There is admittedly a generational component to people’s awareness of Edith Head and her stature as the most accomplished costume designer in history. If you are a fan of Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and others from Hollywood’s heyday, chances are you’re very familiar with Edith Head. If you’re of a later generation who has only watched these actors on Sunday afternoon TV matinees, you are most likely wondering who she is and why the fuss. Well, as the hands-down queen of wardrobe design, she has had an impact on Hollywood that still reverberates long after her death in 1981.
The Dress Doctor was first published in 1959, and was written as a memoir and style guide. It is also as much about Hollywood personalities of the time as it is about the fashions that Edith Head created for them. This is a book filled with advice and gossip, style tips and fashion no-no’s. In writing this book, Head wanted to leave a legacy that would help bring fashion to the everyday woman and teach that style is simply a matter of understanding one’s own image – and working to enhance it. The book became a sensation and was re-issued three times during her life.
In its latest edition published in 2008, it has been given a complete makeover. In fact, you could say it is a different book entirely. This fourth edition of The Dress Doctor has been subtitled, Prescriptions for Style from A to Z. And an A to Z collection it is. It has taken all of Edith Head’s most profound advice and best-loved stories, and has compiled them into a catalogue ranging from Audrey Hepburn (who Head called the perfect figure model) to Zooture. This new edition is beautifully illustrated by Bil Donovan, a fashion illustrator who is imminently worthy of the task of recreating Head’s famous designs.
In reviewing The Dress Doctor, one must understand the era in which it was written. The major studios of the time had contracts with stars for creating movies and essentially controlling their careers. Edith Head worked for both Paramount Studios and later, for Universal. She was regarded throughout her career as one who could design an image for a star. As she established herself among the elite of fashion cognoscenti, the studios gave her unprecedented creative latitude in formulating the “look” of their star actors and actresses. This creative license helped to make her book a true Hollywood inside story and, along with her advice for the masses, made it an instant success.
Edith Head was given the moniker ‘the Dress Doctor’ early in her career, while working for Paramount studios – the most successful movie studio of the time. As the chief costume designer for the biggest studio, she was given the duty of transforming the average girl-next-door into a glamorous screen presence, while maintaining the genuine good looks of these stars and stars-to-be. She was privy to all of the Hollywood drama that took place off the screen, and was discreet enough to continue having access to it for her entire career.
Even after publishing The Dress Doctor and her follow-up book, How to Dress for Success in 1967, Edith Head was able to maintain her position and stature among the Hollywood elite – likely because of her unmatched skill at producing the best costumes and styles Hollywood had seen. Throughout her career, she was nominated for 35 academy awards and won the Oscar 8 times. She received more than 1000 screen credits in her 50 years in the industry.
Above all, Edith Head was about style. She believed that everyone should dress their best and that we can all learn style. One of the quotes she is best known for, and the one that closes The Dress Doctor is this; “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it”. Here’s to you Edith, and to your style.