Edith Head

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Edith Head
Edith Head .jpg
Born October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981
New York
Occupation costume designer


She was born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy. Her father, Max Posener, was a naturalized American citizen from Prussia, who came to the United States in 1876. She received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919 and earned a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University[1] in 1920. She became a language teacher with her first position at Bishop's School in La Jolla teaching French as a replacement. After one year, she took a position teaching French at the Hollywood School for Girls. Wanting a slightly higher salary, she told the school that she could also teach art, even though she had only briefly studied the discipline in high school.[2] To improve her drawing skills, which at this point were rudimentary, she took evening art classes at the Chouinard Art College. On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. The marriage ended in divorce in 1936 after a number of years of separation, although she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death.

Edith at Paramount

In 1924, despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in the costume department. Later she admitted to borrowing another student's sketches for her job interview. She began designing costumes for silent films, commencing with The Wanderer in 1925 and, by the 1930s, had established herself as one of Hollywood's leading costume designers. She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967, possibly prompted by her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock, who had also moved to Universal, in 1960. Head's marriage to set designer Wiard Ihnen, on September 8, 1940, lasted until his death from prostate cancer in 1979. Throughout her long career, she was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, including every year from 1948 through 1966, and won eight times – more Oscars than any other woman.[3] Although Head was featured in studio publicity from the mid-1920s, she was originally over-shadowed by Paramount's head designers, first Howard Greer then Travis Banton. It was only after Banton's resignation in 1938 that she achieved fame as a designer in her own right. Her association with the "sarong" dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane made her well-known among the general public, although Head was a more restrained designer than either Banton or Adrian. In 1944, she gained public attention for the top mink-lined gown she created for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, which gained notoriety due to its being counter to the mood of wartime austerity. The establishment in 1949 of the category of an Academy Award for Costume Designer further boosted her career, because it began her record-breaking run of Award nominations and wins, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz.[citation needed] Head was known for her low-key working style and, unlike many of her male contemporaries, usually consulted extensively with the female stars with whom she worked. As a result she was a favorite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and '50s such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Baxter, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood. In fact, Head was frequently "lent out" by Paramount to other studios at the request of their female stars.[citation needed] During the 1950s, she was dubbed the "queen of the shirtwaisters" by her detractors. However, this approach to costume design was in line with studio policy which discouraged films from becoming instantly dated through the use of short-lived costume fads (especially in late release or re-released films). Despite this trait, or even because of it, she has been cited as one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite costume designers and had a long association with Hal Wallis among others. She was also well known for her work for Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Head also designed the costumes for many of the solo films of Jerry Lewis while he was at Paramount. During her long career, she was occasionally criticized for her working methods. Early in her career, she opposed the creation of a union to represent studio-based costume designers and outfitters and was accused of being anti-union on several occasions.[citation needed] Even though a favorite of many stars, her design trademark of restraint on occasion brought her into conflict with the wishes of other film stars and directors. Claudette Colbert was one actress who apparently preferred not to work with Head, while her relationship with flamboyant film director Mitchell Leisen was by all accounts quite tense. Apocryphally, despite her own design accomplishments, she had a reputation for taking credit for others' work. However, this practice only became controversial in the latter part of her career, because, in the era of studio-dominated film production, a department head commonly claimed credit for design work created in his or her department.[citation needed]

Edith at Universal

In 1967, she left Paramount Pictures and joined Universal Pictures, where she remained until her death in 1981. As studio-based feature film production declined and many of her favored stars retired, Head became more active as a television costume designer, often designing outfits for film actors, such as Olivia De Havilland, who were now involved in television series or film work. In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting. During the late 1970s, Edith Head was asked to design a woman's uniform for the United States Coast Guard, because of the increasing number of women in the Coast Guard. Head called the assignment a highlight in her career and received the Meritorious Public Service Award for her efforts.[4] Her designs for a TV mini-series based on the novel Little Women were well-received. Her last film project was the black-and-white comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, starring Steve Martin and Carl Reiner. For the production, she re-created fashions of the 1940s, extensively referencing the film clips from classic film noir motion pictures. It was released shortly after her death and dedicated to her memory.[citation needed]


Head received eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design from a total of 35 nominations. She designed award winning designs for the following actors and actresses. This does not include the hundreds of other designs that were not acknowledge with a nomination or award.

  1. Template:Cite book
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  3. Fishko, Sara. Edith Head. February 25, 2011.
  4. U.S. Coast Guard website
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