Queen of Costumes

October 26, 2008 • Magazine

Queen of Costumes

Queen of Costumes

Sun, 2008-10-26 08:00

Bonnie J Brown

In honor of Halloween, an ever changing celebration that has evolved from a festival of harvesting foods for the coming winter to, in recent years, a holiday where adult men and women dress in costumes, costumes that show more skin than creative thought, and children go out asking strangers for candy, I would like to remember not a Halloween that once was, but a costume designer who knew what a costume was meant to be. While originally Halloween or All Hallows had people dressing as ghosts, witches and devils to frighten off the dead who would rise on October 31 (another evolution of Halloween), people today dress as anything from political figures to Britney Spears to fictitious vampires in order to attend parties and maybe even win a prize for the audacious outfitted character of which they have dressed. But the most winning costumes don’t necessarily have to be the most unusual; instead the best costumes are the ones that have individuals taking on completely different identities, where you no longer notice the costume or the person, but instead are only aware of the new personality.

This idea of creating characters through costume alone is what Edith Head, Hollywood costume designer extraordinaire, was able to do. Ms. Head, who considered herself a magician, was able to weave her talent of dress making and designing into a six decade long career where she was able to clothe the top stars of the time and fashion them into new identities on the big screen. She was so talented that she was nominated for 40 Academy Awards and won eight, the most any woman has ever won. While it would be impossible to examine all her costumes, she designed for more than 400 movies, some of her most noteworthy are the “sarong” dress, worn by Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane 1937, the mink-lined ball gown worn by Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark 1944 (which, at $35,000, is still the most expensive dress ever to be made for a movie – all those diamonds and fur really made an impact on the audience, especially since it was made during War World II) and her work in All About Eve, where she won the 1951 Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

The clothing Ms. Head designed was never as popular as some other Hollywood costume designs. Women weren’t racing out to buy the sarong dress or the off the shoulder number worn by Bette Davis in All About Eve, however, these costumes weren’t meant to be main stream ensembles. They were designed for a character in a movie. Her trademark, blue tinted sunglasses she wore were to give her an idea of how her clothing would look in black and white, knowing that they would appear differently on screen versus real life. While working at Paramount Pictures and then Universal Pictures, Ms. Head did something that most other costume designers never did, and that was consult with the stars playing the characters. By considering how the star would be playing the character and what they were comfortable wearing Ms. Head was able to become the best costume designer of her time and after.

So, take a tip from Edith before you run out to the craft store or the costume shop this week, think of who you’ll be and what they would wear and not what you’ll be. It may make all the difference.

Pictured: top to bottom
Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane in sarong dress designed by Edith Head
Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark in mink lined dress designed by Edith Head
Grace Kelly in Rear Window in Edith Head Design
Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger Natalie’s clothing by Edith Head.
Edith Head

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