Book Review: Edith Head – The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer

Edith Head is hard to pin down. An intensely private person (she played word games with her assistant during lunch breaks to avoid talking about their personal lives), Head took liberties with the facts of her personal and professional lives. She understood the importance of personal branding, and did things like pretend her husband Charles had died in World War II (instead of their more prosaic divorce in 1938) to maintain her image. David Chierichetti’s Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer is a biography that tries to get the story straight, even correcting stories that Head told journalists or earlier biographers. The books reads like an attempt to prove that despite her faults—taking credit for other people’s work, outright fibbing about her life—Head was one of Hollywood’s most important costumers.

Born to Jewish parents in 1897, Head grew up in mining camps around the southwest and Mexico before being sent to Catholic school in her teen years. Following a stint as a teacher in Hollywood, she landed a job as a sketch artist for Paramount in 1924, after submitting sketches that she had “borrowed” from other artists. She worked her way to head designer in 1938, and stayed at Paramount until moving to Universal in 1968. Her countless credits include The Lady Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, All About Eve, Rear Window, The Ten Commandments and Sweet Charity.

Chierichetti structures his book around Head’s movies, and includes quotes from Head, her rivals, her assistants, and other biographies like Joan Crawford’s Portrait of Joan. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of classic movies, but the book will make you turn to ever other page—if you don’t know Mae West from Marlene Dietrich, the tidbits of gossip (Claudette Colbert was kind of bitchy!) are a lot less juicy.

Chierichetti, who knew Head personally, gives equal measure to her faux pas as he does her accomplishments. Though his connection to Head legitimizes a lot of his points (she wasn’t some emotionless school marm after all), it can also make for a pretty grating tone. Some of his anecdotes about hanging out with Head come off a little breathless: “Oh! I know a famous person!”

Head’s staying power is sketched as a combination of talent, toughness and diplomacy. She always tried to incorporate the tastes of even lesser known starlets into their costumes and shone when designing by consensus—asking the actors, art director and even stagehands what they thought of a costume and synthesizing their input. At her worst, she was a bit of a glory hog and sometimes took credit for other’s ideas and designs. Her Oscar acceptance speech in 1973 shocked her peers as she failed to acknowledge the other designers that worked alongside her on costumes for The Sting.

Chierichetti doesn’t let Head off the hook for her dishonesty, but attempts to understand where she was coming from. Trying to figure out the motivation behind the fabrications (Head’s need for privacy, her ambition) is interesting, but the parts where Head admits to outright lying are some of the most fun. In a tell-all age, there’s something refreshing about her refusal to give up too much about her personal life.

Head made costumes from the 1920s to the early 1980s and the book adds context to the movies and movie stars surrounding the designs. Sometimes it’s a bit too much information; I would have liked more time spent on the nuts and bolts of the more memorable designs as opposed to every western and musical Head worked on. But the book will give you a greater appreciation of the woman behind the clothes and leave you with an intense urge to re-watch To Catch a Thief. It was Edith Head’s favourite, after all.

Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer by David Chierichetti. Harper, 2003.
Report by Monika Warzecha