Bendigo Art Gallery’s latest exhibition The costume designer: Edith Head and Hollywood has just opened.
Edith Head was one of the most awarded costume designers in Hollywood, receiving eight Academy Awards – the most ever won by a woman.
She designed for almost 1000 films and it has been estimated she designed more than 5000 costumes.
She worked with the pinnacle of Hollywood royalty including Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Veronica Lake and Shirley Temple on films including Roman Holiday and All About Eve.
‘What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage.
“We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not.
“We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he’s become a different person.”
Edith Head designed for a great many films across myriad genres, successfully transforming her actors into the characters they were to portray.
The role of the costume designer was not simply to ‘whip up’ a dress or suit, but to ensure that the desired costumes were correct for the period and appropriate for the social status of the star and, of course, for their body type.
The design process was complex: initially a technician would undertake historical research and then Head would make sketches, taking inspiration from the most appropriate historical examples.
The sketches, with fabric samples attached, would be sent to the director, producer and star for approval – the sketches ultimately became a contract between costume designer and director.
Edith Head was simply one cog (albeit an important one) in the vast machine of the film industry, and lacked the freedom to indulge in design fantasies, being very much constrained by the restrictive parameters of the studio system.
She noted that a designer needed to ‘subordinate [their] own desires for the goal of the picture’ (Edith Head speech notes, Margaret Herrick Library, LA).
Edith Head was also known to be an excellent diplomat with significant negotiation skills and political nous.
She noted that ‘to win [in Hollywood] you’d have to be a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dressmaker, pincushion, historian, nursemaid and purchasing agent’.