Head of the Class

Hollywood's most honored costume designer gets the revisionist treatment

Joe Mankiewicz could just as easily have been talking about Edith Head, his costume designer on “All About Eve,” as about his fictional character Eve Harrington, in that famous opening line: “There never was, nor ever will be, another Edith Head.”

Ambitious, talented, territorial, manipulative, political and brilliant, Head oversaw the costume design on 1,131 film productions between 1923 and 1982. She reaped eight Oscars from her 35 nominations. But it is her gender pioneering more than her clothes that is commanding new attention by historians and academia. Beginning in Hollywood only two years after women got the vote, Head climbed the corporate ladder at Paramount and held tenaciously onto the studio’s top designer rung in a male-dominated era. Where longevity on Hollywood’s power grid rarely exceeds two decades, Head’s career — the longest of any costumer in Hollywood history — ran six decades.

Vanity Fair’s scathing 1998 profile, in which her plagiarism, territorialism, ruthlessness and outright theft of other’s work were laid publicly bare for the first time, put her legacy into question. (The gospel according to Head was often Head’s truth more than the facts.)

And yet, when Head was saluted in Manhattan some months later, designer Todd Oldham hyperbolically proclaimed, “If you look at the top 20, 30 films of all time, she’s done all of them.”

The list of her credits is singular, in quality and quantity, because her work attracted the best filmmakers in an era constrained by rigid studio contracts and territorialism. She costumed Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” and “The Lady Eve,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun,” Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” She served maestros like Hitchcock, Wilder and Mankiewicz with similar mastery.

And those credits are less than 1/1,000th of the films she did — even calibrating for appropriations like Givenchy’s black cocktail dress in “Sabrina,” the costumes in “The Sting” and others for which she took credit. Her output was still vast.

Revisionist legacy

So where is her legacy now, postscandal and postfeminism? Are her clothes more revered, or less? Is her star rising, falling? Is she another fading icon from Hollywood’s retreating golden era? Like Joan Crawford’s reputation post-“Mommie Dearest,” Head’s tarnished image is simply transmuting into a more balanced legacy of plusses and minuses.

A new biography, a new one-woman play about Head and a new Harvard academic encyclopedia of important 20th-century women, in which Head is included, all point to a new level of examination, reevaluation and recognition.

Her clothes, while not the focus of her growing acclaim, are also enduring the test of time more than her peers’, for reasons that subliminally have to do with her masculine, driven sensibilities. Head’s clothes were tailored. There was no frou-frou. She preferred a monochromatic palette.

“Her reputation as a designer gets better and better as times goes on,” says costume historian David Chierichetti, who has also written a biography, to be released by HarperCollins in 2003. “She used the least ornamentation on a dress.

“She avoided contrasts of color or bright colors when she could,” adds Chierichetti. “Her favorites were black and white, brown and beige. If you compare her work to Helen Rose, a big MGM designer at the time — and as Edith saw it, a main competitor — Rose always did a little more detail on her clothes. They were a bit more theatrical, so when you look at them, they seem very much of the ’40s or ’50s, whereas Edith’s seem more timeless, because women’s clothes have gotten simpler and simpler.”

But her growing stature mostly has to do with her pioneering role as a woman, along with a deeper examination of Head’s singularity and complexity.

“It was a no-brainer, she was one of the first choices,” says Radcliffe’s Susan Ware, who is editing Harvard’s volume of 500 notable American women who died between 1976 and the year 2000, and for which author-publisher Paddy Calistro has written Head’s essay. “Edith Head was able to build this fascinating and influential career in Hollywood through this skill in designing, at a time when most women didn’t have careers or jobs, and she did both.”

When Head left Paramount, she headed the costume design department at Universal beginning in 1967, leaving her stamp on a variety of costume-intensive films right up until her death in 1981.

Beneath the surface

Chierichetti was both personal friend and biographer during the later years of her life. His book delves into her insecurities and other psychological issues in a way that offers a lesser-known picture of the private Head, countering the perception of Head as humorless, selfish and relying on others’ talent.

“Around the house she was funny, adorable and kind,” says Chierichetti. “And she was an incredible diplomat. A generation later she would have gone into politics or diplomacy. And I was often told that she couldn’t draw but she could. On ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,’ she drew all the sketches. I sat there and watched her myself. And with other people’s sketches, regardless of who made the original, by the time it had gone through several revisions, it had become Edith’s.”

In “Sketches: Edith Head’s Hollywood,” a one-woman show that played Tucson, Ariz., “there’s the opportunity to not only hear her words but to see inside the person like you can only do when you look into their eyes,” says star Susan Claasen, who co-wrote the play with Calistro. “We think of her as all business, but she was charitable, she had compassion. The facade comes down a bit.”

The production is slated for a run next season at the Red Barn Theater in Key West, Fla.

But it’s Head’s machete swath into a man’s world, clearing the way for other women, that fuels her attraction.

“Not only was she empowered but she helped empower others, to show that women could be executives,” says Calistro. “She was so famous that she was herself a stop on the Universal Studios tour. The tram stopped at her bungalow. She would run out and wave to the fans. She had become an icon.”