Maven Style: Edith Head If you queried using Google yesterday, you probably noticed six costume sketches floating above a silhouette of a commanding and petite figure in oversized frames. On what would have been her 116th birthday, Google Doodle honors Edith Head, famous costume sketch artist and designer who crystallized "old Hollywood glamour" through her work in over 1,000 films spanning 57 years. Nicknamed "The Doctor," Head garnered 35 Academy Award nominations, 8 Oscars, and a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, making her the winningest individual woman to receive the prized golden statues. Developing relationships with a fancy laundry list of stars, Head designed and dressed the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Dorothy Lamour, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Jean Harlow, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, and Robert Redford.
Known for her dark hair (cropped or pulled back), blunt bangs, tortoise-shell glasses, and two-piece suit, you also may have seen her not too long ago under the pseudonym Edna Mode in Pixar's The Incredibles, "I never look back dahling, it distracts from the now."While it remains unconfirmed that Edna is Edith reincarnated in animated form, you can draw your own conclusions.
Born this day in 1897 in San Bernardino, California, Edith Claire Posener grew up with aspirations of being a French teacher. Highly educated with both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts, Posener went on to teach at the Hollywood School for Girls in 1923. In order to make additional income, Posener began art classes during the evenings. It was here that she met her first husband, Charles Head, a salesman and brother of a school friend of hers. The next year, Head engaged in a a bit of a scandal by feigning a classmate's sketches as her own in order to land a job as as costume sketch artist with Paramount Pictures in 1924. Admitting the ruse later and coming in green with no experience in art, design and costuming; Head worked long hours to hone her skills and develop a sophistication to her work. The work paid off and landed her the head costume design role at Paramount in 1938. With the beginning of a new chapter came an end to her first marriage that same year. However, Head kept her name befitting her new title at Paramount.
During her career, Head had an ability to design around the rules of film censorship at the time. Where modesty was demanded, Head covered up her actresses albeit with skintight clothes. When the scene demanded an outfit appropriate for the jungle but also for audiences, Head designed a modest but adventurous sarong for The Jungle Princess, which became a widely popular template for the swimsuit industry and female customers. Head proved her versatility designing immaculate and sensuous gowns for Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun; masculine and delicate suits in Alfred Hitchcock's films such as Vertigo and The Birds; and statuesque frocks fitting for Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah.
For no lack of vision, Hitchcock liked working with Head as her designs took on a storytelling device of its own as the clothes endured beyond wear and catastrophe while the picture perfect heroines fell apart in the face of the same catalysts. Another characteristic that distinguished her from her colleagues was that she consulted extensively with the actresses she dressed. She made it a point to sit with them, talk with them, learn about their personalities and histories, watch how they moved, and also how they screen tested. She made clothes that moved with them rather than limit their range or movement. It was perhaps this quality of being known by her that earned Head a place inside the personal lives of these actresses. Elevating the quality of costuming, she did not give into fads or cheap fixes but strove for excellence and a couturier's eye. In To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly's blue spaghetti-strap dress was made out of $4,000 worth of fabric, at the time one of the most expensive pieces of costuming. Head served a storied 43 years at Paramount before moving to Universal Pictures in 1967 where she served for 14 more years. In the 70's, she had the opportunity to redesign the U.S. Coast Guard's uniform for women as more females enlisted in the ranks.
Growing her talent with an insatiable work ethic, the gifted and eccentric Edith Head was made not born. She presented an austere self-image while pouring imagination, color, and embellishment to the characters she was charged to help bring alive. A duality of undeniable talent and overreach, Head faced controversy and criticism for claiming the works of others at times - landing the job at Paramount using someone else's designs and then taking home the Oscar for Hubert Givenchy's Parisian designs for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Also a published designer and author, Head wrote "The Dress Doctor" and "How to Dress for Success." In 1981, Head died from an incurable form of bone marrow disease called myelofibrosis.
What better homage to her work than referencing her brilliance and persona in The Incredibles. A retired and selective designer of superhero costumes, Head's likeness, Edna Mode wisely demands no capes, calls everyone "dahling", and designs Mr. Incredible's comeback costume - a work that is bold, dramatic, and heroic. Edith's work and designs, which have left its mark in the fashion and film industry created the space for imagination, quality and storytelling that have shaped many other inspired and incredible looks. And unless you are actually Superman, Batman or Little Red Riding Hood, no capes is a good word to dress by.