Thursday, July 16, 2009

Edith Head, Costume Designer

Here’s a remake I won’t complain about. Eight time Academy award winner Edith Head, costume designer extraordinaire, had some lively observations about some of her famous clients. The title of her 1959 autobiography was fitting (no pun intended) The Dress Doctor because that is how she was perceived. She could come up with the perfect designs for a film and everyone—from screen stars to regular folks interested in how they looked-sought her advice on how to dress. Now an adaptation of that classic has been published by Collins/Design. This version—The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style, from A to Z, has lovely illustrations by noted fashion illustrator Bil Donovan and is a delightful read—not just for the style but for the stars and a look at why some of the designs were chosen—that beautiful, tailored gray suit Kin Novak wears in Vertigo, for instance.

I thought of putting this together after reading in Marie Claire how (yet again—I know) accessories inspired by those worn by Ingrid Bergman and other stars of that time as well as Art Deco designs are making an appearance.

Edith Head’s work first at Paramount and then at Universal meant that she understandably got to know some film legends through designing and fitting and the book presents some of her recollections. Below are some of her quotes taken directly from the book. I think her experience fits with what you might expect from each individual star.

Bette Davis: “thinks likes a businessman. Hers is a truly organized point of view and working with her I felt like I was in conference with a bank president. You can see the authority on screen in her walk, her voice, her action; there’s not a trace of indecision—she’s the same onscreen and off; and she’s only one of the most sensational experiences I’ve ever had.”

Gloria Swanson: “is the example of what she preaches, that clothes are supremely important; that a woman must never be caught at any time or any place looking less than she should.”

Grace Kelly: “What Grace has is an elegance all her own: the white gloves are a trademark, so is the smooth hair…There is no pretense in her make-up or her clothes; she never dressed to attract attention; she never dressed like an actress; she dressed like Grace Kelly.”

Mae West: “I designed thirty of forty pounds of jewelry for Mae to wear as Diamond Lil in She Done Him Wrong. I first found pictures of period jewelry to show her. ‘Fine, honey,’ she said. ‘Just make the stones bigger.’ ”

“ ‘I like ‘em tight, girls’ she said, and tight they were; there wasn’t a costume in which she could lie, bend or sit and I was sure tat she could breathe only when I saw her survive the picture. To afford her some small relaxation, we improvised a reclining board: it had armrests and was tilted at an angle and there she’d lean between scenes in glittering splendor, the jewels winking from her hourglass gown and dazzling from her throat. Ears wrists, and every finger.”

Still more on Ms.West:

“For Mae West, I made a skin-tight black nightgown and over it, a chiffon-and-diamonds negligee that gave the effect of a spidery web. On the shoulder I perched a huge diamond spider, anchored by adhesive tape. When Mae wore this on the set, the whistles and screams sounded as if the Queen Mary were docking in New York harbor. Mae had switched the diamond spider—to a more strategic spot. It took half and hour to quiet the hilarity and get Cary Grant, Gilbert Roland, and the crew back to work.”

Kim Novak: “…is due for a fitting for Vertigo…This girl must look as if she’s just drifted out of the San Francisco fog. She is walking, driving a car, and walking in San Francisco, so it can’t be a gay chiffon peignoir. In this city, everyone wears suits, and this girl is a rather withdrawn, self-contained tailored type. Mr. Hitchcock had already shot the location; he wants the girl to seem a very part of the fog; his script calls for, very specifically, a gray tailored suit.

Audrey Hepburn: “Audrey was the perfect figure model: very slim and tall (5’6 ¾”). Audrey Hepburn knows more about fashion than any actress save Dietrich. Her fittings are the ten-hour, not the ten-minute variety. To sketches for Roman Holiday, she added a few of her own preferences: simpler necklines, wider belts. Audrey and I went shopping in San Francisco; she wanted me as confrere and audience. Shopping is her idea of fun, and no wonder—no matter what she tried on (size eight or nine) she looked simply delicious. ‘And now let’s celebrate,’ she’d say when we were exhausted, and that meant heading for the nearest confectionery to devour two of the biggest, fattest, most chocolatey French pastries.(When she lived ..during the war, food was scare and she developed a passion for chocolate.)”

Danny Kaye: Danny Kaye was notorious for eating on the set and during fittings. The most fun we ever have at the Clinic [ie the fitting rooms ] is when Danny Kaye arrives and completely disrupts the place. ‘Where’s my sketches? Where’s food…?’ He loved huge sandwiches, cookies, Cokes; these necessities appear immediately because everyone on staff loves Danny; he can do no wrong. ‘Food!’ he yells. ‘Food, food, food!’ A few minutes later, beaming happily, he’s sitting cross-legged on the floor eating.”

Bing Crosby: “Bing Crosby was notorious for being the world’s fastest fitter…He doesn’t like dressing up; he’d never dream of it unless the script demanded it. His famous first words are always, “Why don’t we wear a sports coat?”

Ingrid Bergman: “ Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, 1946...Notorious called for high style and…Ingrid is not a small woman; she was the tallest patient [clients ] I’d ever had but she has such bearing and carriage it doesn’t matter that she isn’t the skinny model of the magazine. ..She makes what she wears come to life. …The simpler Bergman’s lines, the less ornamentation, the better. Simplification is the best medicine for making a beautiful woman more beautiful.”

Cecil B. DeMille: “Cecil B. DeMille was notorious for not giving compliments…He never shows enthusiasm. No ‘wonderful.’ No ‘beautiful.’ No ‘good, Edith.’ Once I said to him, ‘Mr. DeMille, in all these years we’ve worked together, you’ve never told me a costume was good. The most you say is, ‘That will do.’ He almost smiled. ‘If I say it will do, it’s good!’ ”

Barbara Stanwyck: “Barbara Stanwyck was notorious for standing up for what she felt was right...If she feels something is right, no one can change her mind. She’ll stand up against director, producer, and writer come hell or high pressure.”

Katharine Hepburn: “A person wears clothes to express personality. No one has achieved this better than Miss Katharine Hepburn. She knows how clothes will work for her; she doesn’t change with every change of fashion, but she looks fashionable, and you wouldn’t dare to say she isn’t well dressed. She is. She’s developed a technique for being herself and she never makes the mistake of trying to be anyone else.”

A parting quote from Edith Head: “Good clothes are not a matter of good luck.”

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