As one of the most instantly recognizable statements of identity, fashion can help define an entire era, subculture, or individual. The way we dress reflects our own sensibilities and yearnings to express ourselves to the world. The integral role fashion plays in our everyday lives also applies to cinema. Along with the director and actor, the costume designer plays a vital role in cementing a screen presence and immersing viewers into a film’s story.
One of the masters in the costume design world is the legendary Edith Head, whose prolific five-decade career spanned over a 1000 films and a staggering 35 Academy Award nominations (and eight wins). As the chief designer at Paramount for forty years, Head’s penchant for onscreen glamour produced some of the most formidable images in Hollywood history. Head understood the overarching importance of costuming; her most iconic looks balance the external demands of a film (lighting, set design, camera angles,) with the internal (the script, character arcs) to render a fully realized character.
Head worked closely with Hitchcock’s coolest and iciest blondes, concocted the accessible All-American looks of Audrey Hepburn, and defined the style of the Golden Age of American film altogether. Oh, and she is immortalized as the wonderful Edna Mode in Pixar’s The Incredibles.
From campy period dresses to lavish evening gowns, to tailored suits, Head was one of the most versatile artists of her time. Here is a non-exhaustive overview of 20 of her finest looks, which continue to stun and inspire audiences today.
Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955)
As the spoiled yet captivating Frances Stevens, Grace Kelly sports 10 separate costumes in Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic thriller — and James Bond prototype — To Catch a Thief. Frances’ looks range from bizarre to daring to mesmerizing, with her blue evening gown as a formidable highlight. The often-duplicated blue chiffon dress appears to be a relatively understated ensemble devoid of any bejeweled appliques or jewelry. This simplicity, juxtaposed with an intricate structure, conspicuous shade of blue, and meticulous draping, enhances the look’s timeless elegance.
Kelly, per usual, looks fantastic, but the gown also upholds some narrative purpose within the film. The floaty, chilly ensemble characterizes Frances as opulent and fashionable, but also projects her withdrawn iciness. The gown removes any trace of her real personality, and the rest of the film — and her outfits — infuses her character with an acerbic wit and courageous streak.
Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)
Surprisingly, there was a time where studio executives did not consider onscreen legend Barbara Stanwyck leading lady material. After starring as the bewitching Jean in The Lady Eve, though, Stanwyck became one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. Head’s inimitable costume design catalyzed the change in Stanwyck’s reputation; the decadent, Latin American-inspired dresses highlight how glamorous Stanwyck could look in high fashion.
In her first appearance, Stanwyck appears in a two-piece evening gown comprising of a sleek, long skirt and a bedazzled top displaying her bare midriff. In the dress, Jean constantly moves, walks, and gets into various stretches and poses. Thus, the dress conflates comfort and mobility with an a palpable sensuality — an aesthetic ideal for evening apparel. It’s not hard to see how the look “inspired a fashion craze” in America.
Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954)
While working in tandem with the Technicolor madness and grand set designs of White Christmas, Head’s striking costumes are the mis-en-scene centerpieces of the film. During the “Sisters” song and dance sequence, the Haynes sisters (Clooney and Ellen) wear identical turquoise lace dresses. Featuring a bodice and mid-calf skirt topped with tulle, the dresses epitomize 50s fashion. The dresses would be rather unexceptional if it weren’t for Head’s bold shade of blue, giant feather fans, and flash sparkles over the lace. The dresses teeter on the edge of being overly garish, but they nonetheless feel appropriate for the delightful excess of the performance and the scene’s tropical setting of Hollywood, Florida.
Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954)
The behind-the-scenes drama of Sabrina arguably marks one of the most tumultuous costume design fiascoes in the history of film. Sabrina centers on the striking transformation of Audrey Hepburn’s titular character, who begins as the mousy, unnoticed daughter of a driver and ends as a well-dressed sophisticate. To thematically compliment this narrative, Hepburn sought out Hubert de Givenchy to design the “after” outfits (ie, extravagant gowns). Meanwhile, a dissatisfied Head was left to design the more banal“before” ensembles. (Head went on to accept the Academy Award for Best Costume Design without crediting Givenchy.)
Though the assignment disappointed Head, some of her straightforward ensembles worked tremendously for the film. In the sailing scene, Sabrina sports a summery, laid-back outfit: a plaid shirt knotted at the waist and plain white shorts. Accessible, comfortable, and flattering, the ensemble embodies Sabrina’s style just as well as the glamorous, showy Givenchy gowns.
Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Head received her big break for designing Mae West’s outrageous costumes in She Done Him Wrong. With the story set in the 1890s, West wears several gorgeous period ensembles; here, she wears sparkling, corseted gown with tree and fireflies-esque ornamentation. The statuesque gown and decadent accessories perfectly capture the grandeur of The Gay Nineties, all the while complimenting West’s hourglass figure. As she stands tall over Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), espousing lines like, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” it’s hard to imagine a more captivating synchronicity between a costume and an actor’s authoritative, camp, and fiery persona.
Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944)
In the dated but mesmerizing Lady in the Dark, Liza (Rogers) projects her inner fantasies, ambitions, and desires while undergoing psychoanalysis. Ginger Rogers wears her most extravagant costume for “The Saga of Jenny” Daliesque dream sequence fittingly set in a circus. (Rogers actually appears in two different dresses for the scene, one for singing and a less heavy one for dancing.) Framed as the most expensive costume in Hollywood history, the ruby sequined gown, in all of its astounding decadence, feels grandiose, especially when paired with the Technicolor lavishness and elaborate set design of the scene. Nonetheless, the gowns illuminate Liza’s character trajectory and yearning to transform from a hardworking, controlling magazine editor to a glamorous seductress.
Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963)
In The Birds, Melanie (Hedren) only wears a handful of outfits, but the slim green jacket and wool dress stands out as the most eye-catching and era-defining. A chunky buckle belt, beige crocodile purse, and taupe flats completes the sharp, polished look. With striking similarities to a Chanel suit, the outfit perfectly epitomizes the modernism of 50s and early 60s, all the while characterizing Melanie as an outsider to Bodega Bay. Melanie stays in the outfit for the near entirety of the film, which allows Hitchcock to use the suit to reflect her character arc. At the end of the film, the destruction of the immaculate suit comments on Melanie’s desperation and disintegration of her once cool and mischievous facade.
Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)
“Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” Margo (Davis) says with a devilish smile. This line — one of the most ubiquitous in all of cinema — would be incomplete without Margo’s assured, dramatic off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. Head’s original sketch entailed a square neckline and tight bodice, but the measurements were incorrectly made, and the neckline sat low on Bette Davis’ shoulders. Davis was actually overjoyed with the bare shoulders look, which becomes apparent in the film: Davis exudes confidence in the exquisite dress, a top-notch accompaniment to Margo’s diva persona.
Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1947)
As Delilah, Hedy Lamarr wears a variety of exaggerated, opulent ensembles in Cecil DeMille’s lavish biblical epic, Samson and Delilah. Lamarr’s final costume is a revealing two-piece gown, consisting of a halter and long skirt meticulously embellished with peacock-feathers. The turquoise color, rich fabric, gloriously long cape, and luxurious accessories intensify Delilah’s beguiling allure, allowing for Samson and the audience to gaze at her with a sense of both lethal danger and desire.
Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942)
Through the sensational outfits in the exhilarating film noir This Gun For Hire, Head cemented Veronica Lake’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols in the 40s. Using a monochromatic color scheme, long sleeves, and floor-length outfits, Head allowed the petite Lake, who stood at 4’11, look taller. While singing “I’ve Got You,” Lake wears an all-black, risque ensemble with thigh-high vinyl boots, a satin shirt, and a boxy hat — which all elongate her height and elicits an authoritative onscreen presence. The sleek, scandalous outfit feels ahead of its time, while still adhering to the confining Hays Code.
Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954)
In one of the greatest character entrances in film, Kelly’s Lisa sweeps in Jeff’s (Jimmy Stewart) apartment wearing a cocktail dress with an off-the-shoulder velvet bodice and a layered organza skirt. The dress is an absolute triumph in costume design: it’s poised, perfectly proportioned, and awe-inspiring. The subtle black heels, pearl necklace, chiffon shoulder wrap, and leather belt enhance the chic, ultra-feminized look.
Lisa enters this scene with a mission: to impress Jeff and prove how she can match his own adventurous lifestyle. However, the gown embodies 1950’s Hatue Coutre and Lisa’s status as a beautiful socialite, thereby evoking the futility in her efforts to appear tomboyish and intrepid. There is one notable exception, though — the tree branch pattern near the hip, which hints at Lisa’s later role as Jeff’s brave accomplice in investigating the murder across the courtyard.
Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
While Wilder envisioned one of cinema’s most legendary femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), as sleazy and cheap as possible, Edith used her costumes to imbue more ambiguity and nuance into the character. In Phyllis’ introduction, Head dresses Stanwyck in a provocative anklet, heaps of jewelry, and a dainty, ruffled shirtdress. The anklet underlies Phyllis’ exotic sensuality, whereas the shirtdress connotes her performative innocence and naivety. The ensemble contrasts an uninhibited allure with a fragile femininity, which hints at Phyllis’ concealed deceitful nature — everything she says and does is a part of a performance, but if you examine her closely, the discrepancies of her facade begin to unveil. (Too bad it takes too long for ol’ Walter (Fred MacMurray) to figure her out.)
Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl (1964)
Head’s costume design is the arguable highlight of the slight, pseudo-progressive Sex and the Single Girl. As young and empowered psychologist Helen Gurley Brown, Natalie Wood adopts a black-and-white wardrobe to reflect her uncompromising views on marriage and sexuality (with a notable exception of the yellow dress worn in the film’s finale). Her white satin cocktail dress is a definite standout of the film. The low sweetheart neckline evokes the sexual liberation of both Brown’s character and the turbulent 60s. Meanwhile, the rhinestone pendant dangling from the bust, long white gloves, and large pearl bracelet, are subtle, elegant accessories harkening back to Head’s classic looks of the 50s (a la Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, etc).
Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953)
As an incognito princess, Anne (Hepburn) spends a breezy summer day in Rome with Joe (Gregory Peck) while sporting an attainable and casually sophisticated look: a white button-up blouse, a full circle skirt, and flat leather sandals. Throughout the film, Anne modifies the outfit; she adds a neck scarf, folds her sleeves, and, in a more obvious act of rebellion, cuts her hair short.
These minor changes embody the power of fashion as a vehicle for self-expression. Used to people telling her what to wear and how to behave, Anne uses the escapist outfit to reinforce her own personality and style — and her individuality and agency by extension. The outfit, in its youthful yet elegant simplicity, remains an ideal, comfortable, and uncomplicated ensemble for summer wear. Unlike most of the lavish costumes on this list, Hepburn’s outfit could be easily replicated today, which underlines its abiding appeal to modern viewers.
Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go! (1964)
For the campy, over-the-top dark comedy What a Way to Go!, Head effectively used a massive $500,000 budget to design some of the most stunning, breathless, and dated costumes ever seen on the big screen. Shirley MacLaine appears in 73 outfits, which range from mini dresses to outlandish pink chinchilla coats (some of the highlights can be seen here). Each outfit comments on how the heroine, Louisa, asserts herself in different environments. Here, she sports a cream two-piece bathing suit. The suit’s delicate, ornate lace gives the look a dainty feel, as do the skirt-styled ruffles on the bottoms. The ensemble still feels utterly unique, with the long sleeves and thick, unusual sunglasses giving an unconventional flair to the otherwise hyper-feminine look.
Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946)
From posh evening gowns to androgynous suits, Alicia (Bergman) sports various key 1940s looks in Notorious. To believably infiltrate a household of Nazi spies, Alicia dons sleek and unadorned outfits, with an exception of the one worn in the party scene at the beginning of the film.
Here, she shines in a vivid sequined zebra patterned crop top and a long white skirt. The bold zebra stripes both evoke a wild abandon and foreshadows the dual personalities Alicia soon adopts, and the exposed midriff hints at Alicia’s assured confidence and disinterest in appearing “ladylike” and modest. Out of all the outfits in the film, this scandalous one most aptly conveys Alicia’s “notorious” reputation.
Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951)
With traditional femininity at its peace in the early 1950s, Alice (Taylor)’s iconic dress in A Place in the Sun‘s famous pool scene defined the decade, became a standard for prom dresses, and continues to influence evening apparel. It’s easy to see why: the flare shape of the gown, with its strapless top, sweetheart neckline, cinched waist, and sweeping skirt layered with white tuttle, is guaranteed to compliment most figures. The details of the dress are also lovingly rendered, especially the blossoming fabric flowers on the tight bodice and skirt. The flowers and billowing skirt infuse the gown with a romantic, lighthearted innocence, while the bare shoulders allow for a more seductive look.
Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958)
With Vertigo, Head exemplifies how clothes can define on-screen identities. Through a stark change in wardrobe, the spirited Judy (Novak) transforms into Madeleine, whose fitted grey suit symbolizes Scottie’s perverse fixation with the icy, aloof blonde. With a fitted pencil skirt, white blouse, black handbag, subtle brooch, and black pumps, the suit captures Madeleine’s moneyed elegance. It’s a relatively minimalist ensemble, but its withdrawn sophistication catalyzes Scottie’s mysterious obsession with Madeleine. Madeleine’s costumes are generally fantastic, especially the white cashmere coat over the black ensemble, but the grey suit remains as one of the most recognizable costumes in cinema — an abiding emblem of lust, fetishistic desire, and the perils of recreating the past.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
As one of the complex femme fatales of all time, the has-been silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson) steadfastly believes the public is waiting for her triumphant career resurgence. The peak of her celebrity was in the silent film days, though she attempts to appear as contemporary as possible with her fashion — with mixed results. To properly display Norma’s sensibilities in her clothes, Head conflated the emerging New Look style with the more grandiose looks of the Jazz Age. In other words, Norma looks fashionable and current, but the intricate design of her clothes (a la the dress in the film’s harrowing finale) and overdone jewelry firmly grounds her as a product from an earlier era. (This becomes most strikingly apparent when her style becomes juxtaposes with that of Betty’s, who wears simple ensembles and suits with little jewelry).
When Norma lounges by the poolside, she wears a leopard print wrap dress, platform pumps, oversized bracelets, dramatic shades, and a bedazzled hat. It’s a busy, fantastic outfit — one completely true to Norma’s character. The leopard print signifies the predatory nature of her character, whereas the rest of the ensemble invokes her theatrical mannerisms and ambitions to become a contemporary star.
Robert Redford in The Sting (1973)
Depending on your taste, Hooker’s (Redford) brown pinstripe suit is either hideous or awesome. (I think it’s hideously awesome.) Regardless, the suit flatters Redford’s figure and is thoroughly period authentic. Nipped in high at the waist, the suit compacts Redford’s torso and highlights his shoulders, boosting his masculine frame. The bold white pinstripes elongate his legs, which both strengthens the visual appeal of the suit and supplies Hooker with an imposing and confident presence. The single-breasted, two-button suit jacket and short paisley tie are styles intrinsic to the 1930s, while the baby blue, geometric pattern shirt feels more akin to the 70s. Slight anachronisms aside, the look has become an iconic emblem of masculinity and debonair apparel over the years. Head won her eighth and final Oscar for the costume design for The Sting, and during her acceptance speech, she remarked, “Just imagine dressing the two most handsome men [Redford and Paul Newman] in the world and then getting this.” Touche.
It’s important to note that Head contributed costumes to over a 1000 films, so this list truthfully only scratches the surface of her most notable work. Other iconic costumes include ones worn by Anna May Wong in Dangerous to Know (1938), Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Joanne Woodward in A New Kind of Love (1963), Barbara Stanwyck in the Ball of Fire (1941), Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess (1936), and Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments (1956). There’s so much of her work to consume, so do yourself a favor and check out some of her movies at your local library, watch some of her old interviews, and jam out to They Might Be Giants’ “(She Thinks She’s) Edith Head.” Happy viewing!