Be the Artist: The Incredible Edith Head


Reading Time: 6 minutes

Edith Head didn’t create costumes, she brought characters to life. How would she do with Pixar’s stars? Image: Lisa Tate

The Artist: Edith Head

Edith Head holds the record for the most Best Costume Design Oscars with eight wins and 35 nominations.

She was born Edith Claire Posener in 1897 to Jewish parents, Max and Anna, and graduated with honors from the University of California Berkley with her Bachelors and Standford with her Master of Arts in Romance Languages. She started out as a French language teacher but said she could also teach art in order to receive a higher salary. She took some evening art classes to improve her drawing skills, and at age 23 was hired by Paramount as a costume sketch artist, even despite her lack of design experience. Soon her own designing talent begin to get noticed and she became one Hollywood’s leading designers in just a year or two.

Actresses such Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Doris Day, Sophia Loren, and several more, as well as actors from Danny Kaye to Clark Gable, wore Edith Head’s designs in movies such as The War of the Worlds, Breakfast at Tiffany, White Christmas, and The Ten Commandments. Some of her notable Oscar wins were for The Sting, All About Eve, Samson and Delilah, A Place in the Sun, and Roman Holiday.

She worked for Paramount Pictures 43 years from 1924 to 1967, with some of her most recognizable pieces being from the extensive work she did with Alfred Hitchcock, such as designing pieces for Grace Kelly in Rear Window and the iconic green dress Tippi Hedren wore in The Birds.

She married Charles Head, the brother of a classmate in 1923, one year before starting with Paramount. Even after her divorce from Charles and remarriage to art director Wiard Ihnen, she kept “Head” as her professional name. She was never shy about speaking her mind and did her part to make movies stars realize they were special but also merely human, too. She once said the only completely unspoiled stars she had seen were the animals “like Lassie.” However, she also said a “designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes,” noting the need for good star-power exposure in her world. She wanted the audience to notice the actors, not the clothes.

Towards the end of her work with Paramount, Head co-authored two books on her career and her views on costume designs, The Dress Doctor and How to Dress for Success.

She was 70 years old when she left to work for Universal Studios, where she created her final designs for the black-and-white comedy starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. She died just before her 84th birthday in 1981, one year before the film was released.

Even after her death, Head remains an icon in the worlds of movies and design. She has been the inspiration for a Google Doodle celebrating what would have been her 116th birthday in 2013. The Pixar animated character Edna Most is most inspired by Head, although some say others like actress Linda Hunt or Vogue editor Anna Wintour are seen in the character as well. Art poster reproductions of her sketches, paper dolls, and Vogue pattern sets have all been created featuring her work, as well as biographies such as Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer.

Edith inspiration
Head’s legacy has been celebrated by everything from Google Doodles and Barbies to a Pixar character. Even her self-portrait (bottom right) shows off her unique style. Image © Google, Mattel, Paramount and Disney/Pixar.

She herself preferred the more tailored conservative dress suit and thick-rimmed round glasses. She was often seen in a gold and ivory necklace made of Victorian opera tokens. She willed the necklace to actress Elizabeth Taylor, who had expressed how much she admired that piece. The “Edith Head Necklace” sold in Christie’s auction of Taylor’s jewelry for $314,500.

Edith Head is still touring and sharing her knowledge today, thanks to actress Susan Claassen, who travels the world sharing the wit, wisdom, and persona of the Head with her play A Conversation With Edith Head.

Edith Exhibit
A 2012 exhibit of Edith Head’s work featured costumes, sketches, and even an appearance by Edith herself, in the form of actress Susan Claassen. Images: Rick Tate (Lower left image public domain)

Head did love the magic of movies, and reminded people during a 1978 dialogue in American Film Journal costuming wasn’t just finding clothes for a movie. It was a form of art and magic.

“What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage,” she said. “We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.”

Edna Mode’s “business casual.” Image: Lisa Tate

The Project: Edith Head Designs for Pixar

No one bosses around the Supers’ go-to costume designer Edna Mode from The Incredibles. She knew style, function, practicality, and even safety — NO CAPE! —were factors in designing the perfect superhero costumes.

Since Edna is a most likely tribute to Edith Head, let’s pretend Head was asked to create some designs for an event celebrating the art and design of Pixar. Create a costume for “real” humans based on a Pixar movie.

Seems easy enough, except I’m going to set one rule here, even for the youngest designers: DON’T use a template.

There are plenty of fashion templates and stencils out there online to use for fashion practice, but Head, like many designers, was a visual artist. The look of her models, as well as their costumes, was entirely her own. She used pencils, ink, brushes, and more to create full portraits of the characters, faces and all. Not everyone is a cookie-cutter size and shape, remember. Head said there is “no such thing as a standard-size movie star.”

You don’t have to be a master painter or illustrator, just as long as you do it yourself.

First figure out the character. Are they human or something else? What is their personality? What are their defining physical features, colors, etc? What would Buzz Lightyear’s wear when he isn’t in full space suit? How would Merida look today? What is Art’s favorite color (as if we have to guess)?

Don’t try to completely mimic the character, but give them a new, fashionable, Edith Head-worthy life.

Always start with a simple pencil sketch.

“I never look back, darling,” Edna Mode said in the first Incredibles film. “It distracts from the now.”

Next figure out the occasion. Is it a gala evening awards event or a casual afternoon gathering? Is it a formal business meeting or family outing?

What styles would they wear? What materials would be most practical? Would this be something that could actually be turned into an outfit?

Sketch it out in light pencil, then use a paintbrush and watercolor for that portrait look. You can also use colored pencils if you want to stay tidier.

Once you’ve sketched your idea, give it that Edith Head touch. Add some sketches (or material swatches if you have them) for the colors and patterns, and make plenty of notes on the name of the character, what movie they are from, and what the occasion is.

Art from ‘Monster’s University,’ Friday evening party time. Image: Lisa Tate

Also keep in mind that texture, lines, and contrast are important. Even when Head was designing for a black-and-white feature, she still created the designs in color that would translate well onto black-and-white film stock. The subtleties of the shades of grey will appear different depending on the color she used.

Head’s sketches are not merely costume sketches but portraits of the characters, facial details, and bold strokes. Often, she would add simple backgrounds to the designs.

Try to add a few extras (including accessories) to your items, to give it a more complete look.

LeLe from the short ‘Lava’ ready for a gala evening. Image: Lisa Tate

If you don’t think you can do this, check out some of pop culture-inspired fashions from that head down the runway each year for Ashley Eckstein’s annual Her Universe Fashion Show. You might even be inspired to get your ideas ready for next year’s contest.

Head believed in being practical and realistic in one’s own fashion choice, but she also felt the right clothes can make all the difference. Her comment of this is listed in Harper’s Bazaar as one of the 50 greatest fashion quotes of all time:

“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”

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