Edith Head (1897-1981), was the head costume designer at Paramount Pictures for 44 years, and worked for Universal for another 14. In the course of her long career, she worked on well over 1,000 films, with some of the twentieth century’s most glamorous and well-known stars.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began granting awards in Costume Design at the 1949 ceremony. Head was nominated that year, and went on to have 35 nominations and 8 wins. Her awards remain a record for both the Costume Design category, and for any woman in any category.
Although Head became the lead costume designer at Paramount in 1938 and worked on high-profile films such as The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Notorious (1946), Costume Design was not recognized by the Academy at this time. Head did attend ceremonies, however, to support the nominations and wins by her second husband, Wiard (William, or Bill) Ihnen. Ihnen, an interior designer, won the black and white film award in Art Direction for 1945’s Blood on the Sun. The next year, he won the Art Direction award in the color category for his work on Wilson (1946).
Head won her first Academy Award for The Heiress (1949) in 1950. The film was based on a play by Augustus and Ruth Goodman Goetz. More information can be found in the Ruth Goodman Goetz collection. This was her second nomination, following one for the color award for The Emporer Waltz (1948). Head remembered that The Heiress… certainly was the best job of costuming I’d ever done, and it won an Oscar. This time I wasn’t excited, and I didn’t dress up. Oscar was a year late. But he was golden…” (Dress Doctor 90).
The 1951 Academy Award for Costume Design on a color film was awarded to Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele, and Gwen Wakeling for Sampson and Delilah (1950). The same year, the Oscar for Costume Design on a black and white film went to Head and Charles LeMaire for All About Eve (1950), making Head the only designer to win both categories that year.
Head would remember a “strange, great fascination” about Bette Davis (Head, “Costume” 276). “Bette Davis thinks like a businessman. Hers is a truly organized point of view, and working with her I’ve felt like being in conference with a bank president… she’s only one of the most sensational experiences I’ve ever had” (Dress Doctor 94).
Head won her fourth Oscar for black and white Costume Design. This award was for A Place in the Sun (1951), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, in 1952. The picture was close to Head’s heart, as “You have favorite pictures; you can’t help it. Roman Holiday was one . . . A Place in the Sun was another” (Dress Doctor 120).
Head continued to be regularly nominated for Academy Awards in both black and white and color categories during the early 1950s. In 1953, she was nominated for the color award for The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) as well as for the black and white award for Carrie (1952).
Head’s next Academy Award win was for black and white costume design on Roman Holiday (1953), which also led to an Oscar for Audrey Hepburn, in 1954. Like A Place in the Sun, this was one of her favorite films “. . . because the clothes were good and Audrey was just right in them.” (Dress Doctor 120).
Head won her sixth Oscar for Sabrina (1954), another black and white film starring Audrey Hepburn. The majority of H epburn’s costumes were designed by Hubert de Givenchy in consultation with the actress, but he did not share the nomin ation or receive on-screen credit. Head remembered shopping with Hepburn in San Francisco, and emphasized her creation of “‘the Sabrina neckline’.” (Dress Doctor 119). Insiders at Paramount later admitted that this dress was a Givenchy design, produced under Head’s supervision in Hollywood (Hollywood 105). Head and her team designed many of the early costumes, to be worn before Hepburn’s character’s time in Paris, as well as those for the rest of the cast.
Head continued to dominate the 1950s nominations for Costume Design in both color and black and white films, but would not have another win during the decade. Later in life, she recalled pride in her work on Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), which was nominated in the color category. “Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, and Cary Grant. And I did not get an Award for that. I had it up. I got a nomination but I did not get an Award.” (“Costume” 279).
Head particularly enjoyed working with Cary Grant on To Catch a Thief. She later described him as “Still the most handsome, the most elegant, the best dressed, the best taste, the best of everything of anybody I’ve ever worked with, male or female. I can say nothing more flattering” (“Costume” 285).
The Ten Commandments (1956) was nominated for a color costume design award in 1957. Head shared the nomination with other Paramount designers, including Dorothy Jeakins. Head and Jeakins shared several nominations previously, and Jeakins won a 1948 award for Joan of Arc. or this film, Head dressed the female leads, and Jeakins dressed the extras. Sketches for the priest costumes, as well as an alternative costume for the “Daughter of Jethro” character and a sketch for Exodus, were initially part of Head’s collection at WCFTR, reflecting her supervisory role as head designer at Paramount.
Head was also nominated for the black and white award in 1957, for The Proud and the Profane (1956). A Perlberg-Seat on Production, the film starred William Holden and Deborah Kerr, and was written and directed by George Seaton. More materials regarding this film, and others he produced, are available in the George Seaton collection.
Head once again fielded dual nominations for costume design at the 1960 Academy Award Ceremony, honoring films from 1959. Five Pennies was nominated in the color category, and Career was nominated for the black and white. Neither film was a win for Head. Here, a sketch of a costume for Shirley MacLaine’s character in Career. MacLaine was one of Head’s favorite up and coming actresses in the late 1950s, as she wrote in her first autobiography, “Shirley fits no mold or pigeonhole. She’s the most completely uninhibited, completely honest person I’ve ever met” (Dress Doctor 140).
At the awards honoring films of 1960, Head was nominated for the color award for her work on Pepe, and for the black and white award for The Facts of Life. Seen here is one of many sketches for Shirley Jones in Pepe. The Mexican-inspired costumes reflected some of Head’s own background; she grew up speaking Spanish and traveling the Southwest, and she and Ihnen lived in a hacienda-inspired home in Hollywood. Pepe, however, lost the Academy Award to Spartacus. But Head did not leave ceremony empty-handed, as The Facts of Life took the black and white category.
Another color nomination, but not a win, came for A Pocket Full of Miracles (1961). In the collection are sketches for a daring red dress to be worn by Hope Lange’s character, Queenie, in the film.
1964 brought another nomination for the color award, for A New Kind of Love (1963), starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Head worked with prominent European designers in costuming this film, including Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior.
In addition to A New Kind of Love, Head had two films nominated in the black and white category in 1964: Wives and Lovers and Love With a Proper Stranger. Ultimately, the award went to Piero Gherardi for his work on Fellini’s 8 1/2. Contained within the collection are sketches for a costume from Wives and Lovers worn by Janet Leigh’s character, Bertie.
Though Head was nominated for A House is Not a Home (1964) in the black and white category in 1965, she lost to past collaborator Dorothy Jeakins. Seen here are Jeakins’s notes on dressing Richard Burton in her winning film, The Night of the Iguana (1964). Jeakins is another of the winningest costume designers in Oscar history, having won 3 Academy Awards, and earned 12 nominations during her long career. Materials relating to Jeakins’s work, including notes and fabric swatches for films such as The Sound of Music (1965), The Molly Maguires (1968), Oliver (1968), and The Way We Were (1972) are available in the Dorothy Jeakins collection.
Head also designed gowns for actresses to wear to the Academy Award ceremonies, on occasion. For the 1965 ceremony, she designed for Joan Crawford. Although the two had not worked together, they were social acquaintances and had been interested in a collaboration. Ultimately, Head designed and made both a black and a white gown, in order to be sure Crawford would not wear the same color as the prior presenter (Hollywood 140). It was an important evening for Crawford, who presented the Best Director award to her long-time friend and colleague George Cukor, for My Fair Lady (1964).
In 1967, the Academy stopped separating the Costume Design awards for color and black and white films. This cut down drastically on the number of costume design nominations, but Head continued to be nominated regularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for such films as Sweet Charity (1969), and Airport (1970).
Head’s last Oscar win was for The Sting (1973), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Although it had been over ten years since Head’s last win, she took pride in this film’s recognition for other reasons: “The Sting was the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a predominantly male film won a costume award. I was very proud of that fact.” (Hollywood 156)
Head would be nominated for two more awards in the 1970s, for The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Airport 77 (1977). Speaking of the former, Head told interviewers it featured “Fifteen thousand original costumes, and I worked on them for a year. I think it’s the best picture I’ve ever done” (“Costume” 284). She continued to work until her death in 1981. Her final film credit was on Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), which was released posthumously and dedicated to her memory.