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From the Archives: Edith Head, Designer Who Dressed Film Greats, Dies

Edith Head, the film costume designer who, from behind her plain bangs and hornrimmed glasses, dressed nearly six decades of Hollywood’s most gorgeous men and women—and won more Oscars than any one of them—has died here of a rare bone disease.

The five foot, 1 1/4-inch tall designer, who began her career by outfitting an elephant in cloth-of-gold for a 1923 silent movie, had admitted to being in her 70s, and also more cheerfully, to lying about her age. But acquaintances reckoned her to be about 80, or even older.

Her attorney, John T. Piggot, reported Monday that she died Saturday in Good Samaritan Hospital of myelofibrosis myeloid metaplasia, a progression bone disease that she had battled, along with anemia, for several years. Piggot said he believed Miss Head’s 83rd birthday would have been Wednesday. Her funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. that day at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Interment well be private.

The disease, and her recent spells in the hospital, had not kept her from her work. Friends said she had recently finished “fantasy costumes” for a Steve Martin comedy, clothes that were photographed in the same black and white stock that recorded her earliest design efforts.

She came to the movie backlots almost 60 years ago from teaching Spanish in a La Jolla classroom. And, just as she often affected the schoolmarm look for herself, it was the unobtrusive elegance of such designs as the little grey suit—so beloved by director Alfred Hitchcock for his sleek blonde heroines—that was Head’s bread and butter.

But of the more than 1,000 films for which she worked on costumes, it was Head’s “spectacular” numbers, the dresses of lame and mink and mousseline silk—clothes from the glitter days when, as Head once said, movie stars dressed “like nothing human”—that helped to make her name more durable than those of many actors. They also brought her eight Oscars from 35 nominations for costume design.

Among the award winners were “All About Eve” and “Samson and Delilah,” both in 1950, one filmed in black and white, the other in color; “A Place in the Sun” a year later, and “Roman Holiday” in 1953.

Gave Lamour the Sarong

Her plain face and prim, unchanging style were a fixture at Paramount, where she began work in 1923. She started as a sketcher there, working up from efforts like the elephant ensemble, loincloths for Cecil B. DeMille Bible epics, prairie poke bonnets for “horse operas,” and in 1936, Dorothy Lamour’s worldbeating sarong.

Her first solo design credit was in 1933, for “She Done Him Wrong,” whose star, Mae West, asked Head—according to legend—to make her dresses “tight enough to show I’m a woman, but loose enough to show I’m a lady.” It was a phrase which Head once remarked would make a good epitaph.

But instead of an epitaph, it was the beginning. She became chief designer in 1938, a post she kept until 1966, when Paramount was sold and she went to work as chief designer at Universal Studios.

Miss Head was wearing her trademark bangs, round black glasses and beige suit in 1949, when she worked on her first Oscar-winning film, “The Heiress,” in which she dressed Olivia de Haviland as a turn-of-the-century spinster. And ever after, Head clung to her same look, even through her last Academy Award, in 1973. It was a job she described as “my idea of heaven”—dressing Robert Redford and Paul Newman in their natty period costumes for “The Sting.”

Head never acknowledged that she was a designer in the Paris couture sense. She saw her job as “a cross between camouflage and reconstruction.” And she always intended to have her works blend with, rather than stand out from the films, whether hiding an actor’s figure flaws or designing textbook-accurate petticoats for Civil War hoop skirts, knowing the audience would never see them. A perfectionist about period costumes, Miss Head studied museum displays and made even corsets from scratch.

When Paris couturier Thierry Mugler visited her recently, a friend said she told him she was not his sort of designer, one who had complete freedom of imagination. She said she had to answer to the tastes of producers, directors and actors before her own.

That did not keep her from exercising her own will. Her eight Oscars were ranged in a glittering, intimidating display in her Universal Studios office. It was designed to “put difficult actresses and actors in a more mellow mood,” she once said. “It’s impossible (for them) to sit there, look at eight Oscars and say, ‘Now, look, Edith . . . .’ “

With an audience of millions of filmgoers, her designs nonetheless entered the language, like the Lamour sarong, and occasionally the dress shops, like the Oscar-winning boatneck blouse and toreador pants she created in 1954 for Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina.”

A Role in Television

“Anything I’ve done like that has been an accident,” she once said in an interview. “I’m not creating styles or fashion.” Still, Head’s work had a following of its own. She was a talk show regular, first on the old Art Linkletter show, where she selected women from the audience to advise them on style and color.

She traveled the country with fashion shows and exhibits, offering advice like “You can have anything in the world if you wear the right dress.” She wrote two books, “The Dress Doctor” and “How to Dress for Success.” Since 1974, she had also expanded her efforts into design work for Vogue Patterns while she as at Universal.

Her big disappointment, she said repeatedly, was not winning as Oscar for Grace Kelly’s and Cary Grant’s chicly-elegant clothes in one of her favorite films, “To Catch a Thief.”

Her 40-year marriage to Wiard B. Ihnen, an Oscar-winning art director, ended with his death in 1979 at 91. There are apparently no surviving relatives.

Head’s versions of her youth and past were sketchy, and almost as numerous as the people she told them to. She had variously claimed to have been born in Mexico; in Arizona; in Searchlight, Nev; in Hollywood and in San Bernardino, where she claimed a courthouse fire destroyed her birth records.

Once she arrived in Hollywood, her life was far less mysterious. She was hired by Paramount on the basis of a portfolio in which she “innocently” included friends’ work. The man who hired her “knew, of course” she once said. “He told me he’d never seen so much talent in one portfolio.”

Head told one interviewer she could cut, pin and drape, but couldn’t sew on a machine—only by hand.

The actors she dressed were a star-billing roster, from Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire to the 52 big name actors, like Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy, in “Airport 1975.”

Her most spectacular creations drew as much attention as the stars who wore them. They included a mink skirt, lined with ruby and gold sequins, that Ginger Rogers wore in “Lady in the Dark,” according to friend David Chierichetti, and the Oscar-winning green and white furbelowed dress for Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun” in 1951.

Her recent works reflected Hollywood’s shifts from fantasy to fact, from extravagance to frugality. The 17 costume changes Head made for Natalie Wood in “The Last Married Couple in America” included outfits for roller discoing, touch football and jogging. They were a far cry from the “diamond-studded bathing suits, gold riding boots” Head once cited sardonically as the fantasy attire of 1930s films.

Head’s own work was mostly behind the cameras, but in 1966, she appeared as herself in the movie “The Oscar.” She was names a Times Woman of the Year in 1959. And from 1961, she served as fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards ceremony.

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