Edith Head was a celebrated Hollywood costume designer. Her 35 Oscar nominations and 8 wins make her not only the most honored costume designer but the most honored woman in any category in Academy Award history. Today, on the 117th anniversary of her birth (October 28, 1897), we celebrate this legendary woman you should know.
Most of Edith’s Academy Award wins were in the early 50s, including two for Audrey Hepburn movies, Roman Holiday and Sabrina, but it was her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock that cemented her status as such an influential part of American film history.
“You can lead a horse to water and you can even make it drink, but you can’t make actresses wear what they don’t want to wear.” – Edith Head
Having achieved preeminence in her field, it’s interesting to know that Edith only came to discover costume designing by chance. With a bachelor of arts degree in French from the University of California, Berkeley (1919) and a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University (1920), Edith got her professional start as a French language teacher.
After teaching only a short time, Edith wanted a higher salary. So she told her employer – the Hollywood School for Girls – that she could also teach art, though she only briefly studied the subject in high school. To improve her drawing skills, which were basic at best, she took evening art classes at the Chouinard Art College. A new career quickly followed.
October 28, 2013 Google Doodle honoring Edith Head
Edith got into films in 1924 after answering a Paramount Pictures “wanted” ad for a sketch artist in the costume department. Despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, she got the job. Later she admitted to borrowing another student’s sketches for her job interview.
Edith began designing costumes for silent films, starting with The Wanderer in 1925 and, by the 1930s, had established herself as one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers. From 1938 to 1966, Edith held the top job as Head of Design at Paramount Pictures, contributing in one way or another to over 1,000 motion pictures (supervising costumes for 47 films in 1940 alone). She worked at Paramount for a total of 43 years until moving to Universal Pictures in 1967.
Edith was known for her low-key working style and, unlike many of her male contemporaries, usually consulted extensively with the female stars with whom she worked. As a result, she was a favorite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and ’50s, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Sophia Loren, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Baxter, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood. She is credited with putting Dorothy Lamour in her first sarong for The Jungle Princess.
Edith Head died on October 24, 1981, four days before her 84th birthday, from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease.
Academy Award Wins
1950 – The Heiress
1951 – Samson and Delilah
1951 – All About Eve
1952 – A Place in the Sun
1954 – Roman Holiday
1955 – Sabrina
1961 – The Facts of Life
1974 – The Sting
Edith Head Trivia
The character “Edna Mode” in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) was modeled on her.
The Costume Department building on the Paramount Pictures lot is named after her.