A look at Edith Head: costume designer

Two sketches of dresses sit either sides a black and white portrait of Edith Head
A black and white portrait of Edith Head holding two dressmakers dummies

Edith holding two dressmakers dummies. Image via www.huffingtonpost.com

You may not know the name but you will undoubtedly have seen her work before. Edith Head was an American costume designer who worked from 1924 when she was hired as a costume sketch artist by Paramount Pictures, until her death in 1981. She is also the woman who inspired Pixar’s The Incredibles character, Edna Mode.

When Head was hired by Paramount Pictures she had no art, design or costume design experience. She was only hired because she had borrowed sketches from art school classmates which impressed the head designer so much Head was hired on the spot.

Over her long career she amounted eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design from 35 nominations, a feat which no one else has matched. It is important to note that the first Academy Award for Best Costume Design wasn’t given until 1948, already well into Head’s career and that her eight awards are the most Oscars ever won by one woman.

Head designed for numerous actresses on over 1000 productions, creating gowns for all of Hollywood’s golden girls. Some of the most notable are; Veronica Lake, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Tippi Hedren and Katharine Hepburn.

Perhaps the most outstanding work from Head are her designs in collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Head designed for 11 of the directors films in her later career including The Birds (1963). Head designed Tippi Hedren’s pale green skirt suit which has become an icon of the film and style of the time.

A sketch of Audrey Hepburn in an extravagant white dress

Head’s sketch of Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. image via girlsdofilm.wordpress.com

10 years earlier, Head was also costume designer for Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn’s breakthrough film. In the film Hepburn plays a princess tired of her boring and restricted life, she escapes her guardians and falls for an American newsman in Rome.

In the below film, Edith Head answers the question “How do you go about changing actresses appearances with their wardrobe?” by discussing the work she had done on Roman Holiday with Hepburn. Her first costume is a ‘casual, informal’ which she wears while pretending she is not a princess. Head then describes her transformation to a princess in a regal dress, of ‘real lace’ as head called ‘transformation through wardrobe’.


Although Head actually won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in Sabrina (1954), Audrey Hepburn’s costumes were actually designed by Givenchy who was uncredited. Head was hired as costume designer for Sabrina but was then told that Hepburn was having Givenchy design all of her gowns which was quite an offence to such an established costume designer. To prevent Head from quitting the film, director Billy Wilder and Paramount Pictures gave her full screen credit for Costume Designer.

Givenchy got his own back in 1961 for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Again Givenchy designed all of Hepburn’s gowns while Head designed all of the other characters costumes (bar Patricia Neal), but Givenchy ensured that Head was only credited as ‘wardrobe supervisor’ which was an insult to a designer of her stature.

Edith Head’s packed career is one unlikely to ever be rivalled. The costume designer is immortalised in her creations which span over half a century, and adorned Hollywood more glamorous actresses for decades.

Celebrating niche awards

Pictured is Jennifer Westfeldt receiving an award.

Left is a black and gold award with a square glass top containing a 3D styalised gold soundwave. Right are several CDFA awards, silver statuettes of a female figure. Left are the World Soundtrack Awards and Right are the statuettes given at the Costume Designers Guild Awards

Following on from Tis’ the season: A look at Film Awards, we’ve compiled a few lesser known awards, the Costume Designers Guild Awards, The World Soundtrack Awards and the Visual Effects Awards. Three entirely different yet equally interesting celebrations.

The Costume Designers Guild Awards have honoured costume designers in film since 1999.

The guild which was founded in 1953 represents costume designers, assistant costume designers and costume illustrators. Today the CDG includes around 750 costume designers, stylists and illustrators, many of which are based in LA.

The trophy for the CDG Awards is a sterling silver statuette created by costume designer, David Le Vay and manufactured by Italian jewellery designer Bvlgari. The beautiful and intricate design takes the form of an abstract female figure standing 37 centimetres tall and each one takes around 50 hours to make.

Until 2012, an annual ‘hall of fame’ award was presented, celebrating career achievement. One of the first winners in 1999 was Edith Head, the costume designer who sparked inspiration for Edna Mode the fictional eccentric fashion designer and superhero costume creator from The Incredibles.

The 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards will be held on February 22nd this year. Nominations include Suzy Benzinger for Blue Jasmine, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor and Bob Buck, for The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug and Catherine Martin for The Great Gatsby.

The 12th annual Visual Effects Awards will be held this year. The ceremony honours outstanding visual effects from throughout the past year and the artists behind them.

With more than 2,800 members in over 32 countries, the Visual Effects Society represents a wide breadth of visual effects experts including artists, technologists and model makers. The VES Awards have been held since 2003 when they celebrated achievement in 2002. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers won eight awards in the first ceremony, including Best Visual Effects in a Driven Motion Picture.

This year’s Visual Effects Awards will be held on February 12th at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Nominations are yet to be announced but we predict that Gravity, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug and Star Trek into Darkness will do well.

Moving on to something quite different; the World Soundtrack Awards celebrate music in film. Partnered with the Film Festival Ghent, the awards have been celebrated alongside the festival since 2001.  The ceremony is held annually held each October in Belgium and awards include; Best Original Song Written for a Film, Best Original Soundtrack of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The event often includes a performance from the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra which has strong ties with the Film Fest Ghent, regularly partnering for recordings and concerts. Dirk Brossé, the conductor of the BPO, composed the Emmy nominated score for BBC drama Parade’s End.

The statuette for the World Soundtrack Awards is based on a sine wave – a sound wave represented on a computer screen. The wave is cut down to one single stylised undulation, and is then looped five times creating the shape of a crown. In the glass top of the statuette the wave floats ‘as it is not subject to gravity’ and the base is black referencing Bakelite, an early plastic commonly used for radios.

The 2013 World Soundtrack Awards have already taken place. Skyfall was awarded the accolade of Best Original Song, and Life of Pi won both Best Original Film Score of the Year and Film Composer of the Year. The 2014 Awards will take place in October this year.