My dear Edith: It’s been quite some time since I interviewed you in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. As you sat at your desk with your iconic page boy hairdo and bangs that fringed your signature dark glasses, I wondered what was behind the persona of one so revered in costume design history in America? After a long career that spanned from silent films to the Golden Age when Hollywood had fabulous films and fabulous clothes, and you dressed all the great stars, you garnered eight Academy Awards, more than any other woman in history. Over the years you became a highly-prolific designer, lecturer, producer of fashion galas, fashion editor and author. You truly personify an amazing diva, who infiltrated the hallowed halls of design without even an art portfolio to prove your worth. But herein is the tale of a young girl with a lot of luck on her side and an angel to guide her way.
LANDING A JOB AT PARAMOUNT In the matter of landing her first job at Paramount Edith admits the truth. In her book, “The Dress Doctor (Little Brown and Company) Edith recalls how it all came about. “During summer vacation, looking for a summer job, I answered a newspaper advertisement, which said the studio was looking for sketch artists to help design the clothes in a forthcoming Cecil B. DeMille epic called, “The Golden Bed.” Edith explained that she had been studying in the evenings at Chouinard Art School. “My daytime job as a teacher made it possible for me to attend classes at night and I thought that the pay as a sketch artist might be better than a teacher’s salary. I wrote for an appointment and received an answer: I was to be at the studio the next morning at ten, bringing sketches. That night I made the rounds at Chouinard and collected all the students’ best landscapes, seascapes, oils, watercolors, sketches, life, art, everything. Looking back, I cannot imagine doing such a thing and acknowledge this youthful and naive indiscretion with my late apologies.” When Edith showed the sketches to Howard Greer, the studio’s head designer he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen so much talent in one portfolio! Report tomorrow for work,” he said, “your salary will be fifty dollars a week.” Fifty dollars a week looked like a fortune to a schoolteacher earning fifteen hundred dollars a year.
DISCOVERING A FRAUD The next day Edith was sitting in front of a drawing board staring at a blank piece of paper on which she was to sketch evening dresses and riding habits. She recalls, “I sat there a long time. I’d figured I could fake it but…. “What’s the matter?” Howard asked. “Don’t know how to draw!” I admitted."But all those wonderful sketches in your portfolio!” he exclaimed. “Borrowed,” I said. It didn’t take long for Greer to realize that Edith didn’t have much talent. Oddly enough, for some reason Greer found the whole situation amusing and took Edith under his wing and taught her how to sketch and become a designer. Obviously, Edith did have a natural talent and learned fast. “From the first day at the studio, I was fascinated, enthusiastic and willing, but I hadn’t the least notion that I’d ever survive. I wonder why I did. Perhaps it was because I worked hard and was willing to tackle anything---paint polka dots on china silk butterfly wings for Peter Pan, paint shoes with printed patterns to match printed gowns to be worn by a famous film star.” Edith continued her studies at Chouinard at night and studied everything Howard Greer and his top assistant Travis Banton did.
THE BOTTOM OF THE TOTEM POLE Luckily, Edith was a quick student. Within six months, she could sketch in the style of Greer or in the style of Banton so that it was impossible to tell that someone else had done the work. Edith was on her way but at the bottom of the totem pole so designing for great stars was out of reach, but not for long. She recalls, “My first big assignment was to do the Candy Ball costumes for Cecil B. de Mille’s film, “The Golden Bed.” I drew girls dressed as lollypops, peppermint sticks and chocolate drops. Howard asked me if I knew how to the designs could be executed and I assured him they were simple. So he took the rather amusing sketches to show de Mille, who was known around the studio as The Great Man. He melted on the spot and promptly Okayed them. “Then came the crisis. I’d drawn very elongated girls with bodies like peppermint sticks and candy cane fingernails two feet long. Came the day of the shooting and, shortly after, came a blast from Mr. de Mille—who was never a patient man. The peppermint sticks had started cracking during the dance routine. Using real candy proved to be a mess, whenever the dancers got within a half a foot of each other, the candy would stick. From that day on, I’ve never drawn anything I could not make. Stardom as Hollywood’s celebrated costume designer was yet to come before she did some of the best dressed animals on the screen. Later when she became head designer for Paramount the roster of stars dressed by Edith Head reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. Some of the great stars include: Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia de Havilland, Dorothy Lamour, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews and Faye Dunaway. Commenting about her career Edith stated, “Costume designers are not like other designers in the world, because through our magic we can change actors and actresses into the different roles they portray. We are a very specialized craft and tremendously important to the reality of the picture.”
EARLY LIFE IN MINING TOWNS Surprisingly, Edith Head began her career along dis-similar lines. A native Californian, her step- father was a mining engineer. “Of all the mining camps we lived in, this is the one I remember best, four miles out of a metropolis called, Searchlight, Nevada. I hated the loneliness of the desert, dreamed of cities, of playmates, of sounds, of people next door; but I loved it, too---the cactus and the greasewood that sprawled on the desert flow, the tiny yellow flowers of spring. My first patients were the local animals and pets who had to endure dressing up for my tea parties.” At some point the family moved to San Bernardino, California and received her BA from the University of California and MA at Stanford, specializing in languages. Subsequently she taught Spanish at the Bishop School in La Jolla and later in Los Angeles. It was while she was teaching that Edith began studying at night at the Chouinard Art School and the rest is history. She married once to fellow classmate Charles Head, but the marriage was short lived. Later Edith married set designer Wiard Ihnen in 1940 and their marriage lasted until his death in 1979. However, she continued to be known as Edith Head until her death. (October 28, 1897-October 24, 1981).
Dear Edith, Your legacy rises to the celestial stars. Your work on a wide span of motion pictures and television shows, your advice as The Dress Doctor, and your amazing rise to stardom as America’s first and foremost costume designer leaves me breathless with awe and admiration. I am, as always, your admirer, Polly Guerin.