s. Her name was attached to virtually every prestige production turned out by the studio over the next thirty years, including the autonomously-produced films of Cecil B. DeMille; Ms. Head gained DeMille's lifelong respect by being one of the few Hollywoodites who refused to kowtow to him. Many of Ms. Head's movie designs gained popularity in the public sector, notably Dorothy Lamour's formfitting sarong, Veronica Lake's peekaboo haircut, and Bette Davis' off-the-shoulder evening gown for All About Eve (1950). Nominated for 40 Academy Awards (all after 1947, the first year of the Best Costume Design category) Ms. Head won the prize for All About Eve, The Heiress (1949), Samson and Delilah (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Facts of Life (1960) and The Sting (1973). She also designed many of the gowns worn by the other Oscar recipients. After 35 years at Paramount, Ms. Head was signed by Universal in 1967, where she remained until her death. Because of her first-hand experience with four decades' worth of changing fashions, Ms. Head was indispensible to such period films of the '70s as The Sting, Gable and Lombard (1976) and W.C. Fields and Me (1977). In 1980, she deliberately copied many of the creations of her Hollywood rivals for the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, in which Martin interacted with clips from classic films of the '40s. Ms. Head died shortly after finishing this assignment; when Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was released in 1982, it carried a dedication to Edith Head.

Movie Highlights

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  • Admitted to borrowing a fellow art student's sketches when interviewing for her first costume sketch-artist job at Paramount.
  • Nicknamed the "Dress Doctor" for her ability to prescribe solutions to costume design problems.
  • Deliberately kept her own appearance neutral (including signature short hairdo and circular glasses) to maintain a focus on her actors.
  • Collected eight Academy Awards, the most by any woman, and was nominated every year from 1948 to 1966.
  • Designed a woman's uniform for the U.S. Coast Guard in the late '70s, when their numbers increased.
  • Honored in a 2003 commemorative stamp for behind-the-camera movie personnel; also remembered in the 1999 song "She Thinks She's Edith Head," performed by They Might Be Giants.