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Edith Head
Edith Head, 1976.jpg
Edith Head in 1976
Edith Claire Posener

(1897-10-28)October 28, 1897
Died October 24, 1981(1981-10-24) (aged 83)
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley (B.A., 1919)
Stanford University (M.A., 1920)
Years active 1927–1981
Charles Head
(m. 1923; div. 1938)

Wiard Ihnen
(m. 1940; died 1979)
Color photograph of Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr as Samson and Delilah
Edith Head's costume designs for Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949), for which she won an Oscar
Grace Kelly Promotional Photograph Rear Window
Design for Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was an American costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design between 1949 and 1973, making her the most awarded woman in the Academy's history. Head is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential costume designers in film history.

Born and raised in California, Head started her career as a Spanish teacher, but was interested in design. After studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1923. She won acclaim for her design of Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, and became a household name after the Academy Award for Best Costume Design was created in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively; these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.

Head worked at Paramount for 44 years. In 1967, the company declined to renew her contract, and she was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to join Universal Pictures. There she earned her eighth and final Academy Award for her work on The Sting in 1973.

Early life and career

She was born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy. Her father, born in January 1858, was a naturalized American citizen from Germany, who came to the United States in 1876. Her mother was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1875, the daughter of an Austrian father and a Bavarian mother. Max and Anna married in 1895, according to the 1900 United States Federal Census records. Just before Edith's birth, Max Posener opened a small haberdashery in San Bernardino, which failed within a year.

The marriage did not survive. In 1905, Anna remarried, this time to mining engineer Frank Spare, originally from Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently as Spare's jobs moved. The only place Head could later recall living during her early years was Searchlight, Nevada. Frank and Anna Spare passed Edith off as their child. As Frank Spare was a Catholic, Edith ostensibly became one as well.

In 1919, Edith received a Bachelor of Arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1920 earned a Master of Arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University.

She became a language teacher with her first position as a replacement at Bishop's School in La Jolla teaching French. After one year, she took a position teaching Spanish at the Hollywood School for Girls. Wanting a slightly higher salary, she told the school that she could also teach art, even though she had only briefly studied the discipline in high school. To improve her drawing skills, at this point rudimentary, she took evening classes at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art College.

On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 1938 after a number of years of separation, she continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death. In 1940 she married award-winning art director Wiard Ihnen, a marriage which lasted until his death in 1979.

The Paramount years

Edith Head ca 1955
Head in 1955.

In 1924, despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, the 26-year-old Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures. Later she admitted to "borrowing" other students' sketches for her job interview. She began designing costumes for silent films, commencing with The Wanderer in 1925 and, by the 1930s, had established herself as one of Hollywood's leading costume designers. She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967, possibly prompted by her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock, who had moved to Universal in 1960.

Head's marriage to set designer Wiard Ihnen, on September 8, 1940, lasted until his death from prostate cancer in 1979. Over the course of her long career, she was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, annually from 1949 (the first year that the Oscar for Best Costume Design was awarded) through 1966, and won eight times – receiving more Oscars than any other person.

Although Head was featured in studio publicity from the mid-1920s, she was originally overshadowed by Paramount's lead designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton. Head was instrumental in conspiring against Banton, and after his resignation in 1938 she became a high-profile designer in her own right. Her association with the "sarong" dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane (1937) made her well known among the general public, although Head was a more restrained designer than either Banton or Adrian. She gained public attention for the top mink-lined gown she created for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), which caused much comment owing to the mood of wartime austerity. The establishment, in 1949, of the Academy Award for Costume Design further boosted her career, giving her a record-breaking run of Award nominations and wins, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz. Head and other film designers like Adrian became well known to the public.

Head was known for her unique working style and, unlike many of her male contemporaries, usually consulted extensively with the female stars with whom she worked. As a result, she was a favorite among many of the leading female stars of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, Head was frequently "loaned out" by Paramount to other studios at the request of their female stars. She herself always dressed very plainly, preferring thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits.

In 1946, Head worked for the first time with director Alfred Hitchcock. They worked together on his spy film Notorious. Head, who worked for Paramount, was loaned to Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) pictures to work with Hitchcock on this film. In this time period it was more often found that costume designers would design to reflect their own style. Head had a different outlook on this. She felt that it was more important to design pieces that reflected the character. During their time working on this movie, Head and Hitchcock found that they were like-minded and had the same bluntness in their careers and attitudes. The costumes she designed for this film reflected restraint and the need to blend in. This style suited what Hitchcock was looking for since he did not want the clothes to be the focal point. The two would go on to work together many more times.

On February 3, 1955 (Season 5 Episode 21), Edith Head appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life. She and her partner won a total of $1,540. Her winnings were donated to charity.

Head also authored two books describing her career and design philosophy, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967). These books were re-edited in 2008 and 2011, respectively.

The Universal years

In 1967, at the age of 70, she left Paramount Pictures and joined Universal Pictures, where she remained until her death in 1981. By this point, Hollywood was rapidly changing from what it had been during Head's heyday in the 1930s-1940s. Studio-based production was giving way to outdoors and on-scene shooting, and many of the actresses from that era whom she worked with and knew intimately had retired or were working less. She thus turned more of her attention to TV, where some old friends such as Olivia de Havilland had begun working. She designed Endora's clothing on Bewitched, and made a cameo appearance in 1973 on the detective series Columbo beside Anne Baxter, playing herself and displaying her Oscars to date. In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting.

In the late 1970s Edith Head was asked to design a woman's uniform for the United States Coast Guard, because of the increasing number of women in the Coast Guard. Head called the assignment a highlight in her career and received the Meritorious Public Service Award for her efforts. Her designs for a TV mini-series based on the novel Little Women were well received. Her last film project was the black-and-white comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), starring Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, a job Head was chosen for because of her expertise on 1940s fashions. She modeled Martin and Reiner's outfits on classic film noir and the movie, released in theaters just after her death, was dedicated to her memory.


Head died on October 24, 1981, four days before her 84th birthday, from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Edith Head's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which she received in 1974, is located at 6504 Hollywood Boulevard.

Actors and actresses designed for

Among the actresses Edith Head designed for were:

Among the actors Edith Head designed for were:

Academy Awards

Head received eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, more than any other person, from a total of 35 nominations.

Year Category Work Result
1948 Best Costume Design - Color The Emperor Waltz Nominated
1949 Best Costume Design - Black & White The Heiress Won
1950 Best Costume Design - Color Samson and Delilah Won
Best Costume Design - Black & White All About Eve Won
1951 A Place in the Sun Won
1952 Best Costume Design - Color The Greatest Show on Earth Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White Carrie Nominated
1953 Best Costume Design - Black & White Roman Holiday Won
1954 Sabrina Won
1955 Best Costume Design - Color To Catch a Thief Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White The Rose Tattoo Nominated
1956 Best Costume Design - Color The Ten Commandments Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White The Proud and Profane Nominated
1957 Best Costume Design Funny Face Nominated
1958 The Buccaneer Nominated
1959 Best Costume Design - Color The Five Pennies Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White Career Nominated
1960 Best Costume Design - Color Pepe Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White The Facts of Life Won
1961 Best Costume Design - Color Pocketful of Miracles Nominated
1962 My Geisha Nominated
Costume Design - Black & White The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Nominated
1963 Best Costume Design - Color A New Kind of Love Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White Wives and Lovers Nominated
Love with the Proper Stranger Nominated
1964 Best Costume Design - Color What a Way to Go! Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White A House Is Not a Home Nominated
1965 Best Costume Design - Color Inside Daisy Clover Nominated
Best Costume Design - Black & White The Slender Thread Nominated
1966 Best Costume Design - Color The Oscar Nominated
1969 Best Costume Design Sweet Charity Nominated
1970 Airport Nominated
1973 The Sting Won
1975 The Man Who Would Be King Nominated
1977 Airport '77 Nominated

Guest appearances

Head made a brief appearance in Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star (1973) acting as herself, the clothing designer for Anne Baxter's character. Her Oscars were displayed on a desk in the scene.

Again as herself, she appeared in the film Lucy Gallant (1955) as the emcee of a fashion show. She also appeared in The Pleasure of His Company (1961) as she showed dresses for Debbie Reynolds' wedding in the film, and in The Oscar (1966) in three short, non-speaking scenes opposite Elke Sommer's character, a sketch artist turned costume designer like Head herself.

See also

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