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)
Mae West in the Gay Nineties.
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.
W.C. Fields in something late Victorian.
Souls at Sea (1937)
Set in 1842.
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)
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)
Yeah, no — anything titled “Birth of the Blues” but starring Bing Crosby sounds whitewashed :(
The Great Moment (1944)
Biopic of Dr. William T. G. Morton, who introduced anesthesia via ether to dentistry.
To Each His Own (1946)
Set during World War I.
The Virginian (1946)
A western set in the 1880s.
Miss Susie Slagle’s (1946)
A romance at a woman’s boardinghouse in the 1910s.
The story of California statehood features gold lamé — is that symbolic of the Gold Rush?
Typical western with women’s wear like this.
But also this? M’kay!
The Sainted Sisters (1948)
About two 1890s New York con women.
Here’s the outfit worn by Joan Caulfield (on the right). Great embroidery on the cape & skirt.
The Emperor Waltz (1948)
Set in turn-of-the-century Austria.
Isn’t It Romantic (1948)
Nice 1890s plaid suit on her, but why’s he wearing a 1940s pinstripe suit?
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)
Here’s that same costume on Crosby, but in color.
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).
I guess this is supposed to be 1920s, like the book?
Olivia de Havilland in this excellent Victorian drama.
Edith Head’s sketch shows the gown should be pink with gold embroidery.
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.
Not the most historical, but dayum it’s gorgeous!
Costume sketch by Edith Head.
Angela Lansbury looking like a badass!
A western, with a ballgown.
The Furies (1950)
Another ho-hum western.
Oh wait, I take that back!
Darling, How Could You! (1951)
Set in turn-of-the-century New York. Supposedly.
Silver City (1951)
Oooooo, that velvet coat with the caplet is gorgeous!
Set in 1890s Chicago — for her, at least.
Supposedly set during the American Revolutionary War.
Pony Express (1953)
Don’t fight, gals, they’ll get your mail delivered somehow!
The Vanquished (1953)
Set around the American Civil War, supposedly.
A highly fictionalized biopic set in the 1890s.
Those Redheads from Seattle (1953)
Set during the 1898 Yukon Gold Rush.
This picture always cracks me up.
Edith Head was up to the challenge of dressing Bob Hope in an 18th-c. gown!
Angela Lansbury gets medieval on your ass.
Obligatory jester outfit.
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.
I think that’s Nina Foch wearing this on the far right, above.
The Rainmaker (1956)
Set during the Great Depression.
Three Violent People (1956)
Civil War era.
Zoom in & you’ll see how the orange fabric is a narrow stripe.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
A famous western.
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)
Set in 1884, this is based on the same story as Hello Dolly!.
The Buccaneer (1958)
Set during the War of 1812.
Heller in Pink Tights (1960)
Sophia Loren in the 1880s, supposedly.
Edith Head during a costume fitting.
The Carpetbaggers (1964)
Set in 1930s Hollywood.
Biopic of the 1930s movie star.
The Great Race (1965)
Natalie Wood in the early 20th century, supposedly.
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)
Set during the Great Depression.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
An early 1900s western. Love the tab closure treatment on her jacket!
The Sting (1973)
Sharp suits for the 1930s!
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
About a 1920s stunt pilot.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Set in India under British rule.
Gable and Lombard (1976)
About an affair between Clark Gable & Carole Lombard in the 1930s.
W.C. Fields and Me (1976)
Biopic spanning the 1920s to 1940s.
Amelia Earhart (1976)
Image via Shutterstock.
TV movie set in 1926.
TV miniseries of the novel, starring Susan Dey as Jo.
Eve Plumb as Beth.
Meredith Baxter as Meg.
Greer Garson as Aunt March.
A film noir parody starring Steve Martin.
Edith Head died during this film’s production, & it was dedicated to her.
What’s your favorite historical costume design by Edith Head?