LOS ANGELES -- Edith Head and her staff were fitting Bette Davis with her costumes for "All About Eve." Suddenly Davis let out a scream, raced do the far end of the fitting room, and threw herself down on a couch.
"She's been punctured," gasped Head.
No. Just rehearsing. Davis raised herself calmly, walked back across the room where horrified fitters were standing rigidly. The star turned to Head and said, "The dress is just fine. It will work perfectly in that scene."
Creating clothes to fit a part in a story is how Head describes her role in more than a thousand films. She's a background person, she says. A magician. "We can translate anyone into anything we want by what they were. There isn't anyone I can't make over. I am motivated entirely by the story."
Hands down the most prolific of all costume designers, she has designed for everyone from Mae West to Robert Redford and has earned eight Oscars for costumes is such movies as "A Place in the Sun," "Sabrina," "All About Eve," "Samson and Delilah" and "The Sting" plus 25 Academy Award nominations, for films like "The Ten Commandments." "Pocketful of Miracles," "Airport," and "The Man Who Would Be King."
The only costume designer now with a full-time contract to a major studio, (Universal) her credits also include stewardess uniforms, women's Coast Guard uniforms, and a line of successful patterns for Vogue. She has recently completed the costumes for the current television series "Little Women."
While she disigned clothes for the sex goddesses of the late '40s and '50s, she's says she opposes the current tilt of today's designers -- creating clothes inspired by that period. "It annoys me that they are deliberately going back to some of those sex symbol things of early Hollywood where you slit and show as much as you can without being put in jail.It has nothing to do with today." says Head. "Everything else is related to today's world -- cars, medicine, science, everything, and in fashion we are going backwards. I expect to see togas, even fig leaves any day," she snaps. Shehs not much pleased, either, that an industry that has alway demeaned Hollywood is now feeding off her turf.
Edith Head lives on five acres in Coldwater Canyou in Beverly Hills in a sprawling early California house which is filled with California-style furniture largely created by her architect-painter husband Wiard Ihnen. Over the door of the guest room is a bronze plaque inscribed "Elizabeth Taylor slept here." ("She comes and stays often," says Head, "unually with a child or a hairdresser, never her husband.")
Head won't tell her age except to say that she is in her 70s. "Let's face it, I lie," says Head cheerfully, when asked to be more specific. Besides, she says, she was born in Mexico (her father was a minig engineer) and birth certificates there were sometime things in those days.
Head was a teacher of romance languages studying art at night when she applied for a job as a sketch artist for Paramount Studios. She included in her portfolio drawings from some classmates. "I've never seen such varied talent in one portfolio," said Paramount costume designer Howard Greer, who signed her on. "Ust for fun I think I'll make you a designer," said Greer, aware that the sketches weren't all hers but also aware that she was a quick learner.
As assistant to Greer and later Travis Banton (Head calls him the greatest designer of all times), Head got the second string -- "I would do the grandmothers, second aunts, animals and men," she says, while the men did the stars.
The glorious era of costume design for films, says Head, was the Golden Age of the 1930s when "all men were handsome; every woman was beautiful; everyone was rich and had several butlers, swimming pools, and fantastic cars. We created fantasy -- not clothes you would normally see or buy," says Head. "Diamond-studded bathing suits, gold riding boots -- it was entertainment for the matinee audience, not reality.Even the poor working girl arrived at her job at the five-and-ten by limo in a foxtrimmed velvet dress. Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich were the matinee idols and people lived and loved happily ever after."
You were designing for the effect, not the specific design, she says. No one was inspecting the clothes and no one wanted reality. "We'd have a heroine who was a pioneer in the gold rush and each day she would have a new dress and a fresh hairstyle. And nobody cared. If you were doing a period piece from a time of the bustle-wearing and the director thought the bustle made the actress too fat, off came the bustle," recalls Head.
(You can't do that anymore, she notes. Everyone travels so much and reads so much that if you put a sweetheart neckline at the wrong time or place the zipper improperly, there are letters, lots of letters.)
The stories go on. "I had this beautiful girl crossing the prairie and the director insisted on a very lowcut dress. I insisted that women at that time didn't wear low-cut dresses except to balls and I was told, 'If ladies didn't show their busts, you wouldn't be here today. There would have been no civilization.'" She shakes her head. "It was another world."
But it wasn't another world for men. When she designed for stars like Clark Gable and Alan Ladd, it was another matter. Never mind the fantasy. They would wear polished-up versions of the men's fashions of the day.
At that time, every studio had its own shop and all of the great fabric houses would come to Hollywood with their most glorious fabrics. ("A far cry from today then I go to town to see what fabrics I can buy," says Head.)
Head loves doing period clothes. For "The Heiress," director William Wyler sent her to New York with Olivia de Havilland to scout out the actual corsets in museums so that she could repeat those along with the same corset covers they wore over them. "Every thread, every button was academically perfect," recalls Head.
Costumes are historically correct in "Little Women," says Head. "do you know what they used to wear under hoop skirts?" she asks. "Three petticoats and pantaloons," she answers herself, and that is what they have on the series.
In the current segment of "Little Women," the time is post-Civil War. "People were not affluent, but rather wore made-over dresses, adding new collars and cuffs. The North was not really poverty stricken but there was the feeling that the economy was weak." According to Head, 25 years ago, you would never re-use the old costumes because the public didn't expect that.
Today the pictures are more realistic -- so are the budgets, and designing is far different. "I even make smaller sketches," she says, holding up a huge color replica of Elizabeth Taylor twice the size of the less-detailed sketch from her current project for Natalie Wood in the movie "The Last Married Couple in America."
There are 17 costume changes for Wood in the movie. She jogs, goes to a roller disco, plays touch football, goes to lunch. "It's the closest thing I've had to a fashion picture in years," says Head. Head has checked out the jogging clothes in local stores and watched joggers in the park to assure that everything is authentic for her own designs. Clothes can't come off the rack, though. "Someone might be looking at a costume in a new film and say, "I had that very dress two years ago," says Head. "That just wouldn't do."
Some costumes are made over from earlier styles -- every item is made to have a life span of 12 years. From one movie to the next, the collar might be removed or a bow added.
For Natalie Wood, Head has dipped into her own closet and used the Roger Staubach No. 12 football jersey given her in Texas last year "because I'm a great football fan."
Head does a lot of traveling, to lecture (she carries with her 35 authentic film costumes she has designed), and to make television guest appearances and promotional appearances for her patterns.
All costumes are made on mannequins... there are mannequins in the shape of every actor and actress. ("What nature's forgotten we do with cotton," she says laughing.) She sketches, pins and drapes, but doesnht sew. Maybe I shouldn't admit that," she teases. "Actually anyone who has lived in Mexico can do handstitching. I just can't work on a machine."
She designs the suits she likes to wear herself, occasionally with a blouses by Oscar de la Renta, the only commercial designer she admires. At dinner at Jimmy's one night recently, the tiny (5-foot-1) woman, in signature bangs and dark framed, shaded glasses, was wearing a black suit with a necklace made of old theater tickets rimmed in gold. She's promised the necklace to Elizabeth Taylor. ("She told me it was the only piece of jewely she ever wanted but couldn't buy," Head recalls.)
Between films there have been books including "The Dress Doctor" which went into six printings, and later "How To Dress for Success." She teases about her next one, "Men I Have Undressed." No intimate details about Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Alan Ladd, Tom Mix, Cary Grant or any of the others she had dressed for films. "Men are far more modest than women. They usually keep everything on but their ties," says Head, who thinks the reason is that they are more used to dealing with tailors. (Marlon Brando is the only man she has seen in his undershorts.)
But men are easier by far to work with. "You suggest to an actress a pink dress with a V-neck and she counters with a suggestion that it be blue. But you suggest a pin-stripe suit to a man and he says, 'lkay.'
"Mae West was always the easiest to design for," saty Head. "She knew exactly what she wanted. It was always a long dress and she always said, 'let's make it tighter, Edith, so they can tell I'm a woman from all angles.'
"Actually, if you want to know at which I am the greatest designer," says Head, with her usual display of modesty, "it's of men's clothes." The one Academy Award she thinks she deserved but didn't get was for the elegant sport clothes she created for Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief."
There has been an overture on a new book, "Edith Head: Magician," in which she includes essential dressing tips for heavy women, a group she divides into top heavy, bottom heavy and overall heavy. ("i never worry about the thin ones," she says.)
Head makes these very specific succestions:
Color is most important since, before anything else, it attracts the eye. Use dark colors (balck but also wine and moss green) where you are heavy, lighter colors where you are slimmer. ("The tunic over pants and skirts is the kindest thing that ever happened in fashion," she says.) Color can make you look more than five pounds heavier (or lighter).
Accentuage best features with a detail or with jewelry. Avoid belt buckles, for example, and wear V-necks, no high collars but jewelry at the base of the neck "to emphasize the warm round look."
If it isn't pretty, don't show it. Avoid sleeveless dresses, for example.
Shiny fabrics add pounds; so do plaids and deep surface fabrics.
It works for the stars. It should work for everyone.