I noticed a book at an estate sale with a dress form on the cover, picked it up, and discovered I had a first edition copy dated 1959 of the book “The Dress Doctor” by Edith Head. I bought it!
I got a good deal. The book is selling on Amazon for $61 and up. The 2011 reissue is not the original book, but a very abridged version. However, many libraries have a copy.
I remember watching Oscar telecasts as a little girl with my mother, and hearing Edith Head’s name being called as a nominee in the costume design category. Miss Head was nominated 35 times in her career, and won 8 Academy Awards, 6 of them in the 1950s.
In the book, she tells of being a French and art teacher at the Hollywood School for Girls in the 1920s, where her pupils included the de Mille daughters. Some days they would shut down school, and go to Paramount to watch Mr. De Mille direct a scene. Evidently, Miss Head found the movie business to her liking; during summer vacation she answered an ad for a sketch artist at Paramount. Even though she couldn’t draw, she got the job by bringing to the interview other students’ drawings from the art school she was attending.
She began designing for silent pictures and westerns. Her first design that garnered attention was the sarong dress designed for Dorothy Lamour in the 1930s.
In 1949, a category for costume design was added to the Academy Awards, and Miss Head received her first nomination. She didn’t win until the next year, for “The Heiress”, in which she designed clothes whose purpose was to make Olivia de Havilland look plain and unattractive. Up until 1968, the Academy awarded two costume design Oscars, one for color, and one for black and white. Six of Miss Head’s wins were for black and white pictures, including “All About Eve” in 1951 and “Roman Holiday” in 1954.
Edith Head worked with all the top female stars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and in the book describes costume fitting sessions with Clara Bow, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others, and offers little anecdotes about their personalities. Nothing snarky here – all the best stories were doubtless omitted as a dress doctor has an oath of confidentiality to consider.
Miss Head worked on some of the greatest classic movies and my all-time favorites: dressing Bette Davis in “All About Eve”, Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday, Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”, Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds”.
In the book, fashion advice is also given to the ordinary woman. Miss Head appeared on a radio show with Art Linkletter in the the 1940s where she gave fashion pointers to the women in the audience. I thought it very quaint to give fashion advice without any visuals, but then I remembered that the designer Mr. Blackwell, best known for his “worst dressed” annual lists, had a radio talk show broadcast from Los Angeles in the 1970s in which he did the same thing.
The show with Art Linkletter made it to television in 1952. It was a fun show: contests to shop and select accessories, fashions shows, and a staple of women’s daytime entertainment: the makeover.
My favorite part of the book is the section on what clothes can do for you.
“You are a woman with weapons, why not use them? Why be a sheep when you can be a self?”
“Everyone has a day’s work, a career, in home, office or wherever, and why not express your individuality? See how you can best dress for the day’s work to give yourself assurance. Life is competitive; clothes gird us for the competition.”
Miss Head sums up her advice in three rules:
- Be dressed for what you are doing.
- Have the right accessories.
- Don’t wear your clothes too tight. A dress should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady.
How do you think that advice holds up in the 21st Century?
Next week, in the The Dress Doctor Part 2, I will apply some of her concepts to myself, past and present.