Edith Head, Hollywood's best-known costume designer, who died Saturday, once called herself a magician. "We can translate anyone into anything we want by what they wear," she said not long ago at her home in Beverly Hills. "There isn't anyone I can't make over."
She was so prolific, it seems there was no one she didn't make over. She transformed Hedy Lamarr into Delilah and Charlton Heston into Moses. She also worked her magic on Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The silver-screen sorceress wore bangs, dark glasses and dark suits. She talked with the staccato assurance of an ultimate pro and relished mischievous tales about her adoring clients. Mae West "knew exactly what she wanted. She always said, 'Let's make it tighter, Edith, so that they know I'm a woman from all angles.' "
And yet she could make young models at a Smithsonian Institution retrospective two years ago look and even walk a little like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich or Mae West when they wore the costumes Head had created for them.
"Just lean on the walking stick and throw the feather boa behind you as you look over your shoulder," Head told Cindy Manion, a young Washington model who had taken off her baggy jeans and was pinched into a white beaded Mae West gown. Head, who was dressed in her signature owl glasses and dark suit, took the walking stick and the boa and demonstrated the gait, and the model knew just what she meant.
Elizabeth Taylor Warner introduced Head that evening. "I've known this lady -- and lady she certainly is -- since I was 16. She is one of the most talented and creative human beings that I have ever known. Aside from that, she is a friend. She has been like another mother to me."
Head made the wedding gown for Taylor's marriage to Nicky Hilton, and many of her movie clothes. The actress called Head's creation for "A Place in the Sun," which resulted in one of Head's eight Oscars for fashion design, the "most glamorous dress I have ever worn." Taylor added, "She is the warmest, the most update, the most with-it lady, the sassiest lady, and I love her."
The feeling was mutual. Over the door to a guest room in Head's sprawling California house in Coldwater Canyon is a bronze plaque inscribed "Elizabeth Taylor slept here."
When you visited her house, filled with California-style furniture created by her late husband, architect-painter Wiard Ihnen, or her offices on the lot at Universal Studios, with its shelves of her Oscars, she was a graceful hostess and thoroughly informed tour guide. She was extremely talkative, quick to relate stories about the Oscars and her 25 Academy Award nominations.
And the one Academy Award she felt she deserved but didn't get, she'd tell you about as well. It was for the sport clothes she created for Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief." "Actually, if you want to know at which I am the greatest designer, it's of men's clothes," she said, smiling but serious at the same time.
Claude Montana, the Paris designer who started the fashion of black leather some years back and creates some of the strongest costumes in Europe, asked to meet Edith Head when he visited Los Angeles last year. "She is one of the very great designers of all times," said Montana in Paris last week.
She designed for the Golden Era of films in the 1930s, when, she said, "all the 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 but 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 fox-trimmed velvet dress. Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich were the matinee idols, and people lived and loved happily ever after."
Yet Edith Head's popularity endured. She won Oscars for "Roman Holiday" and "Sabrina" in the '50s and "The Sting" in 1973. If she could do the big theatrical extravaganzas such as "Samson and Delilah" and "The Ten Commandments," she could also costume modern, realistic films. For Natalie Wood in "The Last Married Couple in America," Head checked out department store racks to make sure she was in the current mode, and she even dipped into her own closet and used a Roger Staubach No. 12 football jersey that had been given her because she was such a great fan.
Head designed on mannequins. "What nature's forgotten, we do with cotton," joked Head, who pinned and draped but didn't sew. Then she added, "Maybe I shouldn't admit that." She found it hard not to be honest.She could do hand stitching but, although she had a collection of sewing machines, could not work on a machine.
A short, slender woman, Head disguised her age well. She was born in Mexico, and birth certificates were a sometime thing in those days, she said. "Let's face it, I lie," she said cheerfully when asked to be more specific. But when she died, after suffering from a disease that affects bone marrow, she was believed to be in her eighties.
She often wore a necklace of old theater tickets rimmed in gold, which she promised to Elizabeth Taylor. "She told me it was the only piece of jewelry she ever wanted that she couldn't buy."
Head shared her magic not only with Hollywood personalities but with women generally through her successful Vogue patterns and books on dressing. In one book, she wrote for the heavy woman -- a group she divided into top-heavy, bottom-heavy and overall heavy. "I never worry about the thin ones," she laughed.