Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Edith Head: The Bride Wore Boots

The Movie
    The Bride Wore Boots ain't a great movie, but it's an afternoon's entertainment, and a great example of Edith Head's mid-40's designs.  And who could be a better clothes hanger for those outfits than Barbara Stanwyck, who stars in the movie as Sally Warren, a woman who loves horses and having her way.  Opposite her is Robert Cummings as her horse-hating husband, Jeff Warren, a Civil War historian.  Conflict arises when the youngest member Jeff's fan club, played with seduction by grown-up child star Diana Lynn, takes a real shine to Jeff.  Through a series of unfortunate accidents, Barbara gets the wrong idea about Jeff's intentions and readies a quick divorce...

Film Costuming
Leopard!  She's on the prowl.
   When I've thought of film costuming, my thoughts have been along the lines of: 'what a ton of fun! design an outfit on paper, have your assistants whip it up, make a few changes, a fitting and you're done!'.  Ah, but it is not so, as I learned when I went to find out more about the subject.  Designing a costume for a film sounds like it takes not only design skill and color sense, but diplomacy, patience and an ability to work on the fly.  Short deadlines, accidents on set, and many other factors make costume design more complex than it seems.  In addition, each design must fit with the concept of the character.  Then also there is the human element; one of the reasons Edith Head was so popular with many stars was her willingness to give the person what they wanted and to make them look good.

Costume Genius
    When do Oscar nominations become routine?  When you're Edith Head, famed costume designer nominated every year from 1948 to 1966, 35-time nominee over her career and 8-time winner (still the most for any woman).  A favorite of many major movie stars, Edith had a long and distinguished career designing the costumes for more than 1,100 films.
   Edith truly had a wandering childhood, although she never spoke much about it.  Bits and snippets gathered by her close friends hint at parents who never married, a portion of her young life spent in mining camps in the west and in Mexico, and finally high school in Los Angeles and college at Berkeley.   
   She was taught to sew as a young child and got her first break in costuming at the studio that would soon become Paramount, where she found a job working as a sketch artist and assistant to Howard Greer.  She would continue to work at Paramount for over 40 years.  She married twice and had no children.
Edith and Edna (rogerebert.com)
   Of Edith's physical appearance, it was said that she had "a face like a pussycat crossed with a Fujita drawing" (Howard Greer).  Through her observations of various studio-engineered star personas like Dietrich and others, she learned the importance of personal style, which became nearly as famous as the stars she dressed:  dark framed glasses with blue lenses (that helped her determine how a color would photograph in black-and-white, dark hair, classic clothes and placid demeanor.  It was distinctive enough to have a character, Edna Mode, based on her in the Pixar film The Incredibles.
   Many of her peers were dismissive of her talent, saying she relied too much on input from her assistant designers, couldn't draw or hadn't any flair.  She did design lower-key looks than many of the other costumers, but it was a classic look that set itself apart by being of the 'less is more' philosophy.  She was a favorite of several directors, including Alfred Hitchcock.
   Over her many years as a costume designer, Edith found insulation from volatile studio politics by working with the stars to give them what they requested and by being extremely diplomatic.  Films she would design in her long career included The Lady Eve, Holiday Inn, Roman Holiday, The Birds and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Her final memorial was a black-and-white film set in the 40s, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with Steve Martin, released soon after she died in 1981.

Links and Sources
Costume Designer's Guild
This one looks interesting, lots of pictures, good text:  Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgenson
A great overview text by a man who knew her well: Edith Head:  The Life and Times...  by David Cherichetti
Edith Head, Wikipedia
Edith Head's How To Dress For Success

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