Long before there were PowerPoint presentations on building your personal brand, there was Edith Head, tireless champion of her own cause. I love Edith, especially her inventiveness in the face of stolid studio stubbornness. Edith could craft a silk purse from a sow’s ear—and win an Oscar® for it.
We’ve all seen the proud, stern visage of Miss Head, gathering her brood of Oscars® to her slight bosom or posed proudly before a glittering phalanx of the golden statuettes. But it was a long, hard pull to get to that point and today we’re going to take a peek at the beginnings of the irresistible, inevitable romance of Edith and Oscar®. And along the way, we’ll pick up some “Head-ucation Hints” for your own personal branding efforts.
Hard to believe, isn’t it, that the Academy Award for Costume Design didn’t even exist before 1948? Think of the iconic costumes that didn’t get their much-deserved recognition—Adrian’s Oz-borne fantasies…
Walter Plunkett’s period-perfect antebellum beauties…
Dolly Tree’s giddy bias-cut gowns and fur-collared wraps for Nora Charles…
Travis Banton’s feather-decked Dietrich mysteries, and so many more.
Edith stuffs the ballot box
Alright for some designers to plug away, unknown and unsung, but Edith, being Edith, wasn’t about to pour her heart and soul into her work without proper acknowledgement. Happily, 20th Century-Fox costume designer Charles Le Maire was in the same frame of mind and had been pestering the Academy to cook up a costume design category.
Seems they were willing to consider it, but there was a hiccup–only Academy members could nominate and there were no costume designers yet in the Academy! Le Maire jumped that hurdle by championing the idea that Academy member art directors would make the first nominations, then, after a few years, costume designers could take up the chore.
The Academy bought in and two categories for costume design were established–one for color design, one for black and white. This plan was a ticket to ride for our girl Edith–having an husband in the Academy (Wiard “Bill” Ihnen was an art director–how handy!) and being known as a very obliging person would virtually guarantee annual nominations in both categories.
She suggested to the Academy it’d be peachy if each studio received individual nominations, but as no other film craft group was handled that way, they turned down Edith’s idea. Nice try, Edith. Such a plan would result in a fine crop of Oscars for our gal every year, since Edith was THE Paramount costumer. But that’s okay, she had another ace up her impeccably tailored sleeve–her celebrity status as the first “What Not to Wear” counselor.
Head-ucation hint: Connections and cooperation go a long way towards winning friends and influencing people. Edith spent years in the trenches, playing nice-nice with the folks who counted. She didn’t argue, flounce off, drink herself stupid, throw diva fits or indulge in any of the other self-destructive attitudes that some of her costume designing peers did.
Face time pays off
Edith made herself a household name and the darling of the suburban housewife, thanks to regular radio gigs on Art Linkletter’s House Party.
How did that happen? Well, since 1940, Edith had been writing style coach advice columns for average women in movie and ladies’ magazines. Radio host Art Linkletter loved her down-to-earth advice and asked her to join his team. Edith, although painfully shy at first, was such a hit, she was drafted for other radio shows.
Say what you will about “top of mind” being the key to personal branding, but it didn’t hurt that when 99% of American housewives thought of Edith when they thought “Hollywood costume designer.”
I’m sure the Academy strove to remain neutral, but let’s be realistic. Why do you think studios spend jillions with those “for your consideration” ads in the trade rags? (Here’s Edith, still hustling, promoting her book on TV in her later years.)
Oh, and if you’re asking yourself how on EARTH did she do image consulting over the airwaves, she would briskly describe her subject’s outfit to the listening audience, then offer her style solution. The audience felt they were getting backstage beauty secrets from a Hollywood insider–which, in fact, they were!
PS–Edith continued this gig on Linkletter’s TV version of House Party, and that’s where I first saw her work her magic and fell in love with the idea of image consulting!
Head-ucation hint: Take advantage of any and all opportunities to promote your product and your persona…but make sure you’ve got the skills to back that up.
Edith was beyond brilliant at suggesting simple, do-able changes that netted surprisingly dramatic results. And who doesn’t love a Fairy Godmother?
The “little dressmaker” stumbles
You’d think with everything going for her that Edith was a shoo-in for the first Academy awards given for Costume Design, right? Alas. Although nominated in Best Color Design for the flashy (and critically hailed) The Emperor Waltz…
Edith’s loss tormented her–what on earth was the Academy looking for, anyway?? (Here’s Jeakins with her award, with a very youthful Liz Taylor.)
After all, Edith had worked hard, doing research for the lavish period piece, consulted with the film’s star, Joan Fontaine (a Head hallmark that endeared Edith to her glamorous “clients”), and even went on location to ensure all would go well.
She had embarked on her trademark publicity rounds with fashion editors to rev them up for pre-release coverage. She had done everything right, but she forgot to keep her eye on the weathervane of fickle audience demands.
Jeakin’s excruciatingly period-perfect 15th-century Joan of Arc designs were indicators of a sea change for Hollywood.
Audiences were turning to films with darker realism and authenticity and Jeakin’s designs delivered.
Head-ucation hint: Crushed by her loss, Edith rose back up with a determination to figure out the system and best it rather than indulge in bitterness. She realized she needed some new skills to master this new emphasis on psychology expressed in costuming, and the universe saw to it her next project delivered the goods. When the student is ready, the teacher appears and in this case, the prof was William Wyler.
Hitting the books-harder
Edith didn’t forget her spanking at the first Academy Awards and didn’t plan on repeating it. Her next project, The Heiress under William Wyler’s direction, took her considerable skills to the next level. The experience of working with the illustrious Wyler would teach her the fine art of using costume to advance plot and keep the audience posted on internal character change.
Happily, Wyler demanded absolute era accuracy which suited the academic Edith down to the ground. At Wyler’s insistence, she flew east to troll New York’s Brooklyn Museum to study up on Gilded Era fashion.
Edith included star Olivia de Havilland in her research; both read Washington Square (the Henry James novel upon which the book is based) and discussed how the heiress’s clothes would express her anxiety and signal her evolution.
(This was another classic Edith move–the stars she costumed felt they were part of the process and their eager cooperation made wedging them into whalebone corsets nicer for everyone involved.)
De Havilland’s character, Catherine, was rich, but plain and shy, so Edith cleverly clothed her in ill-fitting, overblown dresses.The gowns had regal materials but wedding cake silhouettes, a perfect expression of both Catherine’s class and her social awkwardness.
Edith’s exacting research and microscopic attention to detail paid off with her first Oscar®.
The Heiress was a triumph for Edith–the Academy recognized how her costumes brilliantly reflected Catherine’s psychological evolution from trampled lily to triumphant, if embittered, woman.
Watch Edith scurry gracefully to the stage while Eve Arden does play-by-play for this first costume design award presentation.
I LOVE Edith’s dress here; she expresses her own oft-repressed passionate nature in a gown that would be at home on this year’s red carpet–a black halter-necked number with an embroidered bodice and elliptical hem; she paired it with elbow-length black gloves and some snazzy, strappy evening sandals.
After declaring enthusiastically that Edith’s award is “long overdue,” commentator Eve Arden launches into an amazingly precise description of what Edith is wearing: “a very interesting gown; a black linen skirt with a white top embroidered in jet.” That’s pretty specific, isn’t? Eve also chummily confides that she and Edith happened to have their hair done at the same salon that afternoon. Coincidence? I think not.
If Edith didn’t coach Eve on that description, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Strangely, Eve is stumped on how to describe the ensembles worn by Leah Rhodes and Marjorie Best as they come up to accept their awards. Eve ruefully says, “I’d like to describe what they have on, but from our little canary cage, it’s hard to see.”
Oh, really, Eve? Somehow, she had 20/20 vision when Edith took the stage! I hear Edith, too, in Eve’s comment about Edith’s award being ‘long overdue”–how can that be, since there’s only been one other Oscar® ceremony? Eve also happens to have at her fingertips the information that Edith was nominated last year for the Emperor Waltz and she mentions it in pointed tones. That must have been some media kit Edith handed her as they sat under the dryers.
Head-ucation hint: In addition to laying some impressive pre-event groundwork, Edith smartly capitalized on each aspect of her moment in the sun. Since craftsmen weren’t expected to offer their thanks when they won, Edith didn’t have an opportunity to share her thoughts at the time. If you, like Edith, are denied a less-than-perfect spotlight moment, watch and learn. Edith wasted no time calling her fashion editor pals the next morning with a funny quip about creating a little costume for her Oscar® statuette, because she didn’t like his nakedness. Way to extend your Oscar® night glory and reinforce your personal brand as THE Hollywood costume designer, Edie!
Not only that, Edith was also the STAR of an Academy-made short subject called “The Costume Designer,” wherein she is seen sketching, conferring, draping, researching busily for the camera. She is never named, but it’s so obviously the Edith Head show that I marvel at how that must have come about. She even gets a voice over to describe her thought process! It’s deliciously on-brand for our girl Edith and she looks great throughout. How she ever turns those script pages with her gloves is a mystery all its own, though. Click here to see Edith in her glory!
Edith won two Oscars® the next year–one for Black and White design she shared with Charles Le Maire for All About Eve and one for Color she shared with a brace of other designers for Samson and Delilah.
Since there are dozens of articles out there about Bette Davis’s iconic off-the-shoulder “buckle your seatbelts” All About Eve dress, I’m going to concentrate on Edith’s less-examined work on DeMille’s Biblical epic.
After all she’d learned from Wyler about injecting psychology into costuming, it was a bit of a backwards step for Edith when she discovered DeMille was less about accuracy and more about Philistine va-va-va-voom.
DeMille called upon a host of designers–while Edith was designing for star Hedy Lamarr and leading lady Angela Lansbury…
Gwen Wakeling and Elois Jenssen picked up the slack on all other women’s costumes. Gile Steele and Dorothy Jeakins concentrated on the men’s wardrobe. This astonishing sketch from Ms. Jeakins should help us understand why she curled her lip at Edith’s lack of artistic swish.
If working on a money-is-no-object DeMille flick sounds like a costumer’s dream, think again.
Edith deemed this her least favorite project–mostly because of DeMille’s accuracy-schmaccuracy attitude and his stone-faced reception of her designs.
I doubt she liked sharing designing duties with everyone and their brother, too. However, cooperative little Edith rolled with DeMille’s affection for Bibl-uxe extravagance, waiting a few years to note that perfect accuracy would have required most of the women to go bare-breasted. Ahem.
Adding to Edith’s struggle with this project was Hedy’s diva act. The luscious Lamarr was not, to put it mildly, exactly engaged in her role.
Edith worked around her lazy star, managing to create sumptuous costumes that satisfied her boss, if not herself.
One of Edith’s more memorable triumphs was this daring, midriff-baring seduction ensemble.
This show-stopper was decorated with 2,000 peacock feathers, painstakingly gathered from DeMille’s own molting peacock flock.
Well, the Biblical blockbuster did manage to score an Oscar® for Edith, which had to be confusing, since this film was far from period perfect and had zero psychological underpinnings.
What happened to last year’s modernist exposure of inner truth via costuming? Maybe the publicity blitz, huge box office, and Delilah-inspired department store dresses convinced the Academy that this was a classic worth rewarding. Who knows? Or maybe they just liked the idea that they could tap one movie and reward five designers at once?
Here’s a charming peek at how graceful and natural Edith is fetching her award. Her heavy, generously gathered white satin skirt ripples and billows as she mounts the stairs with perfect confidence and poise. It’s a sensationally dramatic, impressive gown (embroidery again!) and she has perfect control over it, plucking the angled, aproned overskirt into graceful lines as she walks. This is the “little dressmaker?” Atta girl, Edie! Look at her expression as she gazes on her reward–she’s actually smiling. In public!
Head-ucation hint: Just when you think you’ve got the system down, someone is bound to pull the ol’ switcheroo. So, if you’re in it to win it, and not for any sense of personal satisfaction, you’re liable to run aground on the shores of illogic repeatedly. Try to keep your balance when the winds of change blow by cultivating a personal expression of your passion that isn’t dictated by a paycheck and dependent on a boss’s caprice. And when you’ve got a chance to strut your stuff, make the moment pay off with a style that says you OWN this. (Here’s her gorgeous Academy event gown, minus the apron–and the blue shades!)
Eight isn’t enough
Edith received 35 nominations from the Academy (more than any other woman) and brought home 8 Oscars®. One wag speculated that her backyard was enclosed with a picket fence of the gold statuettes (probably Bob Hope). But it was never enough for this quietly determined force of nature.
She knew what she wanted and that’s maybe what all of us want in one way or another–recognition that what we’re doing matters. The difference being that Edith did everything in her power to make it happen. And everything she could to ensure that she got credit for it!
She traveled and gardened and collected primitive art. She loosened her famous chignon, took off her blue shades, smiled, and laughed, and let her hair down.
And probably polished her Oscars®.
Information for this article was gratefully gleaned from 2 MUST-HAVE books: Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgensen, 2010, Life-Time Media Production.
Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer by David Chierichetti, 2003, Harper Collins Publishers.
If you LOVE learning about Edith Head’s remarkable career and continuing influence, I invite you to check out my prior posts about this marvelous woman: Edith Headquarters.