It’s been almost 29 years since Edith Head’s died, but interest in the enigmatic American costume designer with the signature, seemingly impenetrable, circular eyeglasses has never waned. This fall, the Hollywood legend is the subject of a new book, as well as a one-woman show about her life that opens Oct. 1 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
Why is she so fascinating to so many people? It’s a combination of the eye-catching designs she created for the industry’s grandest stars and the force of her bigger-than-life personality. Head claimed to have worked on more than 1,131 films in a career lasting from 1927 until her death just a few days shy of her 84th birthday in 1981, and she remains one of the most remarkable women in Hollywood history. No woman has equaled Head’s 35 Oscar nominations or eight wins (for “The Heiress,” 1949; “Samson and Delilah,” 1950; “All About Eve,” 1950; “A Place in the Sun,” 1951; “Roman Holiday,” 1953; “Sabrina,” 1954; “The Facts of Life,” 1960; and “The Sting,” 1973).
Head’s output was prodigious. In the 1940s, she produced costumes for 40-plus films a year. Savvy about advancing her career, she made sure to cement relationships with essential players. Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly often demanded in their contracts that Head design their wardrobes. Iconic director Alfred Hitchcock used her on 11 of his productions.
Despite, or perhaps because of, her success, Head had a dark side. She was notorious for her tendency to treat staff sharply. To many of her associates, that famous bun with its array of pins seemed the perfect analogy for the designer’s prickliness. And she wasn’t shy about taking credit even if, on occasion, it was for someone else’s labors. Although Hubert de Givenchy was the designer of Audrey Hepburn’s classic black dress with its cutting-edge bateau neckline in “Sabrina,” it was Head who took the bows for its creation.
Susan Claassen nails “Edie” in her one-woman show, “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which premiered in 2002 and has traveled the United States and Europe, with a recent five-week run in London’s West End. Claassen, at 5-foot-1 a remarkable fascimile of the diminutive designer, explains why it’s taken eight years for the tour to reach Los Angeles, the place one might most expect for it to be performed: “We wanted to make sure when we came into Edith’s home we came in the right way, through the right venue, so it would be showcased to pay tribute to the legacy,” she says. “So even though we’ve played Southern California, this is the L.A. premiere.”
The play is inspired by former fashion journalist and Los Angeles Times writer Paddy Calistro’s book, “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” originally published in 1983. (A 25th anniversary edition came out in 2008.) Calistro and Claassen collaborated to create the one-woman show, and many of the insights into the designer’s life were culled from intimate and lengthy taped interviews that journalist Norma Lee Browning had begun with the designer in 1979. Calistro was asked to complete this unfinished autobiography. Much of the play’s dialogue is taken directly from Head’s lips.
It’s an intimate experience, and the small stage is replete with memorabilia (meticulous copies of Elizabeth Taylor’s famous tulle dress with its 19-inch waist, adorned with violets, from “A Place in the Sun,” and the sumptuous brown gown Bette Davis wore in “All About Eve” are displayed on mannequins). The production will satisfy those curious about costume design or gossip from Tinseltown’s golden days, and, of course, those keen to understand the elusive Head.
Jay Jorgensen’s new book, “Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer,” a nearly 400-page hardcover, adds extra insight. The book features 350 high-quality images of previously unseen color pictures of costumes and behind-the-scenes action. Although many of Head’s masterpieces were reworked, taken apart or no longer exist, Jorgensen’s tome acts as a fundamental catalog featuring rare sketches and photos that visually archive pieces essential to costume design history.
There are the famous jaw-droppers: Grace Kelly’s couture-quality wardrobe designed for “To Catch a Thief” that outshone sparkling gems even in the eyes of ex-jewel thief Cary Grant. Though nominated for her work on the film, Head lost to Charles LeMaire for “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” She called the loss “the single greatest disappointment” of her career. As Jorgensen writes, “And while Edith could hold back telling an actress or director what she really thought, she had no trouble letting LeMaire know her true feelings about the loss … that her ornate gowns for ‘Thief’ were better than the traditional Chinese cheongsams that he designed.”
Another costume, flamboyant as it is famous, is the ornate peacock-feather-emblazoned cape worn by Hedy Lamarr in “Samson and Delilah.” Though she did win one of her beloved statuettes for this film, Head resented what she regarded as Cecil B. DeMille’s garish taste in overruling one of her designs and insisting on the feathers. A stickler for authenticity, she was convinced that such feathers didn’t exist in the region where the film was set. However, DeMille was adamant, and suggested that she hand-gather feathers from his own ranch. So Head and her team sifted through 2,000 plumes that had shed during molting season. In later years, she would always sneer when asked to discuss the wardrobe from the movie, especially when she found out, as Jorgensen notes, that “after the film’s release archaeologists discovered the city of Philistia, and proved that DeMille had gotten it wrong.”
Despite the Technicolor intensity of the peacock feather anecdote, most of the images in the book are humble ones: Head’s publicity shots, catching her off-guard while working among her peers; images from her childhood; and intimate moments with her second and much-loved husband of 40 years, art director Wiard Ihnen (a two-time Academy Award winner himself). The woman in the photos isn’t always the designer with severe bangs and dowdy suits. Often, shot without those intimidating spectacles, she reveals warm, brown eyes, and the typically pursed lips flatten into a calm, almost lighthearted, pout. There are glimpses of a playful young Edith in braids wearing colorful Mexican-inspired dresses. And we learn that at her treasured home, Casa Ladera in Beverly Hills, she displayed her more accessible side when she cooked and entertained.
But the overall impression is one of a piercingly intense woman whose passions most often settled on the dark side.
When asked his assessment, Jorgensen concludes that “Edith started out from almost nothing … She became one of the hardest-working executives in Hollywood, at a time when there were hardly any female executives at all. Of course, she had her faults, the biggest one being that she often lied to get her way. But she also loved what she did … I came to have a great respect for her determination. I think Edith’s personality was formed at a very young age … I think she was always driven, and it paid off. [Head] felt being a star herself was the surest way to maintain her position at the studio, and she was right. I don’t think Edith was any more corrupt than anyone else who achieves success in Hollywood. Nobody as famous as she was can be everything to everyone. Edith’s worst trait was her inability to share credit. Her best traits were her charm and her intelligence.”
Paddy Calistro also expresses conclusions about Head in the author’s note from her book. “Was Edith Head talented? Yes, but … Was she a great designer? No. Will she continue to be the most famous designer in Hollywood history? Yes.” Calistro’s thoughts are clear-cut with respect to her subject’s legacy. And she captures the great designer’s essential duality well: “People despised her and people loved her.”
“Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer,” by Jay Jorgensen, Running Press, available at bookstores and online, $75.
“Edith Head’s Hollywood: 25th Anniversary Edition,” by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Angel City Press, available at https://www.angelcitypress.com and Barnes & Noble, $25.
Susan Claassen in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” El Portal Theatre, through Oct. 24. General seating with no intermission. $35. Contact (866) 811-4111 or https://www.edithhead.biz.