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Boston Globe (24/Dec/2009) - Edith Head's costumes for Hollywood are legendary



Edith Head's costumes for Hollywood are legendary

"Fashion is a language," legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head wrote in her 1959 biography, "The Dress Doctor." "Some know it, some learn it, some never will - like an instinct."

Head, who designed costumes for more than 400 films during Hollywood's golden age spoke the language of fashion through Grace Kelly's full chiffon skirts, Bette Davis's mature and glamorous party dresses, and even Mae West's fur-tipped hourglass gowns for the so-bad-it's-good camp classic "Myra Breckinridge." So when it came time for Museum of Fine Arts film manager Kristen Lauerman to choose movies for the museum's "The Costumes of Edith Head" film series, there were hard decisions to be made.

"Her time with Paramount studios was special," Lauerman says of Head, who passed away in 1981 just shy of her 84th birthday. "Particularly between 1941 and 1958. That really coincides with the height of the classical Hollywood cinema period. I just wanted to focus on her work at that particular studio. That's the studio she is most associated with."

As a result, "The Costumes of Edith Head" film series, which continues through Jan. 3, not only features some of Head's most glamorous work, but also celluloid gems such as Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," "Vertigo," and "Rear Window."

"She worked closely with Hitchcock," Lauerman says. "And they enjoyed working with one another. Hitchcock even paid for her to go to the Riviera [for 'To Catch a Thief'] which is something that probably any other studio wouldn't have allowed. He had a very strong vision of what his characters should be wearing, and Edith Head translates that really well. You can see this especially when she worked with Grace Kelly. She just thought Grace had the most fantastic figure to work with because she could dress her in high fashion pieces."

In Kelly, Head found an ideal muse, an actress with sophistication and beauty who could showcase some of her most glamorous design work.

"What Grace has is an elegance all her own," Head wrote in "The Dress Doctor." "The white gloves are her trademark, so is the smooth hair. She looks that way even after sleeping all night on a plane."

In addition to restricting the series to the Paramount years, Lauerman edited down her list of films to those with actresses whom Head worked with frequently, such as Veronica Lake, Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, and Elizabeth Taylor.

"These women came to depend on Head, and she developed important relationships with them," Lauerman says. "They would specifically ask for Edith when they worked on a film. Edith liked Barbara Stanwyck so much that she even designed clothes for her personal wardrobe."

At the time of her death, Head was increasingly an anomaly as more studios purchased clothes off-the-rack for their stars, or hired famous designers to create wardrobes rather than keeping an in-house designer in their employ. Before her death, Head won eight Academy Awards for costume design, and was just as well known in Hollywood for her ability to juggle difficult directors and actresses as she was for her dark glasses and unchanging hairstyle. Lauerman says Head's output was prolific partially because she always wanted to be working to keep her name on the tongues of studio executives.

"She was not the best designer in Hollywood," says the legendary Bob Mackie in David Chierichetti's 2003 biography of Head. "But she knew how to work it."

Series highlights follow:

Sunset Boulevard

"Can you imagine what a thrill it was for me to do 'Sunset Boulevard'?" Head writes in her book "The Dress Doctor." In the 1950 film, which stars Gloria Swanson (above, with William Holden) as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film star who's descending into madness, Head had the task of making the star look like an actress who is long past her peak. "Because of her bone structure and assurance, Miss Swanson projected on screen just about as she had 20 years before. There was very little I could do about the clothes to accomplish the effect needed. It had to be done with makeup and lighting."

This Gun for Hire

Head writes of the dramatic transformation that Veronica Lake (above) went through to become the vampish nightclub singer in the 1942 WWII film: "This was the girl we transformed with hair-do and clothes (long, floaty, unearthly chiffons) into a glamorous nymph, half witch. We'd created a personality that didn't exist, and from the moment the public saw her in 'This Gun for Hire' and 'I Married a Witch' they accepted that personality. It was an experiment that proved what clothes can do."

Further viewing

For a fuller picture of Head's work in film costume, Lauerman suggests renting "All About Eve" (Gary Merrill and Bette Davis, above), "Sampson and Delilah," "Ball of Fire," "Funny Face," "The Birds," and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to view Head's work at designing menswear.

Rear Window

Head clearly enjoyed dolling up Grace Kelly's fashion-loving socialite in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller. "Hitchcock told me I'd have a field day," she writes of Kelly (above, with James Stewart). "That the girl had the model look, but I'd seen her only in 'High Noon,' and I wasn't prepared. She came up the stairs briskly that day looking like a girl just out of Bryn Mawr."