Edith Head had the look.
She clothed Hollywood’s most glamorous, gifting Dorothy Lamour her trademark sarong, cloaking Kim Novak in a pristine white winter coat (collar popped), and making the grubby Great Depression look snappy with striped and checkered suits for Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “The Sting.” Her knack for understanding the fusion of character and actress gave us Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont and Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina (and Jo Stockton in “Funny Face” and Princess Ann in “Roman Holiday”).
Head herself had a more understated — if no less iconic – style, rocking an abrupt bob haircut and round glasses and eschewing bright colors for blacks, whites, browns and beiges, usually in the form of two-piece suits. With little in the way of formal art or fashion training, Head nonetheless rose to the top of the industry, receiving eight Academy Awards for costume design, the most of anyone in the category, and the most Oscars ever received by a woman.
Born to German-Jewish immigrant Max Posener, a haberdasher, and first-generation-American Anna E. Levy, Head was 26 when she embarked on her film career after several lean years teaching French and art.
In 1923, Head, who had no experience with costumes but was eager to earn more money, answered an ad for a sketch artist job at Paramount Pictures with a portfolio that belonged to another student from her drawing class. She was hired anyway and soon began designing.
As the erstwhile romance language instructor later opined in her book “The Dress Doctor,” “Fashion is a language. Some know it, some learn it, some never will.”
Known as “the Doctor” on the Paramount lot, Head became the studio’s chief costume designer in 1938. While her early work at Paramount had ripples in the real world — including the popularization of that sarong she designed for Dorothy Lamour in “The Jungle Princess” (1936) — Head would have to wait a decade for her first Oscar nomination. That’s because the category for Costume Design didn’t exist until 1948.
Head won her first Oscar in 1949 with Gile Steele for their work on “The Heiress,” where she managed the not-so-difficult task of making Olivia de Havilland and a pre-car-crash Montgomery Clift look good and the more onerous task of getting them to agree to their 19th-century costumes.
Because the Academy had categories for black-and-white and color costume design, Head was able to collect her second and third Oscars in 1950 for “All About Eve” (black-and-white) and “Samson and Delilah” (color). She got her fourth (and first solo win) the following year for “A Place in the Sun,” starring Elizabeth Taylor in an iconic, off-the-shoulder number that became the model for many a prom dress.
Diminutive, funny and exacting, Head was a favorite designer of Hollywood’s leading ladies, with whom she kept an open dialogue about what they’d be wearing. As admired as her costume work was, she attributed her success to her ability to keep the peace between outspoken talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
“I’ve been a confirmed fence-sitter,” Head said. “That’s why I’ve been around so long.”
One of the many people she managed to please was Alfred Hitchcock, for whom she was a regular collaborator from “Rear Window” (1954) onward. When Head left Paramount for Universal in 1967, after 43 year, many believed it was to work more with Hitchcock, then under contract there.
Head once said “to be a good designer in Hollywood, one has to be a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dress-maker, pin cushion, historian, nurse maid and purchasing agent too.”
Head was such a strong character in her own right that two decades after her death in 1981, she served as the basis for the indomitable superhero costumer Edna “E” Mode in “The Incredibles.”
While she created indelible looks for tempestuous stars, Head preferred to design for men, boasting that her win for “The Sting” was the first time an Oscar for costuming went to a picture without a female lead.
Receiving her eighth and final award for that film, she said “Just imagine dressing the two handsomest men in the world and then getting this.”
The Doctor was aware of the privilege of her lot, but she held to a credo that tracked with her own rise from inexperienced scribbler to the unchallenged master of cinematic costume design: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com