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Frock Star

A celebration of Edith Head, the most honored costume designer in Oscar history.

If you've watched a movie made between 1927 and 1982, chances are you've seen the work of Edith Head. For nearly six decades, Head outfitted a roster of stars that could double as a guide to Hollywood's golden age. While the world changed dramatically during her career — to say nothing of the rising and falling of hemlines — Head was a constant source of onscreen glamour. She won a record eight Academy Awards for costume design — which seems like a lot until you consider her other record: She's earned more Oscar nominations than any other woman, a jaw-dropping 35.

''If you work or desire to work in movie costumes, she's it: the quintessential costume designer,'' says Catherine Martin, an Oscar winner for 2001's Moulin Rouge! Adds Joanna Johnston, a newly minted Oscar nominee for Lincoln, ''She did everything so beautifully — not only with such incredible volume but always with such incredible style.''

Fashion did not seem a likely calling. Born in San Bernadino, Calif., in 1897, Head earned degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford. She moved to L.A. and started taking an evening art class, hoping to teach the subject in high school. But in 1924, she saw an ad that Paramount had placed for a sketch artist. Since she had little formal training, she passed off some of her classmates' work as her own — and managed to get the job. She went on to spend the next 43 years at Paramount, before moving to Universal in 1967.

While she might not have been the most technically gifted artist, Head was a consistently brilliant problem solver with a politician's flair for handling the often delicate negotiations between actresses and directors. ''She was a woman of resources — she could change quickly and make things happen,'' says Paco Delgado, a nominee for Les Misérables. ''She really thought about the costumes.''

Over the years, she developed long-standing relationships with actresses (Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood would request her even on non-Paramount projects) as well as directors (Alfred Hitchcock used her for 11 of his films). Because her work spanned every genre — a sarong for Dorothy Lamour in 1937's The Hurricane, a slinky evening gown for Veronica Lake in 1942's This Gun for Hire — there was no signature Head aesthetic except for her unwavering respect for authenticity and desire to flatter the star.

A pioneer in personal branding, Head cultivated a distinct look for herself: round glasses, severe bangs, and crisp, tailored clothes. ''She wasn't a great beauty, but she created this extraordinarily strong image,'' says Johnston. ''It was incredibly striking and smart.'' (It's a look familiar to fans of fashion designer Edna Mode in Pixar's 2004 animated hit The Incredibles, though director Brad Bird has never confirmed or denied the connection.)

Head, who died in 1981 at 83, did reach a kind of fame in her own right, making the TV talk-show rounds. But she never forgot the true role of a costume designer. ''What we do is a cross between magic and camouflage,'' she once said. ''We ask the public to believe that every time they see an actress or actor that they are a different person.''

Originally posted Jan 18, 2013 Published in issue #1243-1244 Jan 25, 2013 Order article reprints
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