The deeper I dive into Edith Head's life, the more she reminds me how wily we women can be. How stacked odds can bring out the rat-cunning charm in us and how we're not averse to a little fakery if it'll nudge us closer to our goals.
Head's curriculum vitae reads like that; from home-schooled miner's daughter to eight-time Academy Award-winning costume designer with more clout than many of the movie stars she dressed, and half of America hanging on her every word.
Millenials today would go nuts to find young Edith Head, self-styled fashion guru with her sharp-cut suits, pill-box hair and cool blue specs, on Instagram. "I knew that I was not a creative design genius," she wrote in her 1959 autobiography, The Dress Doctor. "I was never going to be the world's greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I could not be the smartest."
Well, hashtag "career goals" right there girls!
"She was definitely an influencer," says Karen Quinlan, director of the Bendigo Art Gallery. "A gutsy woman who did that 'fake it till you make it' thing in a tough (male-dominated) environment, a self-promoter when women often just didn't self-promote. She was ahead of her time."
Quinlan was sorting her blockbuster Grace Kelly exhibition in 2011 when she stumbled on a suit, made for the freshly minted princess, and realised everything about its designer, one Edith Head, also needed to be told. "Edith's story is extraordinary, and we knew we could tell it in a meaningful way," she says. "She had an incredibly important role behind the scenes in films at a time when people idolised and relied on them for understanding about identity, gender, behaviours, how to act, how to dress …"
The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood includes 70-odd costumes and linked paraphernalia researched, tracked and borrowed by the gallery from Paramount's archive and private collections around the world. It's the latest in Quinlan's decade-long string of fashion-heavy exhibitions that have already lured record-breaking crowds – mostly women – up the Calder from Melbourne and interstate. "We're all about telling stories here," she says, "particularly about great 20th-century women."
Head's story really starts crackling on a day in 1924. She was 27, already well shot of her unstable home-schooled childhood, had reconciled her tendency to shyness, finished high school, graduated with a BA from the University of California, a Masters from Stanford, and was teaching the daughters of movie stars, directors and executives at a posh Hollywood girls' school.
But she fancied a change; something in film, with prospects would be nice. So that day, with gobsmacking chutzpah, she popped a couple of her students' artworks into her purse and presented them at a job interview for "sketch artist" in Paramount Pictures' costume department.
"She actually 'borrowed' her students' work because she couldn't draw to save her life," says Tansy Curtin, Bendigo Art Gallery's curatorial manager and curator of The Costume Designer. "They (head costumers Howard Greer and Travis Banton) were so impressed, she got the job. Even when they found out the truth, which was quite soon I think, for some reason she got to keep it."
Head's killer charm – bedrock of many famous friendships later with women such as Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly – would undoubtedly have had something to do with it. That, and her willingness to "fake it" until, with back-tracking research, she learnt to "make it" on her own merits.
Greer and Banton not only hired Head, they reportedly taught her everything they knew about costume and glossed over her scandalous lack of sketching skills by assigning others to draw for her. In the first few years of her 44 at Paramount, she worked as an underling, dressing starlets and extras, eventually slipping sideways into Banton's role in 1939. By an accident of timing caused by impending war, she became history's first woman chief of a Hollywood costume department.
"She went on to work on more than 1000 films in a long [50 years, including several at Universal studios] Hollywood career," says Curtin. "But what's really interesting, was how she caused such mixed opinions about what makes a great costume designer: was it the incredibly ostentatious costumes of a designer like [Hollywood legend] Adrian [Greenberg]? Or was it Head's way of making wonderful connections with the actors and directors and then making costumes that became an important part of the scene or story and changed the way the actresses and actors moved and performed?"
Debate, in certain film-buffy circles, still rages, but not around Head's rare skill as a "corrector". She fiddled design and drape like a sartorial engineer, optically enhancing pretty and handsome features and "correcting" body "flaws" to meet Hollywood's punishing physical standards.
"Veronica Lake's a great example," Curtin says. "These days we'd just see her as a gorgeous-looking woman but, for Hollywood, she was all wrong; very small, tiny waist, proportionately very large bust."
Head lamented Lake's flaws "seemed insurmountable" but deftly "corrected" them with illusory tricks including draped vertical lines. Barbara Stanwyck got the Head curative wizardry too, for a backside that was apparently slung too low and a torso that was way too long. "Kim Novak was another one," says Curtin. "She said [Head] actually helped her get into character. That famous grey suit she made for her role in [Alfred Hitchcock's] Vertigo helped her stand up straighter, feel prouder and more controlled. Then, the softer, more figure-hugging costumes for her character Judy, made her more aware and able to express her sensual side."
Head's concepts often veered into art: Audrey Hepburn's chic column suit in Funny Face (1957), for instance, evoked a single, innocent brushstroke on screen. Juliet Prowse's silken fringe skirt for GI Blues (1960) was engineered to split away, an intermittent, shivering frame for her magnificent, muscled legs.
It was glamour too subtle for some. Before Head, Hollywood was fonder of glitter and gaudy spangles than costumes that were plainer but bristling with subtle subtexts. Any connection between costume and narrative, mise en scene or – God forbid – performances, was also unheard of. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille demanded only that costumes be photogenic and "make people gasp".
Head, on the other hand, infused costumes with complex agendas and a potential role in filmic language.
"She developed the idea that costume design was important to story-telling," says Dr Alison Horbury, lecturer in screen and cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. "Look at her work with Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress : she developed her character's sense of awkwardness through those costumes; she was wealthy but had not quite the right taste."
At the time, Head said she wanted audiences to feel "that no matter how much money [the heiress] had, she never looked soignée [well-groomed]". Head helped de Havilland's character visually evolve in the film, parallel to her costumes, from gauche young woman with, "too much froth, frills and frou frou", according to Horbury, into one of "maturity, refinement and elegance".
The Heiress scored Head the first of eight Oscar statuettes and 27 nominations for costume across her career, a category, incidentally, non-existent until she badgered the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to include it. Which it did, in 1948.
Head relished complex, intuitive projects. "She had an excellent understanding of fashion, and fashion history," says Curtin, "and she actually used that knowledge in a lot of ways, to help [actors] with their characters."
Head masterfully mashed subtle mixtures of new and old trends into costumes for the iconic 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard, for example, enhancing Gloria Swanson's stellar performance as the cringingly tragic ageing movie star, Norma Desmond. "She made her look incredibly glamorous," says Curtin, "but, not quite right at the same time; kind of old-fashioned, like she was stuck in her heyday of the 1920s."
Even a nightgown Head designed for Swanson in the film, now an exhibit in The Costume Designer, had nuance between its silken pleats: "They're the Fortuny-style silk pleats of the 1920s and 30s," Curtin says. "Beautiful, but, very much a look of Old Hollywood."
By the 1950s, Head was widely admired as a kind of genius. And she milked the kudos, plugging her skill as a style guru (these days we'd say "building up the Edith Head brand") on radio and the new medium of television. She also proved, more than once, that humility had shrivelled among her core values.
"I wasn't always nice," she said of her wildly popular fashion advice radio segment on Art Linkletter's House Party. "I tried to be, but sometimes I'd have to be blunt. They didn't know how they looked best and I did …"
Head's own off-beat style was scrutinised, mimicked and mocked as widely as it would be today. But she seemed impervious to criticism and even more to trends. "She had an individual style that she didn't change for all those years," says Quinlan. "You could say she became almost like a caricature of herself."
Legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper even listed Head among her "worst dressed" of 1944 but the insult had little effect. Her distinctive appearance only seemed to ramp up her authority and popularity.
Head's glossy black helmet of hair was in fact, a modified 1920s style, heavy on the bangs. Her bottle-top spectacles were originally standard equipment for film creatives to view colour as it would appear in black and white, but Head held onto hers decades after colour film came in.
She wore the same shapely bespoke suits too – part chic, part practicality – until her death, aged 83 in 1981, and never varied their palette from black, cream, beige, grey or brown.
"She basically became the epitome of the Hollywood designer," Curtin says, a fact reiterated in various versions of her image in popular culture including the character "Edna Mode", an Edith Head doppelganger in the 2004 animated film The Incredibles.
"She was a pioneer," says Horbury. "She really showed tenacity and the kind of pluck that still has incredible influence on women like [costumer] Patricia Field and [actress] Susan Sarandon today."
The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood is at Bendigo Art Gallery, September 29 to January 21, 2018.