Trying to select the ten best films featuring costumes designed by Edith Head verges on the impossible. Even she lost track of how many films she’d worked on. She began her career in the 1920s dressing elephants (she mistakenly used real flowers, which the pachyderms promptly ate) and ended it by remaking her wardrobe from several 1940s noir classics for Steve Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). In between, she was nominated for thirty-five Academy Awards—winning eight, the most of any woman—largely because of her approach to her craft: she dressed the character, not the star. Consider this list, then, ten highlights from the reign of Hollywood’s bespectacled queen of costume design.
INCLUDE ME OUT: Edith’s costumes for Roman Holiday (1953) contributed to Audrey Hepburn’s sudden stardom, a status cemented by the actress’s follow-up turn in Sabrina (1954).
The latter film and its magnificent black H-neckline gown would seem an obvious choice. For decades that signature dress and some of Hepburn’s other Sabrina ensembles were credited to couturier Hubert de Givenchy. Edith certainly contributed her own ideas to the dress and the entirety of Sabrina’s wardrobe, a fact acknowledged by Givenchy, but due to that complicated provenance, we’re not including Sabrina here.
She Done Him Wrong (1933). Edith’s mentor, Travis Banton, was in Paris when this adaptation of Mae West’s scandalous Broadway smash Diamond Lil went into production. That quirk of timing led to Edith’s first significant solo credit—and a crash course in dressing a personality for effect. “I love fabrics I can feel, honey. So do men,” West counseled the young designer, also asking for clothes “loose enough to prove I’m a lady, but tight enough to show ’em I’m a woman.” Edith complied, and the resulting film helped keep Paramount solvent during the Depression. Edith would work similar magic on Dorothy Lamour with her sarongs in the late 1930s and ’40s.
The Lady Eve (1941). Barbara Stanwyck was so well known for playing tough-talking, big-city dames when she arrived at Paramount in 1937 that Travis Banton gladly handed her off to Edith, convinced the actress would never succeed as a fashion plate. Edith laid that prejudice to rest with this Preston Sturges screwball sensation, her Latin-accented wardrobe transforming Stanwyck into a glamorous clothes horse.
Lady in the Dark (1944). Let’s be honest. This film, starring Ginger Rogers as a repressed fashion magazine editor who yearns to cut loose, dates badly. But with that plot, the clothes were destined to be fantastic, giving Edith a rare opportunity to cut loose herself. The primary extravagance was a “mink dress”—actually a mink overskirt atop a matching bodysuit—famed for being the single most expensive costume ever produced in Hollywood. Lady in the Dark is a rarity (a nitrate print screened at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival) while the mink dress is a costume exhibit fixture, meaning more people have seen the outfit than the film in which it appears.
Double Indemnity (1944). Billy Wilder had a clear vision for Phyllis Dietrichson in this adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel: “I wanted her to look as sleazy as possible.” His conception went from the top down, with Wilder insisting Barbara Stanwyck wear an obviously fake blond wig. Fortunately, Stanwyck had Edith as an ally in creating a more nuanced take on the character. Phyllis’s seduction of insurance salesman Walter Neff is executed through wardrobe with the precision of a military campaign, her form becoming more concealed as their murderous plot progresses. “You knew Edith would really help to give you your character for the audience,” Stanwyck said. “What people don’t know is that she helped give me my character for me. Edith helped me to feel cheap.”
Sunset Boulevard (1950). More work with Wilder on the film that created the default look for women of a certain age, heavy on the leopard prints. The poignancy of faded star Norma Desmond is evident in her attire, infused with a personal style firmly entrenched in her 1920s heyday. By the time a wild-eyed Norma descends the staircase at the film’s climax, she has reverted fully to silent-era mode, her almost shapeless Grecian-style gown a throwback to the undefined waistlines of a bygone time.
All About Eve (1950). When original star Claudette Colbert withdrew from this 20th Century Fox film due to injury, her replacement, Bette Davis, insisted Edith be loaned out from Paramount to design her wardrobe. Charles LeMaire, Edith’s equivalent at Fox, reluctantly consented to the arrangement because production was already underway. That breakneck pace contributed to one of Edith’s greatest achievements. Margo Channing’s party dress—brown silk with matching sable trim—had mistakenly been made with the bodice too large. The slip-up embarrassed Edith, but Davis preferred the gown with her shoulders bared. A few simple adjustments and Edith would go on to win her third Academy Award, shared with LeMaire.
A Place in the Sun (1951). The movie that launched a thousand prom dresses. Edith knew the wardrobe worn by Elizabeth Taylor (“one of the prettiest human beings I’ve ever seen”) as a debutante would be pivotal be to this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Concerned with how quickly fashion trends were changing in the wake of World War II, Edith combined the so-called “New Look” (a full white tulle skirt) with a traditional decoration of violets, reasoning, “It’s very difficult to look dated with flowers.” The result would be imitated for years.
To Catch a Thief (1955). If Edith had a muse, it was Grace Kelly. The designer and the former fashion model had already hit sartorial heights in Rear Window, with Alfred Hitchcock instructing Edith to make Kelly “look like a piece of Dresden china.” But the threesome’s next film together was, in Edith’s words, “a costume designer’s dream.” The exotic south of France setting, the climactic costume ball, and Kelly’s peerless poise gave Edith permission to indulge every fantasy. She would name this film her personal favorite.
Vertigo (1958). Edith’s most rewarding creative association was with Hitchcock, spanning eleven films from Notorious (1946) to the master of suspense’s swan song Family Plot (1976). Perhaps no film demonstrates the power of costume more than Vertigo, in which clothes literally (re)make the woman. Hitchcock had the script specify that Kim Novak’s character appear in a gray suit so she’d seem to be part of the San Francisco fog. Novak arrived at her first fitting insisting she hated that color and wouldn’t wear it. Edith presented “several swatches of gray fabric in various shades, textures, and weights” and encouraged Novak to select the one that would look best on her, enlisting the actress as a collaborator. The fact that Hitch had pre-approved every sample? Testament to Edith’s diplomatic skills.
What a Way to Go! (1964). Mid-1960s films are packed with fashion excesses. As an example, watch the Edith-designed, Natalie Wood-starring Penelope (1966). Or better yet, don’t. Edith at least had fun with the decade’s decadence in this black comedy, starring Shirley MacLaine as an innocent woman seeking romance who outlives a host of husbands played by the likes of Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, and Paul Newman, amassing an unwanted fortune in the process. As MacLaine becomes richer, her wardrobe grows more outré. Edith created seventy-two costumes for the film. Critics called many of them “tasteless and gaudy,” a charge she happily agreed with. She’d earn another Oscar nomination for her efforts.
Honorable Mention: Lucy Gallant (1955). This fictionalized history of the Neiman-Marcus department store’s birth isn’t a costume film per se, but it ends with an elaborate fashion show for which Edith Head designed every ensemble. Our mistress of ceremonies? None other than Edith herself, making a rare appearance in front of a movie camera.
BIO: Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Their Lillian Frost and Edith Head novels are the Agatha Award-nominated Design for Dying and Dangerous to Know. Visit Renee’s website at http://reneepatrickbooks.com/.Posted in Blog Article, Films.
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