“Accentuate the positive and camouflage the rest,” were words legendary designer Edith Head lived by. Crafting wardrobes for stars including Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, Head was the mastermind for Audrey Hepburn’s iconic look in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” along with dress designer Hubert de Givenchy.
With 35 Academy Award nominations, Head, born on Oct. 28, 1897, remains the most lauded female Oscar contender. Her creativity and use of color and texture continue to resonate with designers today.
Costume designer Avery Plewes, who worked on “The Craft: Legacy,” ranks Head-designed movies “Sweet Charity” and “What a Way to Go!” as some of her all-time favorites for costumes. “There is an irreverence with her use of color that you rarely see,” says Plewes, “There is a fearlessness that I learned from her films. I often question whether my ideas go too far, and her work taught me to always try the crazy idea. Sometimes the craziest idea turns out to be the best idea. Her costumes in both films have purpose and function while being fabulous and outlandish all at the same time, which isn’t always an easy feat.”
“Respect” designer Clint Ramos cites Head’s ability to communicate with those she worked with as an inspiration not just for him, but for generations of costume designers. “She cultivated and maintained true relationships with her collaborators,” says Ramos. “It seemed like she ensured that the actors felt heard while interpreting the director’s vision. For her, an empathetic approach to artistry was paramount.”
Whether designing for black-and-white or color, Head was known for using a rainbow of hues to set the mood. Her trademark dark glasses were in fact, blue-lensed, so she could get a sense of how black-and-white photographed, a trick used by costume designers during the Golden Age of Hollywood. And when Technicolor emerged, Head dressed Ginger Rogers in a dazzling ruby gown for “Lady in the Dark” and outfitted Rosemary Clooney in bold turquoise for “White Christmas.”
She “understood the transformative power of clothing,” says “Holidate” costume designer Helen Huang.
That’s a dynamic that also inspires Emmy-winner Lou Eyrich (“American Horror Story,” “Pose”), who often marks up her Head books with notes, and says, “I’m always inspired by the stark simplicity and distinct color palettes of the costumes on the Alfred Hitchcock films.”
Oscar-winner Sandy Powell (“The Aviator,” “Shakespeare in Love”) points to Head’s creations for Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” and for Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” as the characters whose distinctive looks remain indelible for her. “Like any good designer, their success comes from making the character memorable as well as the costumes,” she says.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a personal favorite of “Mank” costume designer Trish Summerville, who also notes how Head’s designs reflect narrative as well as nuance. “It has to make sense,” says Summerville. “It’s about the character; it can’t just all be glamorous. It needs to help tell the story.”
Head’s costumes were frequently referenced in For Your Consideration Oscar advertising for movies like “The Great Race” and “The Sting,” and her own stylish attire was mentioned in Variety’s Oscar show reports.
Head’s rise to become head of costume at Paramount Studios in 1938 was unprecedented for a woman, but Summerville says the designer was fearless, with creative ideas that ran counter to those of the art department and others at the studio.
With her severe bangs and round spectacles, the diminutive Head was a character in her own right, whose look lives on in the image of Edna Mode in “The Incredibles” movies. “She obviously enjoyed dressing herself and knew how to strike a pose, albeit an intimidating one,” Powell says, “which was probably all part of her modus operandi.”