Edith Head was born in San Bernardino, California, in 1897. In 1923, after a brief career as a schoolteacher, Head answered an advertisement for a sketch artist at Paramount Studios. Later she occupied the position of assistant designer, and costumed the B-movie players and extras. In 1938, Paramount named Edith Head chief designer; she remained at the studio in this capacity until 1967. That same year she received a contract with Universal Studios, where she worked until her death in 1981. From the 1950s on, Head became a media personality through her regular appearances on the television show Art Linkletter’s House Party, where she would perform a live verbal and visual makeover on members of the studio audience. She also published two books: The Dress Doctor (1959) and How to Dress for Success (1967). As head of design for Paramount Pictures, Edith Head was the last great designer to work under contract to a major film studio.
During her fifty-eight-year career, Head received more than one thousand screen credits, won thirty five Oscar nominations, and was granted the Academy Award for costume design an unprecedented eight times. Head was responsible for the on-screen persona of such stars as Mae West, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Haviland, Gloria Swanson, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor. She was legendary for her ability to please difficult personalities and to camouflage figure problems. Her “character” costumes were among her most successful, including those for Double Indemnity (1944, The Heiress (1949), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Head was especially proud of her work on The Heiress, for which she had traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to conduct period research, winning her the first of her many Academy Awards. Her collaborations with the director Alfred Hitchcock were renowned, in his films Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955, and Vertigo (1958).
Edith Head made herself known for designing beautiful and flattering clothes which the movie goers could easily imagine wearing. Her costumes for the Mae West film, She Done Him Wrong (1933) set off a flurry of nineties-inspired fashions, while the sarong worn by Dorothy Lamour in the film The Jungle Princess (1936) continued to influence styles well into the next decade. Her costumes for Barbara Stanwyck in The lady Eve (1941), which featured bare midriffs and fringed bolero jackets, are said to have popularized Latin American styles; and the star was so thrilled that had Edith Head written into her contract. Her most influential design by far was the lilac-strewn gown worm by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). The dress was a sensation in the teen market, and thousands of copies were sold.
Edith Head’s designs became synonymous with home-grown American fashion. Her intelligence and dedication secured her a position both in the Hollywood studio system and in the history of fashion.