Edith Head was an American costume designer, who over the course of her five-decade-long career, won a record eight Academy Awards. A California native, she earned a B.A. degree in letters and sciences with honours in French from the University of California, Berkeley and went on to obtain an M.A. degree in romance languages from Stanford University. Edith began her professional life as a language teacher at Bishop's School in La Jolla. Later, she joined Hollywood School for Girls. During her time there, she expressed her desire to teach art and subsequently attended evening classes at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art College. In 1924, Edith Head landed a job as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures. She first garnered fame for Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong dress. After the Academy set up a new category for costume design in 1948, Head became an immensely popular figure. Her close working relationships with her subjects set her apart from her peers. She provided fashion advice to virtually every female star of Hollywood, as well as a number of male actors. She spent 43 years at Paramount before joining Universal, potentially due to her successful collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock.
Childhood & Early Life
Edith Head was born Edith Claire Posener on October 28, 1897, in San Bernardino, California, to Max Posener and Anna E. Levy. Her father was a German immigrant who had become a naturalized US citizen. Her mother was a native of Missouri and of Austrian and Bavarian descent.
Her parents divorced not long after her birth, and her mother, Anna E, Levy, subsequently married mining engineer Frank Spare. His job compelled the family to move on a regular basis.
In 1919, Edith Head obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in letters and sciences with honours in French from the University of California, Berkeley. In the following year, she received a Master of Arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University.
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Career As an Educator
After graduating from Stanford, Edith was hired as a replacement French language teacher at Bishop's School in La Jolla. A year later, she joined Hollywood School for Girls as a French teacher. In order to earn a higher salary, she approached the school asking if she could also teach art. She had not received any formal training in the art prior to this. To refine her skills, she started attending evening classes at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art College.
Career As a Costume Designer
Although Edith Head did not have any prior art, design, and costume design experience, she got a job as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1924. In the following year, she designed the costumes for the silent drama film ‘The Golden Bed’ but was not credited for her contribution. The first film for which she received credits was ‘The Legion of the Condemned’, which was a silent movie released in 1928.
Edith Head obtained her first Oscar nomination in 1949 for the 1948 film ‘The Emperor Waltz’. She won her first Academy Award in the following year for ‘The Heiress’ (1949). In the ensuing years, she went on to receive 33 more nominations and seven more awards.
Her other Academy-Award-winning films are ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949), ‘All About Eve’ (1950), ‘A Place in the Sun’ (1951), ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), ‘Sabrina’ (1954), ‘The Facts of Life’ (1960), and ‘The Sting (1973). She obtained her last Oscar nomination for the 1977 film ‘Airport '77’ in 1978.
She spent the first 43 years of her career in the entertainment industry at Paramount and then joined Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967. She did so probably because of her longtime professional partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, who had gone to Universal in 1960. She also did some TV work in the latter part of her career.
Unlike many of her male peers, Edith Head regularly consulted with her subjects, especially the female stars. This allowed her to develop great relationships with contemporary actresses. They would often request their respective studios to borrow her from Paramount to work in their films.
Between 1925 and 1981, she was involved in over five hundred film and TV projects. Her last film as a costume designer was the mystery comedy ‘Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid’, which was released posthumously in 1982.
Head wrote two books, ‘The Dress Doctor’(1959, Little Brown & Company) and ‘How To Dress For Success’ (1967, Random House New York).
Family & Personal Life
Edith Head was married twice in her life. Her first husband was Charles Head, the brother of one of her classmates at Chouinard. They exchanged wedding vows on July 25, 1923, and parted ways in 1938. Despite this, Edith continued to use his surname professionally for the rest of her life.
She tied the knot with art director Wiard Ihnen on September 8, 1940. They were married until his death on June 22, 1979. Neither marriage produced any children.
Death & Legacy
Edith Head passed away from myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer, on October 24, 1981, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Hollywood. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
In 1974, Head received a Motion Picture Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The character Edna Mode of Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles film series was based on Head.