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.
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”.
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.
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.