By Jessica Pickens
Stars in films are the most well-dressed people you will ever see. And actors of the classic era had style that has yet to be recreated. Women would glide across the screen in frothy tulle evening gowns, and men wore perfectly fitted tuxedos, all well suited for an evening of martinis in a nightclub.
But these actors didn’t dress themselves; costumes were specifically designed for them. Costume designers would create for the character in the film and would even design an outfit around flaws of actors so that they never would be apparent to the audience.
Edith Head, born Oct. 28, 1897, was one of those designers and is considered one of Hollywood’s best costume designers of all-time. With a signature look of dark hair in a tight bun and dark glasses, Head costumed top stars such as Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Audrey Hepburn and Bette Davis. She was recognized for her work too—from 1949 to 1978, Head was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design 35 times and won eight Oscars.
Often, when I think of a movie, I may automatically think of a divine costume. Here are my top five favorite films that feature Edith Head designs…..
Barbara Stanwyck plays a card shark who tries to marry Henry Fonda for his money while they are on a cruise. The only problem is, she actually falls in love with him. When Fonda’s friends find out and tell him that Stanwyck only wants his riches, he spurns her. Angry, Stanwyck styles herself as the wealthy “Lady Eve Sidwich” so she can re-enter into Fonda’s life and make him fall in love with her again.
The Lady Eve gave Edith Head the opportunity to establish herself as a top designer at Paramount. Edith Head designed Barbara Stanwyck 25 costume changes and 14 for Henry Fonda! Stanwyck plays two different personas, which allowed Head to create even more gowns. The clothing helps distinguish Stanwyck’s true self vs. the posh society woman. As the card shark, Stanwyck wears modest but sexy gowns and cruise ship wear, like a two-piece, midriff-baring gown she wears when she meets Fonda. As the Lady Eve, Stanwyck wears refined dresses, like a sleeveless lace gown with a tiara and long white gloves. While Stanwyck looks the same, the clothing of the two women is so different that it fools Fonda!
Ginger Rogers plays Susan Applegate who disguises herself as a little girl to get cheaper train fare. Her plan works, but a little too well. Ray Milland believes she’s traveling alone and takes her under his wing, and Rogers falls in love with him. Milland thinking she’s a child complicates things.
Throughout much of The Major and the Minor, Ginger Rogers is dressed like a little girl. Head dressed her in pigtails, a broad hat, a jacket, and plaid skirt. However, Rogers has a moment where she wants to look grown up and dons a glittering gold dress and a matching snood and head scarf. I think of this dress all the time (and wish I had one like it). Rogers, who many people know as a blond, dyed her hair brown at this stage in her career and the gold dress sets off well against her dark hair.
An out-of-work screenwriter, played by William Holden, stumbles upon a Hollywood mansion he believes is abandoned, but is owned by former silent film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. He plans on leaving but realizes he has a cozy (and free) setup staying with Desmond.
Head’s costumes help paint the picture of a star who doesn’t know her public has forgotten her. Each costume has a sort of passé glamour—something that may have been worn maybe in the 1920s but not in 1950: turbans, fur muffs, and a leopard print wrap. But Swanson looks every bit the larger-than-life movie star.
Holden’s costumes are also important. At the beginning of the film, he has a cheap, ill-fitting suit. But as his relationship deepens with Swanson, you see him in tailored suits, expensive coats and tuxedos. The wardrobe in Sunset Boulevard is accentuated by the eerie setting and snappy script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.
War buddies Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye become successful performers and producers. While on a trip, they meet sisters played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. All four of them decide to go to Vermont for the holidays and travel to an inn where Crosby and Kaye meet their former war general, played by Dean Jagger. Feeling bad that the general’s inn isn’t doing well, they decide to stage a show to boost his business.
White Christmas may be a holiday film, but it has some of my favorite film costumes of all time! Head took advantage of Technicolor in her designs from the bright blue gowns and ostrich feathers fans that Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney wear in the “Sisters” number to Vera-Ellen’s bright yellow dance practice dress as she taps with John Brascia “Abraham.” All of the dance number costumes are glittering and vibrant, but their outfits in the non-dance numbers are also glamorous.
One of my favorites is a white turtleneck fit-and-flair that Vera-Ellen wears at a holiday party that is accented with silver rhinestones. And pay attention to the costumes worn by Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. Head especially liked dressing men and matching their suits. If you notice at the beginning, Kaye and Crosby are wearing grey shoes that are the same color as their suits. The gorgeous costumes add to the magic and vibrancy of this musical.
James Stewart plays a photographer in this Alfred Hitchcock film who has broken his leg. While he is healing, Stewarts spends his time confined to his apartment and spying on neighbors in the apartment courtyard with his long lens, and he witnesses a murder. Grace Kelly plays his society girlfriend that tries to convince him that she could live his kind of life as a travel photographer.
Edith Head’s costumes perfectly suit Kelly’s socialite, and also exhibit their separate lifestyles. Grace Kelly visits Stewart in a luscious evening gown with a black top, white tulle skirt and floral accents at the top of the skirt. The dress is perfect for a society dame but looks out of place in Stewart’s one bedroom apartment. Another favorite costume of Kelly’s is a simple cream-colored sundress with orange flowers. The sleeveless dress is simple but elegant. At the end of the film, we find Kelly relaxing in jeans, a blouse and loafers, which better fit into Stewart’s world (though she sneaks and reads a fashion magazine).
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.