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Edith Head in 1976
Edith Claire Posener
October 28, 1897
|Died||October 24, 1981 (aged 83)|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California|
|Alma mater||University of California, Berkeley (B.A., 1919)|
Stanford University (M.A., 1920)
(m. 1923; div. 1938)
(m. 1940; died 1979)
Born and raised in California, Head started her career as a Spanish teacher, but was interested in design. After studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1923. She won acclaim for her design of Dorothy Lamour's trademark sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, and became a household name after the Academy Award for Best Costume Design was created in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively; these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.
Head worked at Paramount for 44 years. In 1967, the company declined to renew her contract, and she was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to join Universal Pictures. There she earned her eighth and final Academy Award for her work on The Sting in 1973.
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. Max and Anna married in 1895, according to 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.
The marriage did not survive. In 1905, Anna remarried, this time to mining engineer Frank Spare, originally from Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently as Spare's jobs moved. The only place Head could later recall living 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.
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.
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. To improve her drawing skills, at this point rudimentary, she took evening classes at the Otis Art Institute and 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 1938 after a number of years of separation, she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death. In 1940 she married award-winning art director Wiard Ihnen, a marriage which lasted until his death in 1979.
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. Later she admitted to "borrowing" other students' 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 1949 (the first year that the Oscar for Best Costume Design was awarded) through 1966, and won eight times - receiving more Oscars than any other woman.
Although Head was featured in studio publicity from the mid-1920s, she was originally overshadowed 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 the mood of wartime austerity. The establishment, in 1949, of the Academy Award for Costume Design further boosted her career, giving her a record-breaking run of Award nominations and wins, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz. Head and other film designers like Adrian became well known to the public.
Head was known for her unique 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 1950s, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, Head was frequently "loaned out" by Paramount to other studios at the request of their female stars. She herself always dressed very plainly, preferring thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits.
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 $1,540. Her winnings were donated to charity.
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.
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. She designed Endora's clothing on Bewitched, and made a cameo appearance in 1973 on the detective series Columbo beside Anne Baxter, playing herself and displaying her Oscars to date. In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting.
In 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. 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.
Among the actresses Edith Head designed for were:
Among the actors Edith Head designed for were:
Note: After 1967, the Academy no longer distinguished between awards for color and black and white films.
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.
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.
The one-woman play A Conversation with Edith Head premiered in Canada in 2014 at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. Inspired by the book Edith Head's Hollywood, the play was by Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen and starred and was directed by Susan Claassen. 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. Audience members were given the opportunity of an unscripted meet and greet with Claassen while in character as Edith Head after the show.
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.
A fictionalized version of Edith Head appears as one of the protagonists in the mystery novels by Renee Patrick, Design for Dying (2016), Dangerous to Know (2017), and Script for Scandal (2020).