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'Costumes by Edith Head': At 70, the Designer Is as Busy and Star-Struck as Ever

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On a number of occasions during the last year, a tiny woman of 70 (or more: she won’t say) with tinted, dark-rimmed glasses and severe bangs could be seen aboard Boeing 747’s, commuting between three continents. Edith Head’s preference among airlines is Pan American, for which she designed the stewardesses’ uniforms. But the reason for her flights from California to Russia and Morocco was neither Pan Am nor the United States Coast Guard (whose women also wear uniforms by Head) but rather three multi-million-dollar motion pictures.

This month the barnstorming epic The Great Waldo Pepper opened in New York with Robert Redford delighting his admirers in flying togs by Edith Head. At the same time, in Marrakech, old master John Huston was realizing his dream film—Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King—with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, two British soldiers masquerading as camel drivers in a Himalayan country in disguises by Edith Head. And in Leningrad, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson were being photographed with Russian stars in costume fantasies by Head, for a movie remake of Maurice Maeterlinck’s fable The Blue Bird. Later this spring the public will see Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne wearing the rough Western gear Head designed for them in Rooster Cogburn (PEOPLE, Nov. 18, ’74).

Barely a year ago Edith Head won her eighth Oscar for The Sting, 1974’s most successful film (and the fourth top grosser of all time). It was her 33rd nomination for best costume design. After nearly 1,000 films she is, quite simply, the most sought-after designer in movies. She also has become one of Hollywood’s most durable characters. Joan Crawford explains: “Edith’s a sturdy woman, emotionally. Very dependable. But you better not be late for a fitting. She has tremendous authority. When that little thing walks into a room, you know she’s there.”

This week, the 5’1½” sprite, wearing a tailored beige suit and riding in a golf cart blazoned “Edith Head,” shuttles back and forth between her bungalow office at Universal Studios and sound stage six. There the picture Gable and Lombard is being cast. On the seat beside her is a pale pink, crystal-beaded gown worn by the late Carole Lombard in The Princess Comes Across, which she gave to the designer in the 1930s. Each of the 11 actresses testing for the Lombard role opposite James Brolin, whom director Sidney Furie wants for Gable, will wear the dress—or, in the case of the 5’10” Sally Kellerman, a larger duplicate—for her test.

The Sting was the first picture with no female stars ever to be awarded the best costume Oscar, although, as Edith said in accepting the award, “I had the pleasure of dressing the two most gorgeous men in the world”—Redford and Paul Newman. Despite Gable and Lombard, Hollywood is concentrating on vehicles for men, since there are so few star roles for women—and so few women stars draw at the box office. “It’s easier to do men, but not as creative—unless you’re doing Casanova,” Head observes. “Men are ten times easier to work with. They have no temperament about it. With women there’s a basic female instinct of caring deeply about the way they look; women stars have a narcissist complex.”

In her 52 years in the business, Edith Head has dressed just about every major movie star and has possibly had a greater influence on women’s clothes than anyone in fashion. (Women had been resisting the post-World War II New Look from Paris; when Head lowered her movie skirts, millions followed.) She has also transformed many an actress. About young star Karen Black, whom she dressed for Airport 1975, Head comments, “She had always played a tough, kookie character before, but she made the transition to a very smart-looking senior stewardess who wore clothes beautifully. The clothes, plus her own talent, of course, have changed her image.”

In general, Head finds that “the older the star, the easier she is to work with. The younger ones are more motivated by personal likes and dislikes, whereas the established actress knows how to use people like myself to get the total look. She knows that I know.” Bette Davis, one of the stars most admired by Head, has reciprocated the sentiment: “She’s a thorough professional. You get the right kind of clothes from her, without the nonsense and temperament that some designers give you.”

Head started in movies with Cecil B. de Mille’s company at Paramount at the lowest level of apprenticeship: hanging garlands on elephants and other animals for de Mille’s epics. A native of Los Angeles, Edith had received a B.A. from the University of California and an M.A. in languages from Stanford. She had taught high school French and Spanish but quit because the pay was too low.

Her first big break was clothing Mae West in She Done Him Wrong in 1933; Head encouraged the star to dress all in white, which became a West trademark. In the middle ’30s, when movie self-censorship dictated that women’s busts and navels must be covered, even in Polynesian pictures, Head wrapped Dorothy Lamour in a sarong; the famous style lingers on, principally in bathing suits for the bashful. The “Sabrina” dress, which Edith created for Audrey Hepburn in the movie of the same name, found its way into women’s wardrobes everywhere.

One of the highlights of Head’s career was dressing Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, in 1950, as an imperious silent screen star. The two women were reunited on the set of Airport 1975, each still dressed with unerring good taste.

Although she has toiled to glamorize such beauties as Olivia de Havilland, Sophia Loren, Lana Turner and all the Hitchcock heroines, Edith herself has maintained a consistent appearance throughout her career. She explains, “I have the world’s straightest hair, and I have to wear these big thick glasses because I’m nearsighted. I always wear beige, black or white. For one thing I look good in them. For another, when I’m beside a star at a fitting, and she looks into the mirror, I don’t want to be competing in any way. And I always wear gloves. I’m a caricature, really. I have this image of myself streaking stark naked in glasses and gloves.”

The Edith Head look in the movies is also relatively understated. “My motto is that the audience should notice the actors, not the clothes. I use as neutral a color, as simple a dress as possible.”

Head has always been under exclusive contract to a studio—first to Paramount and, since 1967, to Universal. The studio has first call on her services, for which they pay her a retainer of about $80,000 per year—and provide her with offices and a Mercedes. Such stars as Natalie Wood and Shirley MacLaine insist that their contracts stipulate Edith Head as designer, even when another designer is doing the rest of the picture. (Ava Gardner had such an agreement for Earthquake.)

When Edith undertakes a new film assignment—whether it’s a contemporary American blue-jean comedy, or a period, battle-strewn epic—she follows a consistent plan. First she reads the script and constructs a “costume plot”: a list of how many and what kinds of costumes are needed for the principals. (Extras are provided for later, from studio wardrobe or with clothes bought off the rack.) Next she interviews the producer, director and star, asking their thoughts on colors and styles. Then comes the art director, who tells her the basic colors of the set; the cameraman describes the lighting, and the set decorator lists the furniture and props. Only then does Head check the budget to see how much she has to spend.

Then she begins her sketches, “completely motivated by what a dress has to do—jump over a fence, be caught in the rain.” She takes completed sketches to the producer, director and principal technical personnel for approval. “I always looked forward to fittings with Edith,” recalls Doris Day, whom Head dressed for Teacher’s Pet and The Man Who Knew Too Much. “She was witty, quick and very exciting. She dresses actors for the part, not for themselves alone.” Doris remembers being surprised at the clothes for her second Head film. “They weren’t right for me. But they were just what a doctor’s wife would wear. And that’s what I was playing.”

Robert Surtees, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer (who photographed The Sting and Waldo Pepper) says that cameramen like to work with Head because of her “subtle teamwork.” He adds, “We argue, but there’s a rapport to find the very best.” As for directors, a master, Hitchcock, says simply, “I leave it all to her. That’s the beauty of it.”

Most costumes are made under Head’s direct supervision. Union rules prevent her from pinning or otherwise being mechanically involved in production—and she’s never known how to sew anyway.

Trained to go all out when the camera turns, stars tend to be as temperamental as race horses. But thanks to her soft-sell psychology, Head rarely has trouble with them. Only once has a star disagreed with Edith so violently that she actually took a dress off and stamped on it. When Nancy Carroll did that in the 1930s, in A Woman Accused, Edith simply made her another dress. To prevent such flare ups, Head developed the technique of showing a star three versions of a costume. “I say, ‘Now which of these best suits the character as you see it?’ How can they have temperament if they are working with me? I’ll make little compromises. If it’s two rows of ruffles or one, I simply couldn’t care less. But I’d probably say flat out, ‘You can’t wear red spangles.’ I do always get my way.”

Edith maintains friendships with many of the women she has dressed. Princess Grace and her family often visit when they are in America. At the time of Elizabeth Taylor’s divorce from Richard Burton, she asked to stay in Edith’s guest wing. (After The Night of the Iguana, Taylor presented Edith with one of the giant Mexican lizards, which she kept in one of her bathrooms for several years.)

Edith Head’s home in the Hollywood Hills is a beautiful 1930s structure, carefully modeled after an old Mexican hacienda. Wearing more colorful clothes than she permits herself at work, she lives there with her husband of 34 years, Wiard Ihnen, a retired architect, who is an Oscar-winning set designer.

Designs and costumes by Edith Head have been collected in museums (including the current exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum). But after half a century on the job, she is still much more concerned with the here and now. She speaks excitedly about the three pictures she is doing—The Man Who Would Be King, The Blue Bird, Gable and Lombard. And she adds: “I’ve never turned down a picture in my life and I’m certainly not going to start now. I won’t ever retire. I have no hobbies but cooking, and I have no other craft but this one.”