Edith Head – An American Movie Costume Designer

In this blog’s ongoing series on fashion and costume designers, this post will discuss the career of Edith Head who was an American costume designer at Paramount Studios and later Universal Studios.  She created movie costumes for some of the most glamorous film stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

Special Note: In keeping with the theme of An Elegant Bride blog, the classic Edith Head movie costume designs detailed in this post would be a great inspiration for a classic wedding style for either a bride and/or bridesmaid dresses.

A brief history of the life and career of Edith Head

Edith Posener was born on October 28, 1897, her parents were Max Posener and Anna Levy.  Her parents divorced when Edith was a child and in 1905 her mother was remarried to a man named Frank Spare and the family moved often, although her parents were both Jewish her stepfather was Catholic and she converted to his faith.

Edith attended the University of California Berkeley and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1919 and then a Master of Arts degree from Stanford University in 1920.  After college she moved to La Jolla, CA and took a teaching position at the Bishop’s School teaching French and a year later she moved to Hollywood, CA to at the Hollywood School for Girls.  Unhappy with just teaching language Edith was looking to increase her salary and she had always been interested in fashion design so she enrolled at the Chouinard Art College.

Edith meet the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, a man named Charles Head, and they were married on July 25, 1923 (they later divorce in 1938 after a long separation).  At the time of her marriage Edith was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures where she would continue to work there for the next 44 years.  Although she and Charles were divorced and she had remarried an art director named Wiard Ihnen in 1940 she would continue to be known professionally as Edith Head throughout her career. 

Eventually Edith would go onto have a very successful career at Paramount as a movie costume designer and then later at Universal Pictures, she moved to Universal in 1967 when Paramount declined to renew her contract.  During her time at the studios she designed for Mae West in the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong (which co-starred a young Cary Grant), she designed the famous sarong for Dorothy Lamour in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, Barbara Stanwyck in 1944 film Double Indemnity, Bette Davis in 1950 film All About Eve (for which Edith won the Academy Award for Costume Design) and Gloria Swanson in 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.  Among her career accomplishments she won 8 Oscars and received 35 Academy Awards nominations.   

Edith also had two books published, the 1959 book The Dress Doctor and the 1967 book How to Dress For Success, in which she discussed her career and also her design and fashion style.  She also designed the uniforms for the women of the United States Coast Guard for which she received the Meritorious Public Service Award.  In 1974, Edith received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work in the entertainment industry. 

Edith’s second husband, Wiard, died in 1979 from prostate cancer.  Two years later Edith died on October 24, 2982 for myelofibrosis which is an incurable bone marrow disease, she is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.   

Movie Costumes designed by Edith Head

Edith Head is perhaps best known for the work she did for three of Hollywood’s most beautiful and glamorous women – Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.  In this post, I will concentrate on movie costumes that she designed for these actresses during the 1950s to the 1960s. 

Elizabeth Taylor

The first iconic movie costume I will discuss is a dress Edith Head designed for a young Elizabeth Taylor for the 1951 film A Place in the Sun starring opposite Montgomery Clift.  At this time Elizabeth was best known as a child actress and it would be one of her first more mature roles.  In the film she played a beautiful society debutante and the wardrobe that Edith designed for Elizabeth would reflect a more sophisticated style, Edith would win the Academy Award in Costume Design for this black and white film. 

One of the costumes Edith designed was a strapless dress that featured a fitted boned bodice covered with velvet flowers and the skirt had several layers of sheer tulle over a pastel taffeta underskirt, floral embellishments also cascaded down the front of the skirt.  The dress accented Elizabeth’s tiny waist while the bust line was definitely enhanced by the floral fabric design.  The dress caused a sensation across the country and became so popular with young women that it was copied and sold in stores for proms throughout the 1950s.

Elizabeth Taylor with Montgomery Cliff in a scene from A Place in the Sun

dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun

Audrey Hepburn

Another beautiful actress that Edith designed movie costumes for was Audrey Hepburn.  Audrey’s slim figure proved to be a challenge for Edith especially after working with such voluptuous actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor. 

Roman Holiday

The 1953 film Roman Holiday would be the first of several films in which Edith designed movie costumes for Audrey Hepburn.  In this film Audrey plays a princess visiting Rome who decides to escape the tedium and boredom of her royal duties to explore the city where she meets an American reporter, played by Gregory Peck.  The film would catapult Audrey to stardom and she would win the Best Actress Academy Award for Roman Holiday and Edith would win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for this black and white film.

At the start of the film we see Audrey’s character wearing the quintessential princess dress which Edith designed.  The off the shoulder formal dress featured a floor length full skirt, beaded shawl collar and fitted bodice worn with a royal satin sash and jeweled royal orders; she is also wearing long white gloves, a diamond tiara, necklace and earrings. 

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from Roman Holiday as Princess Ann

Princess Ann dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday
photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Special Note:  Although Edith won the Oscar for her work in this film the iconic shirt, blouse and belt worn in the scenes when Audrey’s character explores Rome were actually from the Capri collection by European fashion designer Sonja de Lennart.  This practice of a movie costume designer taking credit from another person’s work would cause controversy for Edith in another movie she did with Audrey.   

Sabrina – 1954

The next film that Edith worked with Audrey was the 1954 Sabrina, much has been written about the costumes for this movie and I will highlight one of the most famous dresses.  In the film Audrey plays, Sabrina, the daughter of the chauffeur for a wealthy family.  Sabrina is secretly in love with the youngest son, David who is played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart plays the older brother.  On the pretense of attending the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, she is sent away to Paris leaving as a young naïve girl but returning a year later as a more mature and very well-dressed woman.    

After her arrival back home she finally catches the notice of David and is invited to a party that evening at the house.  She makes a dramatic entrance looking very sophisticated in a stunning dress made by Edith but designed by Hubert de Givenchy.   The white strapless organza gown with black floral embroidery features a slim column dress with a separate and matching overskirt that had a black band of fabric at the bottom, she also wears long white gloves.       

Audrey Hepburn and Bill Holden in a promotional photo for Sabrina

evening gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

Special Note:  As previously mentioned, Edith sometimes took credit for another person’s work and in this case the other fashion designer was a young Hubert de Givenchy.  Despite the fact that Givenchy designs were featured in the film Edith was given full screen credit. She won the Academy Award for Costume Design for Sabrina and never acknowledged Givenchy contribution.  Later, to sidestep this controversy, the studio stated that regardless of the fact that it was Givenchy designs, because the dresses were made at the studios under the supervision of Edith that she had the right.    

For information about the costumes of another Audrey Hepburn movie, please click on the link to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.              

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly was another beautiful actress that Edith worked with on four of her films, Rear Window was the first Alfred Hitchcock film they worked together on which was followed by the film To Catch a Thief.  Grace had the style that could only be described as elegant and chic which made dressing her for films a dream as you can see in the two movie costume dresses that I will discuss next.   

Rear Window

The 1954 film Rear Window is a mystery thriller and is often considered one of Hitchcock’s best films.  In the movie a photojournalist, played by James Stewart, is recovering from a broken leg and confined to a wheelchair.  While in his apartment with a view of the courtyard and building across the way he witnesses what is thinks is a crime and he shares this information with his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly.    

Edith had previously worked with Grace on the film Country Girl which called for the character to wear dowdy clothes but now for Rear Window Edith would design six stylish and sophisticated outfits for Grace who was playing a high fashion model.  The dress worn when Grace makes her first appearance in the film is a considered a timeless classic.  Edith designed a stunning dress which featured a black fitted bodice with a deep V neckline and a full white chiffon skirt accented with a black floral pattern, she is also wearing bright red lips, perfectly styled hair, a pearl necklace and bracelet, white gloves, black strappy shoes and white chiffon shawl when she enters the apartment for the first time.

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in a scene from the Rear Window

Grace Kelly in a promotional photo for Rear Window

To Catch a Thief

The second film that Edith worked with Hitchcock and Grace was for the 1955 film To Catch a Thief, it would be one of Grace’s last films as she was soon to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco and give up her acting career.   

To Catch a Thief is a romantic thriller in which a retired jewel thief, played by Cary Grant, is suspected in several burglaries on the French Rivera and to prove his innocence he decides to catch the real thief.  He meets the beautiful daughter of a wealthy American oil heiress, played by Grace, and they work together to set a trap.

Since the film is set on the French Rivera, Edith designed a wonderful resort wardrobe for Grace’s character and the first dress she wears in the film is an absolute enchanting dress!  Edith designed a flowing Grecian style dress made in two lovely shades of blue chiffon with thin straps, a draped bodice and a matching chiffon shawl that she casually drapes over one shoulder.     

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in a scene from the film To Catch a Thief

Grace Kelly in a promotional photo for the To Catch a Thief film

For information about another Edith Head dress designed for Grace Kelly for the 1955 Academy Awards, please click on the link to Grace Kelly Style.