Costume designer Edith Head was the original ice-queen, long before Vogue vixen Anna Wintour graced fashion’s front rows with her sharp bob, dark shades and impenetrable stare.
Elizabeth Taylor wears an Edith Head design in A Place In The Sun
Trailblazing the blunt cut, crisp white shirts and tailored suits, Edith Head hid behind her round, tinted glasses – apparently to get an impression of how costumes would appear on screen in black and white.
Known for trademark restraint, she quickly rose to the top of a notoriously tough industry despite lacking any real costume or design experience. Her quick wit and natural style saw her hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures, though she later admitted to borrowing a sketch for the interview from a fellow student at her art college. Further down the track she gained a reputation for accepting credit for other people’s work.
Never one to be discouraged by bad press, Head proved herself the only way she knew how – through tireless hard work. By the 1940s, she’d established herself as Hollywood’s leading costume designer, perfecting her craft throughout the 44 years she spent at Paramount and then continuing her Hollywood assault by moving to Universal in 1967, a decision that may have been prompted by close friend and collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock.
Over her career, Head dressed some of the greatest actors of her time. Her personable character, hidden in public, revealed itself when she was tucked away inside the studio, tape measure around her neck and pencil in hand. Her preference for working closely with the actors was unconventional at the time and allowed her to befriend screen sirens like Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, Ginger Rogers, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. The celebrity adoration was reciprocated by Head, who claimed that, “A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” Despite this, Head retained a cheeky pessimism and remained cynical of the opulence around her. She famously declared: “I have yet to see one completely unspoiled star, except for the animals – like Lassie.”
In total, Head was nominated for 35 Academy Awards and won eight Oscars – more little gold men than any other woman in history. Perhaps the most fitting tribute, however, came from Bette Davis, who delivered the eulogy after Head’s death at the age of 83. “A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. She will never be replaced… her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman.”