Bendigo Art Gallery's Edith Head show is largest ever exhibition of designer's work

Edith Head, the designer whose works will go on show at Bendigo Art Gallery this week, might have made her name creating costumes for the Hollywood elite, but her own tastes were somewhat simpler.

The eight-time Academy Award winner wore just four colours to work: brown, beige, black and white. She never wanted to upstage her creations and the stars who wore them.   

The designer worked on 1000 films before her death at age 83 and now a 70-piece selection of her best looks will show at the Bendigo gallery until January 21.  

Paramount Pictures archivist Randall Thropp, who was in Bendigo for the exhibition, said it was her ability to move from one genre of film to the next that assured Head a long career in Hollywood.

“She was responsible for westerns, musicals, comedies, dramas, film noir; she had to oversee all of those and she was a master at doing her research as well,” Mr Thropp said.

Edith Head designs were the “crown jewel” of the Paramount archive, he said, a collection of more than 3000 vintage costumes. 

Aside from Head’s sartorial eye, it was the designer’s diplomacy for which she became renowned. 

Mr Thropp explained the Oscar winner was a keen negotiator between actors and directors, achieving looks that sated the demands of both parties.

Actress Kim Novak was said to vehemently oppose the idea of wearing a grey suit in film Vertigo, yet Head managed to dress her in that precise sort of outfit for much of the movie. 

“She knew how to get them on board,” he said.

“It was all about developing the character.”

Melissa Galt, Head’s goddaughter and the daughter of actress Anne Baxter, also remembered her “Aunt Edie” as politically adroit.  

In an era of bitter studio rivalry, Head was also able to move from Paramount Pictures to Universal, a shift less agile communicators would struggle to make.

But her godmother’s private persona was more relaxed, doing away with the monochrome wardrobe for Mexican blouses and full skirts. 

“Edith the costume designer was a role, a character she built,” Ms Galt said.

It was a character who would eventually reach millions of Americans, with Head also appearing on television to advise women about fashion trends.

For curator Tansy Curtin, Head was an early example of today’s celebrity stylists, an expert at dressing women for their body shape. 

Costuming was without a household name like Head today, but Ms Curtin said there could well be room for someone of her ilk.

“Maybe there’s a place for someone to say that not all women are [one] shape.”

Collectors’ new groove 

It’s surprising, but true: until 30 years ago, silver screen costumes were out of favour with fashion collectors.

Now, however, they are highly sought after.

"There's much more Hollywood nostalgia now than before," Bendigo Art Gallery curator Tansy Curtin said. 

“Those collectors who got in early have done very well for themselves.”

Of the 70 costumes shipped to Bendigo for the gallery’s Edith Head exhibition, most came from the United States.

But there are also 10 looks on loan from Brisbane collector Nicholas Inglis. 

Exhibiting costumes and fashion came with unique challenges, Ms Curtin said, including fitting the garments to mannequins and working with fragile fabrics. 

Head's work was particularly valuable, with the woman often lauded as the most significant costume designer in film history.

Over the course of her celebrated career, Head was awarded eight Academy Awards and dressed names including Gloria Swanson, Fred Astaire, Yul Brynner and Veronica Lake.