Fashion Authority and Author
While Head is justly remembered for the variety and longevity of her career as a costume designer in Hollywood , she was also a well-known fashion authority for the American public during the middle of the twentieth century. Through her books, writings and interviews in newspapers and magazines, radio appearances and television appearances, Head became a mainstay of fashion culture. Her career mirrored the cultural shift towards accessible, consumer-driven fashion for the masses. In the 1920s, as Head began at Paramount , ideas of “style” rather than luxury first began to drive advertising for fashion goods, attracting a middle-class market (Martin 237). Paris remained central to the fashion world at the time, and clothing trends were distinct until the 1940s, when World War II led to restrictions on fabric and women were encouraged to make do with clothes they already owned (Presley). Head and Hollywood, like American women, stuck closely to slim skirts and broad shoulders in these years. After the war, Christian Dior’s full-skirted “New Look” emerged, and Head found that films made beforehand suddenly looked “dated and ridiculous,” leading to her realization that costumes could not be perfectly on-trend, but must make transitions gradually (Head, Hollywood 69).
She took her newfound opinions about moderation in fashion to the masses. Head’s first venture outside of Hollywood came in 1945, when Art Linkletter invited her to appear monthly as an expert on his new CBS radio program, House Party. Paramount accepted the offer on her behalf, taking it as an opportunity to shift American’s fashion influences from the Paris couture houses to Hollywood , and again, avoid another “New Look” disaster (Head, Hollywood 66). In each of her appearances, Head critiqued and advised individual women and remembered it as “my chance to turn America into a country of neat and natty women, women with assurance, women who knew they looked right ” (Head, Dress Doctor 165). The advice given during these programs echoed the importance of moderation; women were told to wear fewer accessories, m ore color, and tailor clothes to fit the individual. Head made the move to television along with House Party in 1952; the change forced her to reconsider her own appearance and trade in her famous dark glasses for lighter lenses. She would appear regularly on both the radio and televised versions of House Party until it was cancelled in 1969, sometimes appearing as many as three times per month. Head valued her work for the public, remembering that “When I look back on the 1950s I think of them as the highlight of my career. I received so much response from my public that I finally realized I was a celebrity in my own right. This was difficult for me to accept” (Head, Hollywood 118).
Like her broadcast appearances, Head’s early magazine writing focused on advising women on their own clothes, with Hollywood invoked only as evidence of Head’s expertise. Some even used as question and answer format, as in this piece from the November 1965 issue of HEAR: The Voice of Hollywood. In Head’s first book, The Dress Doctor, co-written by Jane Kesner Admore and released in 1959, her Hollywood associations and her position as a popular fashion authority converged. Much of the book was a slim autobiography embellished by memories of and conversations with Hollywood stars from Clara Bow to Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Head invoked the metaphor of a Hollywood costume designer as a doctor, altering clothes to fit the needs and personality of a “patient,” incorporating diplomacy and psychoanalysis in order to satisfy the stars, who were all “difficult to dress.” In the book’s introduction, she concluded:
“Smile at the title ‘Dress Doctor,’ but clothes are a practical therapy, and a woman’s happiness – her outlook on life, her ability to meet the terrible competition in love and in war, in business and before the eagle eye of her sisters – can be decided by WHAT SHE WEARS. The way you dress affects you; it also affects the people around you… It’s to Mrs. Average American this book is dedicated.” (20-21)
It was in the appendices that the dedication to Mrs. Average American became clear; What Clothes Can Do For You, What You Can Do for Clothes, and the Prescriptions for Dressing offered detailed advice for consumers. There were suggestions for assessing and dressing various body types, for planning to shop by constructing a “grocery list” of a seasonal wardrobe, treatises on the importance of appropriate accessories and use of color, and breakdowns of appropriate outfits for occasions ranging from prize fights to weddings to housework.
Head took an active role in publicizing The Dress Doctor , utilizing her relationships with CBS and other media outlets. A letter from Ardmore to the publisher is very explicit in detailing Head’s willingness to arrange publicity with Linkletter, use her friends in New York for photo shoots, create posters, participate in department store tie-ins, and other opportunities. She did in fact cross the country doing appearances, book signings, and fashion shows to promote the book, in addition to writing magazine pieces for Good Housekeeping, Modern Screen and her high school alumnae association in the spring of 1959. Press announcements, full-page advertisements and rather mixed reviews appeared in print publications across the country, which Head tracked along with best-seller information in her prodigious clipping collection. Following the success of the best-selling The Dress Doctor , Head ventured into new opportunities. She had her own show on CBS radio, Edith Head’s Fashion Notes , which aired from 1963-1965, as well as regular Canadian radio appearances. Also in the early 1960s, she commenced writing regular columns for The New Outlook and continued to write a variety of pieces for national and trade media outlets such as Family Circle, Young and Beautiful, and Screen Actor .
Head would later work on two more books; How to Dress for Success (1967), co-authored by Joe Hyams, and an autobiography that was unfinished at the time of her death. It was completed by Paddy Calistro, and published in 1983 as Edith Head’s Hollywood , with a foreward by Bette Davis. Again and again, as in a December 1963 column for The New Outlook, Head would return to the doctor metaphor, as she remained “a firm believer that clothes, fashion, hair, makeup – anything that has to do with making an individual look better, is very good medicine.”
A Q & A article by Head in Hear: The Voice of Hollywood (1958)
Letter from Ardmore to Little, Brown regarding publicity for The Dress Doctor (1958)
Advertisement for The Dress Doctor, clipped from the Chicago Tribune (1959)
Photo of Head at a book signing
Photo of Head promoting on CBS (1959)
Article by Head in New Outlook (1963)
Head, Edith, and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor . Boston : Boston , Little, Brown, 1959.
Head, Edith, and Paddy Calistro. Edith Head’s Hollywood . New York , NY : E.P. Dutton, Inc; 1983.
Martin, Richard. “Fashion in the Age of Advertising.” Journal of Popular Culture . Fall 1995 29(2) 235.
Presley, Ann Beth. “Fifty Years of Change: Societal Attitudes and Women’s Fashions, 1900- 1950.” Historian. Winter 1998, Vol. 60, Issue 2, p307.