Dressing for Oscar: The Edith Head Papers, 1934-1956

A bright pink program cover features the heading:Edith Head with an image of Edith Head posed with six of her Oscar statues. Black text under the image reads: The Glamour of Hollywood.
A Program for a ceremony honoring the fashion designs of Edith Head.

On Oscar Night of 2013 audiences were treated to a glimmering array of gowns and jewelry and watched transfixed as actresses Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, and Charlize Theron glided across the red carpet with style and poise in dresses by Prada, Shoji, and Dior. Though the hosting styles for the show may ebb and flow, one thing is certain: we will always enjoy seeing Hollywood’s Best dress up for Oscar.

As the gowns, tuxes, and tails make their way to the stage on awards night, one cannot help but recall the image of Grace Kelly wearing a silk aquamarine dress to collect her Academy Award for The Country Girl in 1955. This iconic image, so associated with dressing for the Oscars has been splashed across magazines all season and is often held as the paragon of class and grace in fashion.

Kelly’s dress (at the time the most expensive dress worn to the awards show), as well as the costumes for The Country Girl were both designed by that other icon of Hollywood style: costume designer Edith Head.

Before her death in 1981, Head had collected 8 Academy Awards and 34 nominations for her designs. Transformations such as Audrey Hepburn’s princess to pedestrian in Roman Holiday and Kim Novak’s grey suited femme fatale to a braless working girl from Kansas in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo owe their inspirations in part to Head’s brilliant designs.

A watercolor sketch of a blonde woman in a green dress. The woman is standing with her left hand on her hip. This is a sketch by costume designer Edith Head for a green dress for Grace Kelly's character in the feature film "The Country Girl."
A sketch by Head for a dress worn by Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl” (1954)

In honor of Women’s History Month, WCFTR is showcasing a few of our many collections that document the lives and work of some of the most talented women in entertainment. The Edith Head Papers, 1934-1956 uniquely demonstrates this spirit in documenting the woman who made a life’s work of dressing other women (and men) for their roles both on and off screen.

The Edith Head Papers constitute 9.2 c.f. (23 archives boxes) for an extensive collection that includes original watercolor sketches and design notes from Head’s work on the Oscar winning films All About Eve (1950) and Sabrina (1954), as well as nominated designs from To Catch a Thief (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Career (1959), Pepe (1960), and Wives and Lovers (1963) among others.

Head was a harbinger of fashion trends both in her work with Hollywood stars and in her efforts to help everyday 20th century women dress their best. Head regularly appeared on television and radio to dispense advice for women across the nation on dressing to achieve their goals. She also published two books, The Dress Doctor and How to Dress for Success. The latter features illustrations by Head to find a uniquely personal style, while striving to look one’s best.

An Academy Award Ceremony Program cover with light blue and white background. The gold Oscar Statue is in the Foreground. Black text on the program cover reads: Academy Awards Presentation: April 4, 1960, RKO Pantages Theater, Hollywood.
An official program from the 1960 Oscar Ceremony, for which Head was the official consultant.

Full of engaging sketches, designs, and personal notes, The Edith Head Papers have proved to be a rich resource for scholars and designers alike.

Included in the researchers who have drawn upon the Edith Head Papers is Founding Director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, Academy Award-nominated costume designer, and author Deborah Nadoolman Landis. Mrs. Landis found the WCFTR while browsing articles for Edith Head late one night from her California home. She came across WCFTR Film Archivist Maxine Ducey’s article, “Elegance by Design” about the Edith Head Collection.

Mrs. Landis was in disbelief at the number of materials found in the collection, “I couldn’t believe the absurd amount of stuff in the records.” She recalled staying up all night to call at the moment of the office opening in Madison to confirm the catalog was accurate.  Mrs. Landis consequently used the collection in her research for her recent work, Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Design.

Materials for Head’s work on bestselling books and articles as well as clippings, appearances, scrapbooks, and special sketches may be found in this collection.For more details on The Edith Head Papers, finding aids and how to access the WCFTR film print of The Country Girl, visit the Archives Catalog (Arcat) at The Wisconsin Historical Society: http://arcat.library.wisc.edu/