{The Costume Design of Edith Head, Part One}

I recently acquired a first edition copy of The Dress Doctor, Edith Head’s autobiography (co-written by Jane Kesner Ardmore). It’s a fascinating little book full of details about Head’s working for Paramount Pictures, and she is not shy about sharing various details about the stars she worked with.

I must admit that for someone as interested in costume design as I am, the amount of movies I have seen with costumes designed by Edith Head is extremely small. As I was reading, I was realizing this deficiency as I was not able to picture much of what she was talking about in the story. I found myself googling the actresses Head spoke of in the costumes she was describing. So, I thought it would be fun to share a little bit of this research.

Thus far, I have made it through the first five chapters of the book, so this will simply be part one in this little reading adventure. Fair warning, I am about to be in full on costume designer geek mode with these posts!

The book starts with a simple scene setting at a fitting with Marlene Dietrich, who seems like she would have been a fascinating person to know in real life. She is being fitted for Witness for the Prosecution and must try on various suits and hats. Head uses this description as an opportunity to throw out her basic costuming credo:

There’s a fine line between clothes that will help her become the character and clothes that are a clumsy disguise… costume is the province of the theatrical designer, clothes which can help an actress become the character demanded by the script.

The Dress Doctor, page 8

Head goes on to describe how Dietrich tried on forty blouses to find just the right one and how they needed to alter a basic suit to fit her character. It’s all completely engrossing for someone like me, who studies every piece of clothing in a movie like a work of art.

Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

I relish in the little details you would never know from watching the movies. This dress, for example, on Sophia Loren in Houseboat, apparently got gold all over Carey Grant while they were filming a dance seen. According to the book, the dress is “jersey, impregnated with 14-karat gold” (page 13) which ended up getting all over Grant. The solution to the problem was “lacquer and a spray gun” (page 13).

The book also talks about Head’s various dealings with actresses when they come in for fittings. Still in the first chapter, Head goes on to talk about Kim Novak and her fitting for Vertigo. Her main costume is to a be a gray tailored suit, but Novak has said she doesn’t like tailored suits… or gray. However, Head says “the girl must look as if she’s just drifted out of the San Francisco fog” and her solution to Novak’s potential dislike of the suit is “a black satin gown and black satin coat lined with emerald green which she’ll wear in the restaurant scene” (page 15).

Head outlines some of the other actresses, she works with and then takes the reader through her early days in the next two chapters. She describes her childhood in Searchlight, Nevada, dressing up animals for tea parties leading up to her ultimately becoming a teacher. This career path led her to Hollywood, where she taught the children of L.A. bigwigs and eventually got a job as a sketcher.

As I’m reading, I’m loving recognizing similarities between me and Head. Aside from getting her career start as a teacher, in chapter three, she describes her first big job at the studio: designing costumes for the candy ball in The Golden Bed.

Here’s where I really related to her experience, as it was described as a lot of trial and error to find the right costumes. Real candy was used, strange paint was used, and nothing worked. This sounds like my past – and current! – costuming situation. I try things that I think sound absolutely brilliant, only to find out that it didn’t work at all and everything has to be revamped (this happened just last year with the mermaid costumes for The Little Mermaid).

Head describes how she built her way up within the studio, to her first star job: designing for Lupe Velez in The Wolf Song. I love the detail she shares about how she impressed the actress with a white lace dress, and how this white lace dress needed “a huge truck to transport it to the location, and Lupe could barely move once she was in it” (page 50). I immediately had to look up a picture of this dress (left).

Other things I loved in the book: when Mae West insists that her dress be spectacular in a scene in which she has no dialogue, so that all eyes are on her anyway (page 54) and her brief mention of how delightful Shirley Temple was to work with for Little Miss. Marker (page 60)!

I mean, how could this kid NOT be delightful?!

And here we come almost to the end of what I’ve already read. I am a little ways into chapter five, and will take over in the next post with what I read in the next parts of the book. However, here’s one last look at a Head costume before I wrap this up. This is Dorothy Lamour’s sarong costume, created by Head for screen tests and then made famous when the actress eventually wore it in The Jungle Princess.

Though the costume was met with criticism (on page 66, Head says that the studio received a lot of letters informing them that the sarong was not authentic), it became quite popular.

I love it when I can “interact” with the books I’m reading by looking up the real life versions of what the author is talking about. I look forward to doing this as I keep reading, and hopefully have one or two more posts that outline these costumes.

The book will, of course, also make the November “What I Read” post but not in super great details as I’ll have outlined the whole thing before that happens! I also want to make a point, moving forward, of actually watching many of these movies to see the costumes in action.

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