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Edith Head in an undated photo

Edith Head in a Paramount Pictures shot. Undated

It was summer vacation of 1924 and Edith Head, 27, wanted a new job. She was tired of making peanuts – $1500 a year – teaching French and art at the Hollywood School for Girls. She did have a husband but he was a heavy drinker. If Edith wanted to improve her quality of life, it was up to her to make it happen. However, there were few jobs open to women in the 1920s but secretarial work and teaching, and neither paid much.

One day, Edith spotted a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. The Famous Players-Lasky Studio (later, Paramount Pictures) was looking for a sketch artist to create costumes for a new Cecil B. DeMille silent film, “The Golden Bed.” Edith wanted that job. One problem: Edith Head was no artist. She could not draw the human form.

She had exaggerated her qualifications to teach art when applying at the Hollywood School for Girls. True, she was highly educated, and was more than qualified to teach French – but not art. She had received a B.A. in Letters and Sciences with Honors in French at University of California at Berkeley (1919) and a Master’s Degree in Romance Languages at Stanford (1920) – pretty impressive for a girl who grew up in mining camps in the deserts of Mexico and Nevada. But she had no training in art. Once she had been hired at the girls’ school, she had swiftly enrolled in evening art classes at the Chouinard Art School to gain some artistic skill, learning just enough each night to keep one step ahead of the next day’s lesson for her students. So far, though, she could only draw seascapes.

Undaunted, Edith wrote the studio for an interview. She received a prompt reply, telling her to be at the studio the very next morning at 10 a.m., bringing sketches. Sketches? All she had to show of her own were seascapes.

Agnes Ayres stars in Cecil B. DeMille's 1921 film, "Forbidden Fruit." In silent films, costume was an extremely important element. DeMille's films were always lavish extravaganzas.

Agnes Ayres stars in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1921 film, “Forbidden Fruit” at Famous Players-Studio (later Paramount Pictures). In silent films, costume was an extremely important element. DeMille’s films were always lavish extravaganzas.

Edith did not know what to do but she knew that she wanted that job! Soon a light bulb went on in her brain:

That night I made the rounds at Chouinard (Art School) and collected all the students’ best landscapes, seascapes, oils, watercolors, sketches, life, art, everything.”

Some accounts say that Edith actually erased her friends’ names from their sketches and substituted her own. That next day, she appeared at the studio for her interview, a portfolio of other people’s work in hand. Howard Greer, head of the studio wardrobe department, described the interview in his memoirs:

…A young girl with a face like a pussy cat crossed with a Fujita drawing appeared with a carpetbag full of sketches. There were architectural drawings, plans for interior decoration, magazine illustrations, and fashion design. Struck dumb with admiration for anyone possessed of such diverse talent, I hired the gal on the spot.” (1)

Her salary was $40 a week, more than double what she made teaching.

The very next day, Edith reported for work. She sat at her drafting table, her canvas, blank. The jig was up. She couldn’t draw. Greer recalled:

[She] looked out from under her bangs with the expression of a frightened terrier.” (1)

Edith Head

Edith Head

Edith confessed that she had misrepresented her talent, taking credit for others’ work. Inexplicably, Greer did not fire Edith. Curiously, he took her under his wing and taught her how to sketch. Within six months, she sketched in his style and was quite accomplished. Later, when asked about misrepresenting her talent at the interview, she tossed off the fraud as “youthful and naïve indiscretion” and something she would never do again. (Two more lies!)

Whereas Edith dismissed the padding of her resume as an isolated incident, never to be repeated, designing colleague Natalie Visart did not see it that way. She commented:

Edith lied when the truth would have served her better.” (2)

Edith was to have few friends in life, among them, President Richard Nixon and wife Pat and actress Elizabeth Taylor. Biographer David Chierichetti said that

Her lies made her feel in control….Her lying – even more than her blazing ambition – was what turned people against her.”

Reportedly, director John Farrow would not let Edith work on his 1953 film, “Botany Bay,” as he had caught her in too many lies in the past.

But I digress.

Meanwhile, back to the summer of 1924, Edith was working at the bottom of the totem pole in the wardrobe design department.

My first big assignment was to do the Candy Ball costumes for Cecil B. de Mille’s film, “The Golden Bed.” I drew girls dressed as lollypops, peppermint sticks and chocolate drops….

Then came the crisis. I’d drawn very elongated girls with bodies like peppermint sticks and candy cane fingernails two feet long. Came the day of the shooting and, shortly after, came a blast from Mr. DeMille….The peppermint sticks had started cracking during the dance routine….whenever the dancers got within a half a foot of each other, the candy would stick.”

Also, under the hot lights on the set, the chocolate drops melted, and the production had to be halted. Edith went back to the drawing board and designed dresses studded with marshmallows for the peculiar film.

The "Candy Ball" scene from Cecil B. DeMille's 1924 film, "The Golden Bed." Men surround women wearing marshmallow dresses, pull off the sweets, and eat them.

The “Candy Ball” scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1924 film, “The Golden Bed.” Men surround women wearing marshmallow dresses, pull off the sweets, and eat them.

In another of Edith’s costume faux pas, Director Raoul Walsh had to stop production on “The Wanderer” (1925) when one of the show’s elephants began eating its costume – wreaths of flowers and grapes and anklets of rose petals.

As Greer had suspected, Edith did have a natural talent for costume design and, before long, it showed up. She began to score more hits than misses. She became a savvy politician. Although the studio maintained that the actresses were not allowed any say in what they wore in the films, Edith got around that rule. She began to talk with the stars, asking each actress what she liked to wear, what she thought she looked good wearing. Edith became known as “The Dress Doctor,” as she approached the design of each actress’s costumes with their tastes and figures in mind, how they moved, talked, and were photographed.

Costume designer Edith Head and film star Gloria Swanson. Undated photo

Costume designer Edith Head and film star Gloria Swanson. Undated photo

In this way, she developed a large and loyal following of actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly even though there were stars like Mary Martin, Hedy Lamarr, and Claudette Colbert who didn’t like to work with her.

Edith boasted that she was a magician. She took ordinary women, and, through fashion magic, transformed them into screen sirens.

Accentuate the positive and camouflage the rest,” Edith liked to say.

Edith designed costumes for almost a thousand movies including westerns, biblical epics, war movies, and dramas. Her style was not flashy but flattered the star and advanced the story line. Here are some of Edith Head’s costume designs:

mae west she done him wrong

Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong,” 1933. Costumes by Edith Head.

Dorothy Lamour wearing a new version of a sarong in "Jungle Princess," 1936. Costumes by Edith Head.

Dorothy Lamour wearing a new version of a sarong in “Jungle Princess,” 1936. Costumes by Edith Head.

 

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve," 1941. Costumes by Edith Head.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in “The Lady Eve,” 1941. Costumes by Edith Head.

Veronica Lake in "I Married a Witch," 1942. Costumes by Edith Head.

Veronica Lake in “I Married a Witch,” 1942. Costumes by Edith Head.

Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah," 1949. Costumes by Edith Head.

Hedy Lamarr in “Samson and Delilah,” 1949. Costumes by Edith Head.

 

Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," 1950. Costumes by Edith Head.

Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” 1950. Costumes by Edith Head.

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun," 1951. Costumes by Edith Head.

Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun,” 1951. Costumes by Edith Head.

Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly suit in "Rear Window," 1954

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly suit in “Rear Window,” 1954

Grace Kelly in "Rear Window," 1954, wearing green suit shown in above sketch. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “Rear Window,” 1954, wearing green suit shown in above sketch. Costumes by Edith Head.

Shown here with costar Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly wears the green suit shown in the sketch above, sans jacket. "Rear Window," 1954.  Costumes by Edith Head.

Shown here with costar Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly wears the green suit shown in the sketch above, sans jacket. “Rear Window,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Sketch for evening gown by Edith Head for Grace Kelly in "Rear Window," 1954.

Sketch for evening gown by Edith Head for Grace Kelly in “Rear Window,” 1954.

From sketch above, Grace Kelly wears an evening gown from "Rear Window," 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

From sketch above, Grace Kelly wears an evening gown from “Rear Window,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly models sunsuit from "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costume by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly models sunsuit from “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costume by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head sketch for gold masquerade gown for Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955.

Edith Head sketch for gold masquerade gown for Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955.

As in sketch above, Grace Kelly wears masquerade gown in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

As in sketch above, Grace Kelly wears masquerade gown in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Anne Baxter in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 remake of "The Ten Commandments." Costumes by Edith Head.

Anne Baxter in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of “The Ten Commandments.” Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head was awarded eight Oscars and was nominated 35 times for best costume design.

Legendary costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) displays her 8 Oscar trophies. Originally, she wore blue tinted glasses because it allowed her to view fabrics as they would look in a black-and-white movie. Smoky lenses also made her inscrutable as well as disguising a slightly-crossed right eye. Undated photo

Legendary costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) displays her 8 Oscar trophies. Originally, she wore blue tinted glasses because it allowed her to view fabrics as they would look in a black-and-white movie. Smoky lenses also made her inscrutable as well as disguising a slightly-crossed right eye. Undated photo

Her brilliant career, that began with a con, was marred by controversy. Often economical with the truth, she sometimes claimed credit for designs that were not her own. She accepted the Oscar for “Sabrina”(1955) although two gowns and one suit wore by Audrey Hepburn – the Parisian look that dominates the movie – were truly designed by then rising French designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Audrey Hepburn wears three dresses from the movie, "Sabrina," 1954. Edith Head designed the "Cinderella" clothes that Audrey's character wears before she travels to Paris. Upon her return, she wears a wardrobe designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Edith Head accepted the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and took credit for De Givenchy's work.

Audrey Hepburn wears three dresses from the movie, “Sabrina,” 1954. Edith Head designed the “Cinderella” clothes that Audrey’s character wears before she travels to Paris. Upon her return, she wears a wardrobe designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Edith Head accepted the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and took credit for De Givenchy’s work.

Edith said the Oscar belonged to her because the costumes had been made in her department. In her acceptance speech, she did not thank de Givenchy. Worse still, when the little black dress became enormously popular, copied by the thousands by clothing manufacturers, Edith made sketches of it for books and appearances and signed them with her name. (3) Only after Edith’s death did Givenchy, a true gentleman, confirm that the black cocktail dress with the bateau neckline and ballerina skirt was his original design, and had been made under Edith’s supervision at Paramount.The Sting movie poster

In 1974, Edith Head was awarded her eighth and final Oscar for her work in “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. In her trademark bangs, bun, and tinted owl glasses, Edith flitted happily onto the stage, trilling:

“Just imagine dressing the two handsomest men in the world, and then getting this!” she said, holding out her award.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play ping pong. Undated photo.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play ping pong. Undated photo.

She was promptly sued by a costume illustrator who said the work on “The Sting” was hers, not Edith’s. Famous designer Bob Mackie, Cher‘s favorite, who had also worked in the Paramount costume department, said of Edith:

She got more press out of The Sting than anything she ever did and she didn’t even do it.” (4)

(1) Greer, Howard. Designing Male: A Nebraska Farm Boy’s Adventures in Hollywood and with the International Set. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951.

(2) Chierichetti, David. Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

(3) Head, Edith. The Dress Doctor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

(4) Jorgensen, Jay. Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. New York: Lifetime Media, 2010.

Readers, for more on Edith Head and her costume design, click here.

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American movie actress Grace Kelly (1929-1982) had an encounter with a “Bust Inspector” during the production of the 1954 film Rear WindowHowever, this “BI” was not a censor dispatched by the Motion Pictures Production Code crew (See “Elizabeth Taylor and the Bust Inspector.”) The person attempting to meddle with Grace’s bust was none other than the film’s director: Alfred Hitchcock. Grace recalled: 

“At the rehearsal for the scene in Rear Window when I wore a sheer nightgown, Hitchcock called for [Paramount costume designer] Edith Head. He came over here and said, ‘Look, the bosom is not right, we’re going to have to put something in there.’ He was very sweet about it; he didn’t want to upset me, so he spoke quietly to Edith.

 When we went into my dressing room and Edith said, ‘Mr. Hitchcock is worried because there’s a false pleat here. He wants me to put in falsies.’ Well, I said, ‘You can’t put falsies in this, it’s going to show and I’m not going to wear them.’ And she said, ‘What are we going to do?’

 So we quickly took it up here, made some adjustments there, and I just did what I could and stood as straight as possible – without falsies. When I walked out onto the set Hitchcock looked at me and at Edith and said, ‘See what a difference they make?'”

Grace Kelly wears a silky negligee in a movie still from the 1954 murder-mystery, “Rear Window.” Costume designer Edith Head recalled Kelly giggling upon spotting her reflection in the mirror. “Why, I look like a peach parfait!” she said.

Readers: For more on Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco), click here.

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American actress Grace Kelly looks over her shoulder in Hollywood, California, March 1954. In April 1956, Kelly married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, and became Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco. (“Grace Kelly: Floating on Chiffon,” Lisa’s History Room)

I was so excited to read in Vanity Fair that London’s Victoria & Albert Museum was featuring an exhibition of Grace Kelly‘s clothes. What a treat! I thought. Imagine all those beautiful 1950s dresses designed for actress Grace Kelly (1929-1982) together in one place. Of course I couldn’t get to London, I knew; I was recovering from spine surgery and we were building an addition to our house.

But what did that matter? I had my computer. With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, I could cyber fashion stroll. I just assumed the V & A Museum would put the collection online as they had done with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert‘s jewelry collection. (See “Victoria & Albert: Art & Love & Teeth”)

I jumped to the museum website and found the exhibition: “Grace Kelly: Style Icon.” I got even happier after I read the promising blurb:

“Featuring dresses from her films including ‘High Society’ and ‘Rear Window,’ as well as the gown she wore to accept her Oscar in 1955, the display will examine Grace Kelly’s glamorous Hollywood image and enduring appeal.

It will also explore the evolution of her style as Princess Grace of Monaco, from the outfit she wore to her first meeting with Prince Rainier in 1955 to her haute couture gowns of the 1960s and ’70s by her favourite couturiers Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves St Laurent.”

But much to my chagrin, I discovered that the exhibit is not posted online at the V & A. I was, at first, incredibly disappointed. In a mad haste, I scoured the Internet for images of the fashion display on newssites and blogs. I found a lot of articles but precious few images of the actual exhibit. But what I did find told a lot. To illustrate a point, here are two of those V & A showcase windows:  

A mannequin displays the dress Grace Kelly wore in “The Swan.” (1956) The exhibit, “Grace Kelly: Style Icon,” is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from April 17- September 26, 2010

The exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, “Grace Kelly: Style Icon,” includes dresses worn by Grace Kelly after she became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956.

Yawn. Pretty dry stuff, huh? Dresses on mannequins have no sparkle. What they needed was Grace Kelly.

Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller, “Rear Window.” (“Grace Kelly: Floating on Chiffon,” Lisa’s History Room)

So instead of trying to catalog for you all the dresses in the V & A, I have picked my personal favorite and shown it as worn by the eternally beautiful Grace Kelly. It is the Paris dress she wore as sophisticate Lisa Carol Fremont in the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic, “Rear Window.”

The dress with a fitted black bodice and deep V-cut bustline was designed for Kelly by Paramount Picture’s chief costume designer Edith Head. The full skirt falls to mid-calf, gathered and layered in white chiffon and tulle. From the nipped-in waist, a spray branch pattern falls playfully over the hip. Grace accessorized her high-fashion gown with white silk gloves, pearls, and a chiffon shoulder wrap.

To read the “Rear Window” script excerpt wherein “Lisa-Carol- Fremont” enters Jimmy Stewart‘s apartment wearing this outfit, click here.

Grace Kelly sits on steps in her “Paris” dress she wore in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 “Rear Window.” The gown had a light & airy quality with a slender waist and a beautiful skirt made from yards and yards of tulle and chiffon. The black and white confection was created by Paramount Pictures costume designer Edith Head. (“Grace Kelly: Floating on Chiffon,” Lisa’s History Room)

For more on Grace Kelly, click here.

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Elizabeth Taylor as "Cleopatra" (1963)

Elizabeth Taylor as Queen of the Nile in "Cleopatra" (1963)

There’s a delicious new Elizabeth Taylor biography on the market: How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William Mann. I’ve been reading juicy excerpts online. The book is so good, so rich in scandalous detail, that I’ve ordered a copy to be sent to my doorstep.

I’m devouring the chapter on the early 1962 filming of “Cleopatra,” when Elizabeth famously ditches husband #4 Eddie Fisher for her Welsh costar Richard Burton. Author Mann paints Elizabeth Taylor as quite the pampered diva, ensconced in her Italian villa, filming in Rome by day. Her butler, for example, was one of many charged with satisfying her every frivolous need.

An example: Elizabeth was a pack-a-day smoker – despite the fact that she was recovering from pneumonia and a tracheotomy that had seriously delayed the movie’s production and almost cost Elizabeth her life. Nevertheless, she smoked, and with a cigarette holder. She never used the same holder twice.

“Fresh ones – at least ten a day –  had to be at the ready, and they had to be color-coded. A green dress called for a matching holder – and Madame changed outfits quite frequently as her moods shifted. Every morning Oates [her butler] prepared a box of cigarette holders based on what Elizabeth would be wearing that day and evening, and not only did the holders have to match her outfits, they couldn’t clash with the tablecloth.” (1) 

Richard Burton as Mark Antony with Elizabeth Taylor as Queen of the Nile in "Cleopatra" (1963)

Richard Burton as Marc Antony with Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra" (1963)

But Richard Burton wasn’t dazzled by Liz’s Hollywood fame. Twentieth Century Fox was paying her $1 million to play the Queen of the Nile in their production. Elizabeth Taylor was the highest-paid actress of the day – but Richard Burton called her “Lumpy” – and to her face. She was intrigued by his dismissive attitude toward him.

Burton was a heavy drinker.  In his first big scene with Taylor, he appeared on the set with a terrible hangover. Elizabeth, although the mother of 3 children at the time, with an adoption of a fourth child in the works, had never been particularly maternal. Yet when she saw how sick Burton was, she felt an overwhelming need to take care of him. It was the turning point. They began a hot-and-heavy and very public romance.

Rumors seeped out and crossed the Atlantic, creeping into gossip columns by Hedda Hopper and Dorothy Kilgallen, scandalizing the film industry and the public who were just recovering from Liz’s latest romantic acquisition, when she stole the married Eddie Fisher from actress wife Debbie Reynolds.

In early 1958, Fisher embraces wife Reynolds in Las Vegas, though his eye seems to be on Taylor, his best friend Mike Todd's wife. In March, Todd dies in a plane crash, and Fisher soon leaves Reynolds for Taylor.

In early 1958, Fisher embraces wife Reynolds in Las Vegas, though his eye seems to be on Taylor, his best friend Mike Todd's wife. In March, Todd dies in a plane crash, and Fisher soon leaves Reynolds for Taylor.

Meanwhile, back on the “Cleopatra” set, Eddie Fisher learned of his wife’s affair. Their marriage had already been on shaky ground but was not yet in complete tatters. He wanted to salvage it. On February 5, at the suggestion of his  wife’s secretary, he took Elizabeth shopping. He chartered a flight to Paris. The international press followed their every move, as the former nightclub crooner Fisher and his gorgeous celebrity wife visited Parisian fashion houses such as Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, and Dior, where Eddie wrote check after check for gowns, jewels, and furs for his flagrantly unfaithful wife. Eddie Fisher once said,

“To keep Elizabeth happy, you have to give her a diamond before breakfast every morning.”

Delighted with her new trinkets, Elizabeth promised Fisher she would stop seeing Burton. A rupture was temporarily averted; they flew back to Rome.

Two weeks passed yet things did not go better for Fisher. Liz did not keep her word. She continued seeing Burton. On February 17, 1960, drinking heavily, Elizabeth swallowed 14 sleeping pills and passed out cold.  She was hospitalized for what was considered a suicide attempt. She was distraught over her personal life. She could not make the break with Burton. She had fallen head-over-heels in love with him.

A little over a week later, she turned thirty, and her parents flew to Rome for the celebration. Shortly afterward, Burton confronted her in front of Fisher and told her she must choose between her two men. On the spot, she chose Burton. Richard divorced his wife of 13 years, Sybil Burton. In 1964, Elizabeth divorced Fisher and married Richard Burton.

Richard Burton escorts wife Elizabeth Taylor in an Edith Head evening gown, 1970
Richard Burton escorts wife Elizabeth Taylor to the 1970 Oscars. Taylor wears an Edith Head gown that matches her violet eyes and displays her assets, particularly her own 69-carat, pear-shaped Cartier diamond — which later became known as the Taylor-Burton diamond.

Twice married, twice divorced to one another, the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remains one of the most famous – and tempestuous – of the Twentieth Century.

(1) Mann, William J. How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

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