Essential sewing keeping me clothed and sane

For your Erudition – EH


I‘m in a quandary – I don’t know where to start with this month’s designer – do we even label her as a designer? Most certainly prolific, popular, perfectionist and prominent – and so much more besides, but never had her own design house, did not produce clothes for the mass market nor the wealthy, but for a very, very select few.

For almost six decades, starting in the 1920s Edith Head defined the cinematic stylings of Hollywood, and hence influencing each and every one of us, our mothers, grandmothers and beyond. She become chief designer at Paramount within only five years of blagging her way in  — the first woman to hold the position. She worked on more than 1,100 films, wrote two seminary style books, and became a style icon in her own right. You gotta love a woman who develops and sticks to her own design ethic regardless of the tumultuous fashion shifts happening around her.

Her first book The Dress Doctor (1959) was as much a autobiography as an insight into consultations with Hollywood actresses from Clara Bow to Audrey Hepburn.  

She saw her role as a Hollywood costume designer as a doctor, altering clothes to fit the needs and personality of a “patient”; aiming to (heal) satisfy the stars, who were all “difficult to dress.” while at the same time fulfilling the demands of the director and the film’s period setting. There were suggestions in the book for assessing and dressing various body types, for planning to shop by constructing a “grocery list” of a seasonal wardrobe, the importance of appropriate accessories and use of colour.

These are all standard procedures nowadays, even if we don’t always obey them, but Edith was the first to directly address Ms Average and as such became a well-known fashion authority for the American woman in the mid 20th century.

Edith’s second, and probably more famous book, How to Dress for Success set out in prescriptive detail what to wear and when; how to dress to get a man and a job; how to accessorise and was chock full of snippets of advice and guidance. The modern day Trinny & Susanna. 

She married twice herself, her first husband being a young love from university. Her second husband was an architect and a keeper. 

Through her books, writings and radio, and later, television interviews she became an accepted advisor of fashion culture and style.  Aiming for a shift in American’s fashion influences from the Paris couture houses to Hollywood Head critiqued and advised individual women on dress sense and saw it as “my chance to turn America into a country of neat and natty women, women with assurance, women who knew they looked right”. 

Of course, Givenchy designed the clothes for Audrey Hepburn but in the background was Edith ensuring that that they fitted the atheistic of the film and the viewing public. Costume design has to add to but not detract from the movie and it’s a fine balance that Edith managed to perfect.

Who wouldn’t want to wear Grace Kelly’s green suit in Rear Window? And subsequently believe that they would look like her and have her life? Such is the power of Hollywood.

Edith went on to have 35 Oscar nominations and 8 wins, for films including ‘All About Eve’ (1949), ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949), ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), ‘Sabrina’ (1954) and ‘The Sting’ (1973). These remain records for both the Costume Design category and for any woman in any category in the Academy Awards. But she worked tirelessly behind the scenes too: designing for and dressing the stars, the actual ceremony production and artistic direction.

As if she didn’t have enough to do, Edith also, designed patterns for the home sewer, so we  too could live the Hollywood dream.

She worked right up until 4 days before her death in 1981 when she was designing the costumes for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

Maybe she is a mere copier of the fashions emanating from Paris and didn’t produce anything original, she nonetheless allowed millions of women globally to see themselves as Tippi, Audrey and Elizabeth, and many, many others for many years.

So, I suppose in honour on International Women’s Day this week – I nominate Ms Edith Head: designer to the stars and builder of dreams for ordinary women.

I leave you with the best advice I’ve yet to come across –

Don’t let your clothes be fitted too tightly. Even a perfect figure looks better if it doesn’t resemble a sausage. Only bathing suits should “fit tight.”

Unless, of course, you’re designing for superheroes…..

On a final and totally unrelated note but significantly related to today’s date – 

God bless, or who ever you see as holding your destiny in their palms, I trust they will look favourably upon your life.
The choir sang this this morning and I must admit, hard nut that I am, I had tears in my eyes.


29 thoughts on “For your Erudition – EH

  1. I love Edith Head. I made Advance 9291 for my sister in 2010, was fantastic. Thank you for the whole info. Paco.

  2. So interesting! Thank you for the sketch on this talented I never knew about!

  3. great post – you know I am pretty sure I have the Vogue dress pattern on the right.

  4. Well lucky sister, that's for sure. I love her too – is that my style aesthetic?

  5. She has had so much influence that I;m guessing we don't even know recognise it.

  6. Edith was truly a fashion designer. A fun little note, my first class in college was a costume design class and the professor worked for years with Edith Head. The stories alone were worth the time spent in class.

  7. Wouldn't that be a great "going away" outfit? Not that your don't have enough to do…

  8. Stop it Rhonda – your life is just too apparently perfect – you make the rest of us resemble mere mortals! Though thanks for the insight and maybe a post??

  9. I've followed Edith Head and loved the outfits she edited in movies since I was a teenager. She influenced so many women by way of the movies which probably affected way more people than designers in NYC or Europe ever did. In my pattern collection are two very treasured patterns of hers…I'm a huge fan!

  10. That's what I was trying to get across here Carolyn, thank you – such an influential designer without the pressure from Paris haute couture houses. I don't have EH patterns but guess what's in the plan for 2013?

  11. Edith was very stylish and good on her for working in the industry she loved until the very end. I can still spot an Edith look in films.

  12. I really enjoy your posts about the designers. Please continue.

  13. I have always been a huge Edith Head fan! My take away from her is: "You can have anything you want in life. You just have to dress for it." Thank you for the Irish Blessing. St. Patrick's Day is difficult for me and my children. It's their father's birthday. He would have been 60 this year.

  14. Edith Head has always been one of my favorites! Thanks for the little reminder. I, too, love your little educational essays on the designers that have had so much influence on our lives!

  15. Awesome post. Thanks!

  16. I guess she was almost the original stylist/designer who wielded great insight and influence.

  17. I've worshiped EH since I was a teen. I am amazed at how she could take any mortal woman and make her look like a goddess, despite broad shoulders, thick waists, whatever. Her skills were incredible. I remember her coming on the Merv Griffin show and being mesmerized by her every word. She is my idea of a designer, someone who can make the female form, any female form, look exquisite and tasteful. That can't be said for designers today, any of them, IMO.

  18. A great post, Ruth. I'm almost tearful. This woman is such a beacon. Hope you enjoyed St Patrick's!

  19. Well, ladies, it looks like we hit on a winner here. Edith seems to be on everyone's 'Good guy' list.Thanks for the encouraging comments and I'm off to research the next of the great designers…..

  20. I hope, in some way, this blessing was comforting. Thank you for sharing this personal sentiment with us and believe me, we don't all drink green beer and yahoo on St Patrick's Day.

  21. With pleasure – thank you

  22. And don't they just make you drool?

  23. Thanks Bunny – style and fashion really are two totally different beasts. Mmmm A What Do YOU Think post?

  24. Thank you Marianna, we all need beacons. As an aside, but in reality, St Patrick's in Ireland is not really celebrated as such – there's a parade and that's about it. I think the N. Americans celebrate more than the Irish!!

  25. I'm looking for the next one Lynda – any preferences?

  26. How do you get time to read this? Don't you have enough to do? However, my pleasure

  27. I believe she started it, that's for sure.

  28. I love this post, Ruth. Takes me back…Dress for Success was my style 'bible' when I started working. EH was the Emily Post of professional fashion, and her advice really worked. And, yes, I love that green suit…. What a great costume designer. Whenever I heard she was doing the costume design for a film, I put it on my 'must see' list. Still love to watch them.

  29. While Edith Head is no doubt one of the best designers in the history of cinema, there are still others that are worth mentioning as well. Adrian was no slouch!

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