EDITH HEAD (1897 – 1981)
I walked into my movement professor’s office sometime during my sophomore year of college. Along with teaching movement, the business of acting, and Senior Acting Studio, she did costumes. (She often put me in pleated pants with a 30″ inseam, so I usually ignored the costumes part). Anyway, I traipsed in there one day to get a critique on a headshot. She was on the phone, so I puttered around looking at headshots of old students, costume renderings, and general theatrical doo-dads until I came upon a letter, framed on her wall. Signed by Edith Head.
I don’t really remember what happened after that. Did I fall to my knees in worship? Did I pass out? I may have just turned green with envy. Anyway, I’ve never forgotten that letter.
I’ve loved Edith Head since the first time I watched White Christmas, which had to have been around hmmm…age 6? Something like that. It wasn’t the dresses that did it (although they helped); it was the men’s shoes being the EXACT same color as their pants. The line was phenomenal. Danny Kay wears a gray suit in the “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” number, with these elegant gray shoes. He nearly dances right off the soundstage. I think it was then that I realized that there was method to the madness of costuming.
When I was little, my Mom would often costume community theatre productions. Not only do I remember these costumes well, I’ve seen them since in an old apartmenty warehouse space above Archbold’s small downtown that houses the Community Theatre’s costumes, props and sets. And they still are great. So I have a soft spot for costumers in general. Of all the tech folk (whom I respect deeply), it’s the costumers that have the most contact with the actors. As an actor, you only have a general sense of the lighting. You can feel the hot spots, etc. Certain more dramatic moments have a “feel”. A set certainly helps determine your floor pattern. A perfectly executed cue by a stage manager can be the difference between brilliant comedic timing and a lost moment. But the costumer’s work you wear on your body. The two of you can make an entrance. Fit is everything and the woman I celebrate today knew that. And more.
Of course I fell in love with Ms. Head’s work because of a musical. Musical are both costuming dreams and nightmares, but the possibilities are endless. The true talent of a costumer often shows in their ability to show restraint.
I give you Rear Window.
Of course, a picture doesn’t do this dress justice. And why would it? It was made for film. It moves so well. Certainly, Ms. Kelly lives up to her first name, but she is framed so well by the work of Edith Head. For me, this is the height of “dance-inspired.” The neckline is perfection. The tulle skirt is dramatic, but tasteful. It’s genius, pure and simple. Simple being a key word. Edith Head knew what so many other designers seem to ignore: It’s all in the tailoring.
Check out Barbara Harris in Family Plot. It’s just a sweater and jeans, but the fit is perfection. (It’s not the best pic, but it’s the best I could find.) In fact, it’s that sweater that convinced me to go ahead and attempt the shawl-collar wrap sweater. I had never seen it done “right” until I watched that movie. The jeans hit the ground just right (trust me…or watch the movie), her bag is…well, let’s just say I’ve been searching for equivalent for years and have been thwarted.
There is something else that Ms. Head understood. Breasts. Sure there’s cleavage. That’s easy. But what Edith did was frame them, like a fine work of art. Observe:
She did the gowns for one of my favorite movies of all time: What a Way to Go! I won’t post examples here. Let me just say that Ms. Head has a sense of humor.
In honor of Edith Head, I’m adding Torn Curtain (a Hitchcock I haven’t seen!) and The Great Race to my queue…along with many, many more.