Costume Designer Edith Head: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Edith Head (October 28, 1897 — October 24, 1981) reigns as the ultimate costume designer. With 8 Academy Awards, she won more times for costume design than any other designer — even though there wasn’t an Oscar category for costume design until 1948, decades into her career. Even so, she was nominated a record 35 times for Best Costume. Oh, and she has won more Oscars than any women yet.  For 44 years, she worked for Paramount, having started there as a sketch artist, and later she joined Universal Studios, and designed for over 500 films in her lifetime.

Creating glamorous gowns for Hollywood stars was Edith Head’s specialty, and she worked with all the big names of 1930s through 1960s, such as Mae West, Bette Davis, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. She made “exotic” Polynesian outfits for the tiki craze flicks of the period, and she made stylish suits for women and men for stark film noir movies. Like every studio designer, she cranked out costumes for plenty of westerns, and she also created iconic looks for Hitchcock films.

Many of the movies and TV productions she worked on were frock flicks, but strict historical accuracy as we might judge it today was not what Hollywood cared about at the time. Edith Head made costumes for historical spectacles, the equivalent of today’s comic-book flicks, where bright colors, big shapes, and sparkle made an impact more than precise historical research and subtle recreations.

But hey, we’ll still judge her, even if she is the Queen of All Costume Design! We do so with love, because we’re impressed by her insane output and how fantastic her creations look on the actors and onscreen. Just don’t expect them to always look quite like what was worn in a particular historical period. Let’s enjoy a bunch of her historical costume movie and TV designs over the years!

 

 

 

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Edith Head, She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West in the Gay Nineties.

Edith Head, She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Edith Head created this look that become the signature style for Mae West, who returned to it again over the years in her stage shows.

Edith Head, She Done Him Wrong (1933)

 

 

Poppy (1936)

EdithHead, Poppy (1936)

W.C. Fields in something late Victorian.

EdithHead, Poppy (1936)

Ruffles!

 

 

Souls at Sea (1937)

Edith Head, Souls at Sea (1937)

Set in 1842.

 

 

If I Were King (1938)

Edith Head, If I Were King (1938)

Set in 1463 Paris. Nice embroidery on the guy on the left’s sleeve! I also love the crazy hats.

 

 

The Texans (1938)

Edith Head, The Texans (1938)

Obligatory western.

 

 

The Great Man’s Lady (1941)

Edith Head, The Great Man's Lady (1941)

Also a western, but it gets fancy at some point. This gown is fab — is it supposed to be 1860s? LOL.

 

 

Birth of the Blues (1941)

Edith Head, Birth of the Blues (1941)

Yeah, no — anything titled “Birth of the Blues” but starring Bing Crosby sounds whitewashed :(

 

 

The Great Moment (1944)

Edith Head, The Great Moment (1944)

Biopic of Dr. William T. G. Morton, who introduced anesthesia via ether to dentistry.

 

 

To Each His Own (1946)

Edith Head, To Each His Own (1946)

Set during World War I.

 

 

The Virginian (1946)

Edith Head, The Virginian (1946)

A western set in the 1880s.

 

 

Miss Susie Slagle’s (1946)

Edith Head, Miss Susie Slagle's (1946)

A romance at a woman’s boardinghouse in the 1910s.

 

 

California (1947)

Edith Head, California (1947)

The story of California statehood features gold lamé — is that symbolic of the Gold Rush?

Edith Head, California (1947)

So shiny.

Edith Head, California (1947)

 

 

Ramrod (1947)

Edith Head, Ramrod (1947)

Typical western with women’s wear like this.

Edith Head, Ramrod (1947)

But also this? M’kay!

 

 

The Sainted Sisters (1948)

Edith Head, The Sainted Sisters (1948)

About two 1890s New York con women.

Edith Head, The Sainted Sisters (1948)

Here’s the outfit worn by Joan Caulfield (on the right). Great embroidery on the cape & skirt.

Edith Head, The Sainted Sisters (1948)

Cute undies.

 

 

The Emperor Waltz (1948)

Edith Head, The Emperor Waltz (1948)

Set in turn-of-the-century Austria.

Edith Head, The Emperor Waltz (1948)

 

 

Isn’t It Romantic (1948)

Edith Head, Isn't It Romantic (1948)

Nice 1890s plaid suit on her, but why’s he wearing a 1940s pinstripe suit?

Edith Head, Isn't It Romantic (1948) & A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1948)

Isn’t It Romantic & A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court were being filmed at the same time, & Edith Head did costumes for both. Here’s Veronica Lake & Bing Crosby, hanging out in their costumes from the different flicks.

 

 

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1948)

Edith Head, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1948)

Here’s that same costume on Crosby, but in color.

Edith Head, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1948)

 

 

So Evil My Love (1948)

Edith Head, So Evil My Love (1948)

Set in 1890s London. The white combined with that black print is really striking, even if the cut of the gown isn’t totally period (& it could use more petticoats).

 

 

The Great Gatsby (1949)

Edith Head, The Great Gatsby (1949)

I guess this is supposed to be 1920s, like the book?

 

 

The Heiress (1949)

Edith Head, The Heiress (1949)

Olivia de Havilland in this excellent Victorian drama.

Edith Head, The Heiress (1949)

Edith Head’s sketch shows the gown should be pink with gold embroidery.

Edith Head, The Heiress (1949)

Sorry, I couldn’t lighten this any more without losing the face. But I’m pretty sure it’s the red dress because the shape is the same as is the trim.

Red gown on display.

Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress," a 1949 serious Victorian drama

So floofy!

Edith Head, The Heiress (1949)

 

 

Samson and Delilah (1949)

Dorothy Jeakins, Samson and Delilah (1949)

Not the most historical, but dayum it’s gorgeous!

Costume sketch by Edith Head.

Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah" (1949) Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah" (1949) Dorothy Jeakins, Samson and Delilah (1949)
Angela Lansbury, Samson and Delilah (1949)

Angela Lansbury looking like a badass!

 

 

Copper Canyon (1950)

Edith Head, Copper Canyon (1950)

A western, with a ballgown.

Edith Head, Copper Canyon (1950)

 

 

The Furies (1950)

Edith Head, The Furies (1950)

Another ho-hum western.

Edith Head, The Furies (1950)

Oh wait, I take that back!

 

 

Darling, How Could You! (1951)

Edith Head, Darling, How Could You! (1951)

Set in turn-of-the-century New York. Supposedly.

 

 

Silver City (1951)

Edith Head, Silver City (1951)

Oooooo, that velvet coat with the caplet is gorgeous!

 

 

Carrie (1952)

Edith Head, Carrie (1952)

Set in 1890s Chicago — for her, at least.

 

 

Sangaree (1953)

Edith Head, Sangaree (1953)

Supposedly set during the American Revolutionary War.

 

 

Pony Express (1953)

Edith Head, Pony Express (1953)

Don’t fight, gals, they’ll get your mail delivered somehow!

 

 

The Vanquished (1953)

Edith Head, The Vanquished (1953)

Set around the American Civil War, supposedly.

 

 

Houdini (1953)

Edith Head, Houdini (1953)

A highly fictionalized biopic set in the 1890s.

Edith Head, Houdini (1953)

 

 

Those Redheads from Seattle (1953)

Edith Head, Those Redheads from Seattle (1953)

Set during the 1898 Yukon Gold Rush.

Edith Head, Those Redheads from Seattle (1953)

This picture always cracks me up.

 

 

Casanova’s Big Night (1954)

Edith Head, Casanova's Big Night (1954)

Edith Head was up to the challenge of dressing Bob Hope in an 18th-c. gown!

Edith Head, Casanova's Big Night (1954)

 

 

The Court Jester (1955)

Angela Lansbury, The Court Jester (1955)

Angela Lansbury gets medieval on your ass.

1955 The Court Jester
Edith Head, Court Jester

Obligatory jester outfit.

 

 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Edith Head is credited as costumer on this epic film along with Ralph Jester, John Jensen, Dorothy Jeakins, and Arnold Friberg. I’m guessing Head did more of the glamour gowns.

Edith Head, The Ten Commandments (1956)

I think that’s Nina Foch wearing this on the far right, above.

 

 

The Rainmaker (1956)

Edith Head, The Rainmaker (1956)

Set during the Great Depression.

 

 

Three Violent People (1956)

Edith Head, Three Violent People (1956)

Civil War era.

Edith Head, Three Violent People (1956)

Zoom in & you’ll see how the orange fabric is a narrow stripe.

 

 

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Edith Head, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

A famous western.

 

 

St. Louis Blues (1958)

Edith Head, St. Louis Blues (1958)

Ella Fitzgerald performs in this biopic of ‘Father of the Blues,’ William C. Handy (played by Nat ‘King’ Cole), set in the 1910s-1920s.

 

 

The Matchmaker (1958)

Edith Head, The Matchmaker (1958)

Set in 1884, this is based on the same story as Hello Dolly!.

 

 

The Buccaneer (1958)

Edith Head, The Buccaneer (1958)

Set during the War of 1812.

Edith Head, The Buccaneer (1958)

 

 

Heller in Pink Tights (1960)

Edith Head, Heller in Pink Tights (1960)

Sophia Loren in the 1880s, supposedly.

Edith Head, Heller in Pink Tights (1960)

Edith Head during a costume fitting.

 

 

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

Edith Head, The Carpetbaggers (1964)

Set in 1930s Hollywood.

 

 

Harlow (1965)

Edith Head, Harlow (1965)

Biopic of the 1930s movie star.

Edith Head, Harlow (1965) Edith Head, Harlow (1965)

 

 

The Great Race (1965)

Edith Head, The Great Race (1965)

Natalie Wood in the early 20th century, supposedly.

Edith Head, The Great Race (1965)
Edith Head, The Great Race (1965)

Edith Head consults on a costume. It’s amazing & ridiculous how these period outfits include hoods & hats big enough to accommodate 1960s beehive hairdos!

 

 

This Property Is Condemned (1966)

Edith Head, This Property Is Condemned (1966)

Set during the Great Depression.

 

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Edith Head, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

An early 1900s western. Love the tab closure treatment on her jacket!

 

 

The Sting (1973)

Edith Head, The Sting (1973)

Sharp suits for the 1930s!

Edith Head, The Sting (1973)

 

 

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

Edith Head, The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

About a 1920s stunt pilot.

Edith Head, The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

 

 

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

1975 The Man Who Would Be King

Set in India under British rule.

 

 

Gable and Lombard (1976)

Edith Head, Gable and Lombard (1976)

About an affair between Clark Gable & Carole Lombard in the 1930s.

 

 

W.C. Fields and Me (1976)

Edith Head, W.C. Fields and Me (1976)

Biopic spanning the 1920s to 1940s.

 

 

Amelia Earhart (1976)

Edith Head, Amelia Earhart (1976)

Image via Shutterstock.

 

 

The Disappearance of Aimee (1976)

1976 The Disappearance of Aimee

TV movie set in 1926.

 

 

Little Women (1978)

Susan Dey, Little Women (1978)

TV miniseries of the novel, starring Susan Dey as Jo.

Little Women (1978)

Eve Plumb as Beth.

Little Women (1978)

Meredith Baxter as Meg.

Greer Garson, Little Women (1978)

Greer Garson as Aunt March.

 

 

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

A film noir parody starring Steve Martin.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

Edith Head died during this film’s production, & it was dedicated to her.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite historical costume design by Edith Head?

21 Responses

  1. Gwyn

    “The Court Jester” and “Robin Hood” make an AMAZING double feature, and shows off Basil Rathbone’s massive fencing skills..wonder if he ever got frustrated at being forced to lose all the time because he played the baddie? (the chalice from the palace holds the pellet with the poison)

    Reply
    • Roxana

      (the flagon with the dragon hold the brew which is true!) 😁😁
      I read somewhere that Danny Kaye actually scared Rathbone because he was fast and wild and really got into it. Apparently an unpredictable amateur with a sword can be a real problem to an experienced fencer.

      Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      “The Court Jester” might be my favorite family movie, ever. (Along with “George of the Jungle.”) Anyway, this whole portfolio takes me back to childhood and paging through my big sister’s movie magazines.

      Reply
  2. Constance

    What a lot of work for this post! A few of these are on Youtube for free. I do hate movies made in 1959’s America…but will try some for costumes.

    Reply
  3. Lynne Connolly

    I love her gowns. Very clever stuff. I have one somewhere, and it’s really simple. A tube dress with a heavily ruffled top, and a huge ruffled shawl. Would have been easy, if tedious, to make. Yellow silk shot with gold, which is hella effective.
    She’d have had to provide a bunch of extras with costumes, so keeping it simple like that, and using splashy fabric would have made her job easier.

    Reply
  4. Jessica

    I know it’s not a period gown, but the gown Edith Head made for Bette Davis in All About Eve — with pockets! — will always be my favorite.

    Reply
    • Frances Germeshausen

      “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

      Reply
  5. Boxermom

    The Ten Commandments, FTW! I wanted to be Anne Baxter when I grew up, just because of those costumes. :)

    Reply
  6. Nzie

    What a designer.. not everything is historically accurate (and some aren’t even close) but as costumes they really work. I have to give it up to one of my favorite films, The Sting, for my favorite Edith Head design. :-)

    Reply
  7. Teresa

    With regards to the photo of Anne Baxter, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual Egyptian representation of someone wearing bangs, as in “the Ten Commandments” (and other crappy entertainments too numerous to mention). And that couch is pretty ridiculous. But the dress itself isn’t bad–nice Ramesside pleats there.

    Can anyone weigh in on the authenticity of Inger Stevens’ costume in The Buccaneer? Her character is even more fictional than that of the princess in “Braveheart” (I’ve been rereading that post for laughs); Governor Claiborne did have a daughter, but she was only a toddler at the time of the Battle of New Orleans.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      After a quick check of AE artwork online I have to agree with you, some styles of wigs had a fringe of curls across the forehead but the misnamed Cleopatra bob was definitely not a thing. Women most often wore their hair parted in the middle or braided wigs in that style. Some of the jewelry in the Ten Commandments is very good, apparently copies from actual museum pieces.

      Isn’t the Bucaneer the one with Yule Brynner, with hair, as Jean Lafitte? And the gamin brunette gets the hero not the blond ingenue which I found refreshing.

      Reply
      • Teresa

        Yes, that’s the Buccaneer–remake of an older movie of the same title. One reviewer said that the problem with the Buccaneer (1959) was that Yul Brynner was still playing the King of Siam, and Charlton Heston was still playing Moses! Not very historically accurate, either, and I think Brynner was poorly cast. (Heston I can understand, even if he looked much too old to have been Andy Jackson at New Orleans.)

        Egyptian women’s hairstyles are reasonably diverse, but I can’t think of any artistic representation of bangs straight across the forehead. Someone here said that was a Victorian innovation. There is a royal mummy, possibly that of Queen Tausret, from the Valley of the Kings (KV 35 cache) that has an interesting upswept hairdo. And there are some female mummies with shaven heads, and some with hair extensions.

        Reply
      • Teresa

        Actual representations of Cleopatra (coins and a couple of sculptures) show her with her hair in a bun (you know how Hollywood types are likely to react to that).
        The relief of Cleopatra on the exterior wall of the temple of Hathor at Dendara shows her wearing a traditional Egyptian wig and a queen’s crown comprising horns and solar disk. And she probably did dress like that when a religious occasion demanded it, but for everyday head-of-state duties, she would have worn the Greek hairstyle and Greek costume, with the diadem (a cloth headband) instead of an elaborate Egyptian crown.

        Reply
  8. Katie O.

    Unfortunately I’ve seen very few of these, which I will need to work on. I always think it’s interesting when a designer has a long enough career that near the end there’s crossover between the when the “historical” films are set and when they had started working. I should hope there would be greater accuracy there!

    Reply
  9. Maggie May

    We had her autobiography , probably from a book club. I read it several times. She developed a Look to make herself fade into the background when dressing stars.

    Edith was a regular guest on Art Linkletter’s show giving style hints to real people.

    Yes, she could do period accurate looks; there are a few hints here. But her job was making Movie Stars look great in Hollywood Movies.

    Reply
  10. Laura D Boyes

    There are some sweet stories about Head’s final film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. She was going to design 4 dresses for the star, Rachel Ward. But then director Carl Reiner asked her if she could design something like Ingrid Berman wore in “Notorious” and she said “I designed “Notorious”! She certainly could do that. She also dressed Martin in drag as Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” as well as designing other outfits reminiscent of her heyday. She was weak, dying of cancer, but she came to Universal every day. She was a trouper.

    Reply

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