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Edith Head


Edith Head

Edith Head
Edith Head in 1976
Born Edith Claire Posener
(1897-10-28)October 28, 1897
Searchlight, Nevada
Died October 24, 1981(1981-10-24) (aged 83)
Los Angeles, California
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley (B.A.)
Stanford University (M.A.)
Years active 1927–1981
Spouse(s) Charles Head (1923–1938; divorced)
Wiard Ihnen (1940–1979; his death)

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was an American costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, starting with The Heiress (1949) and ending with The Sting (1973).

Born and raised in California, Head managed to get a job as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures, without any relevant training. She first acquired notability for Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong dress, and then became a household name after the Academy Awards created a new category of Costume Designer in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively, and these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.

After 43 years she left Paramount for Universal, possibly because of her successful partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, and also adapted her skills for television.


  • Early life and career 1
  • The Paramount years 2
  • The Universal years 3
  • Death 4
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame 5
  • Actors and actresses designed for 6
  • Academy Awards 7
  • Guest appearances 8
  • Posthumous references 9
  • References 10
  • Sources 11
  • External links 12

Early life and career

She was born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy. Her father, born in January 1858, was a naturalized American citizen from Germany, who came to the United States in 1876. Her mother was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1875, the daughter of an Austrian father and a Bavarian mother. It is not known where Max and Anna met, but they married in 1895, per the 1900 United States Federal Census records. Just before Edith's birth, Max Posener opened a small haberdashery in San Bernardino which failed within a year. In 1905 Anna married mining engineer Frank Spare, from Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently as Spare's jobs moved. The only place Head could later recall living in during her early years was Searchlight, Nevada. Frank and Anna Spare passed Edith off as their mutual child. As Frank Spare was a Catholic, Edith ostensibly became one as well.[1]

In 1919, Edith received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1920 earned a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University.[2] She became a language teacher with her first position as a replacement at Bishop's School in La Jolla teaching French. 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.[3] To improve her drawing skills, at this point rudimentary, she took evening classes at the Chouinard Art College.

On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 1936 after a number of years of separation, she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death.

The Paramount years

In 1924, despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, the 26-year-old Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in the costume department. Later she admitted to "borrowing" other 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 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. Over the course of her long career, she was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, annually from 1948 through to 1966, and won eight times – receiving more Oscars than any other woman.[4]

Although Head was featured in studio publicity from the mid-1920s, she was originally over-shadowed by Paramount's lead designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton. Head was instrumental in conspiring against Banton, and after his resignation in 1938 she became a high profile designer in her own right. Her association with the "sarong" dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane (1937) made her well-known among the general public, although Head was a more restrained designer than either Banton or Adrian. She gained public attention for the top mink-lined gown she created for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), which caused much comment owing to it countering 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.[5]

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. She herself always dressed very plainly, preferring thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits. As a result, she was a favorite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s, such as [6]

On February 3, 1955 (Season 5 Episode 21), Edith Head appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life. She and her partner won a total of $1540. Her winnings were donated to charity.[7]

Head also authored two books, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967), describing her career and design philosophy. These books have been re-edited in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

The Universal years

In 1967, at the age of 70, she left Paramount Pictures and joined Universal Pictures, where she remained until her death in 1981. By this point, Hollywood was rapidly changing from what it had been during Head's heyday in the 1930s-1940s. Studio-based production was giving way to outdoors and on-scene shooting, and many of the actresses from that era whom she worked with and knew intimately had retired or were working less. She thus turned more of her attention to TV, where some old friends such as Olivia De Havilland had begun working. 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.[8] 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 (1982), starring Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, a job Head was chosen for because of her expertise on 1940s fashions. She modeled Martin and Reiner's outfits on classic film noir and the movie, released in theaters just after her death, was dedicated to her memory.


Head died on October 24, 1981, four days before her 84th birthday, from [6]

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Edith Head's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6504 Hollywood Boulevard.[9]

Actors and actresses designed for

Among the actresses Edith Head designed for were:

Among the actors Edith Head designed for were:

Academy Awards

Head received eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, more than any other person, from a total of 35 nominations.[10]

Note: After 1967, the Academy no longer distinguished between awards for color and black and white films.

Guest appearances

Head made a brief appearance in Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star (1973) acting as herself, the clothing designer for Anne Baxter's character. Her Oscars were displayed on a desk in the scene.

Again as herself, she appeared in the film Lucy Gallant (1955) as the emcee of a fashion show. She also appeared in The Pleasure of His Company (1961) as she showed dresses for Debbie Reynolds' wedding in the film, and in The Oscar (1966) in three short, non-speaking scenes opposite Elke Sommer's character, a sketch artist turned costume designer like Head herself.

Posthumous references

In 2001 the group They Might Be Giants released a song on their album, Mink Car, entitled "(She Thinks She's) Edith Head."

As part of a series of stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service in February 2003, commemorating the behind-the-camera personnel who make movies, Head was featured on one to honor costume design.

On October 28, 2013, Internet search engine Google commemorated Head's 116th birthday with a Google Doodle.[12][13]

After great success in the United States, the critically acclaimed one-woman play, A Conversation with Edith Head, premiered in Canada in January 2014 at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. The "sold out" shows (inspired by the book Edith Head's Hollywood, co-written by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro with a foreword by Bette Davis), co-written by Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen and starring and directed by Susan Claassen, received rave previews and reviews. Among the key props used in the production were a size 2 dress purportedly made by Edith Head for Grace Kelly and illustrations of Head's designs. After the lively, very well researched and engaging 90-minute show, audience members were given the opportunity of an unscripted meet and greet with Claasen while in character as Edith Head.

An Edith Head costume collection from the Paramount Pictures Archive left Hollywood—for just the second time—to be shown exclusively at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster in "Designing Woman: Edith Head at Paramount 1924-1967" as presented by the Fox Foundation from June 7 through August 17, 2014.

The costume designer Edna Mode in the 2004 Pixar movie The Incredibles was largely based on Edith Head, according to director Brad Bird, who voiced the character.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Fishko, Sara. Edith Head. February 25, 2011.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Chierichetti, David. (2003). Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer, p. 134. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-056740-6.
  12. ^ "Edith Head's 116th Birthday", Google Doodles
  13. ^


  • John Duka. "Edith Head, Fashion Designer for the Movies, Dies." The New York Times. October 27, 1981.

External links

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