6 Filmmaking Tips from Edith Head

By  · Published on April 3rd, 2015

Kim Novak in Vertigo, Costumes by Edith Head (Paramount Pictures)

Upon receiving her eighth (and ultimately final) Academy Award for Best Costume Design with 1973’s The Sting, Edith Head’s acceptance speech was a short and sweet reference to who she saw as the film’s main attraction: “Imagine dressing the two handsomest men in the world, and I get this.” Although this speech was controversial amongst Hollywood’s design community as Head did not publicly recognize her collaborators, it is very much demonstrative of the principal focus that drove her decades-long career as Hollywood’s most sought-after costume designer: fashioning, emphasizing, and making stardom.

While Head openly practiced costume design in collaboration with other above-the line heads of departments towards the service of narrative, character development, and visual composition – not always fashion, first and foremost – she quickly developed a penchant for establishing and accentuating stardom through dress, sketching, selecting, and utilizing clothes that not only spoke volumes about the character, but also about the unique qualities of the star embodying her or him. Thus, Head’s talents proved essential to a Classical Hollywood designed entirely around the production and allure of stars.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the iconic figure that your kids probably know better as Edna Mode.

Motion Pictures Are Not Fashion

There is a difference between a fashion designer and a costume designer, and the latter can often involve making some particularly unfashionable decisions. Rather than the runway or the red carpet, Head’s work requires a close focus on period, characterization, mood, and other narrative or tonal needs. Motion pictures can be a powerful platform for fashion, and Head’s work certainly intersected often with fashion’s establishment of trends and conveying of glamour, but what drives fashion can often come into conflict with the needs of filmmaking.

Clothes Can Do Things that the Story Can’t

“Clothes, we felt, were much more important than the story, and if a director or author dared demur, we fell back upon poetic license and pretended that some rich friend had loaned our heroine a dress for the occasion.”

Howard Greer, a Classical Hollywood costume designer for RKO and an early colleague of Head’s, observed the above in regards to the silent studio era while collaborating with Head at Paramount. According to Jay Jorgensen’s biography of Head from which this quote is excerpted, the less stratified era of 1920s studio filmmaking (in which areas of specialty were being borne from nothing) allowed a relative degree of creative freedom mixed with the rapid pace of production, and early designers like Greer and Head were able to make their mark in this nascent environment of relatively easy influence.

During this time, it became evident to costume designers that while motion pictures were perhaps not fashion, they could certainly be spectacular if not defiantly fashionable. While it’s modest to say that clothes should operate in service of the story, one should also take into account the role that clothes have played on their own in a visual art form – as a storytelling mechanism different from narrative, and moreover as spectacle and as an essential component of the star’s appeal.

Get Acquainted with the Performer

Costuming speaks volumes about setting, character, and the character’s transformation through wardrobe. But costuming can also make stars, as Roman Holiday largely did as the breakthrough role for then-twenty-four-year-old Audrey Hepburn.

Gain the Trust of the Performer

David Chierichetti (featured above) writes in the introduction to his biography of Head, “Ultimately Head found that being famous made her position in work and life more secure than either hard work or sacrifice.” This observation is not to overlook Head’s actual work as simply an extension of self-publicity, but rather serves as an honest examination of how essential self-promotion is to success in Hollywood, even behind the scenes. Head certainly enjoyed the unique position of being one of very, very few motion picture costume designers that became a household name and, like Alfred Hitchcock and other directors with which she worked, she eventually transformed into a behind-the-camera celebrity all her own.

But Head’s promotion needs to be seen as a strategy that allowed Head to do the type of work she wanted. She gained the trust of a spectrum of young actors, burgeoning stars, and established stars even when the methods by which she did so went against studio practices, for she saw the long-term benefit of maintaining a loyal clientele in the hermetically sealed world of studio-era Hollywood filmmaking. In doing so, she gave her clients a sense of autonomy where none usually existed, treating them like humans rather than objects to be gazed at on a screen. It is through this intimacy and trust that Head was not only capable of developing an enduring high-profile career, but also empowered her ability to evoke certain unique aspects of the performers she worked with that might have gone shrouded otherwise.

Head was, in short, co-author of many a star image.

Be a Polyglot for Directors’ Visions…

Every different director has another language – for instance, Hitchcock does not like any bright color ever, unless the story says ‘there goes the girl in a red dress.’”

Even though Head found herself in a place of rare stature and prominence for her particular behind-the-camera job in Hollywood, she was still working within a collaborative (and strictly hierarchical) industry – not as a fashion designer, but a costume designer. She not only gained the trust of her performers, but also acquired versatility in corresponding with the bosses and colleagues with which she shared an off-screen space.

…Because it’s All About Collaboration

Head “understood better than anyone else that we design from the inside out, and she expressed and articulated as much. It was felt that what she was truly a genius at was self-promotion, when, in fact, if anyone had bothered to read her interviews, they would see she’s not talking about herself. She is doing her level best to explain what we do concisely and simply. She doesn’t even use her work as an example. It is not about the ‘I,’ it is about the ‘We.’” – Film and theater costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis

What We’ve Learned

One of Head’s best-known descriptions of her work characterizes costume design as “magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not.” This seems the central difference between costume design and fashion design, a difference that shapes the way that costume designers gain the trust of actors, learn to speak with directors, participate in star-making, and, if they’re lucky, get to show off every now and then by embracing the unique spectacle of stunning clothes captured onscreen. Great costume design not only participates in, but forms an essential part of the illusory magic that is cinema.