The worst dressed woman whose designs made her a Hollywood star

Exclusive to Bendigo Art Gallery, a new exhibition celebrates the life and work of Edith Head, the most significant costume designer in film history.
The worst dressed woman whose designs made her a Hollywood star

Edith Head in her Paramount Pictures studio 1940s. © Paramount Pictures. 

Hollywood costume designer Edith Head won a record eight Academy Awards across her career, despite making celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s ‘worst dressed’ list in 1944. She had her own style and her own brand, and by her own estimation designed approximately 5000 costumes across 1000 films.  

Head’s life and work – especially her contribution to Hollywood’s Golden Age – are celebrated in a new exhibition exclusive to Bendigo Art Gallery.

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Featuring designs worn by stars such as Ginger Rogers, Kim Novak, Cary Grant and Cornel Wilde, The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood is the latest in a series of exhibitions at the Gallery promoting the role of female artists in the 20th century.

‘We are a team of women here, and of course we have a female Director as well, which is fantastic. None of the state galleries do in fact have female directors. So there’s obviously a recognition of that, and also I think there’s got to be a redressing of the representation of women in the arts,’ said Bendigo Art Gallery Curatorial Manager, Tansy Curtin. 

Arranged thematically, the exhibition features a range of film clips as well as sketches and original costumes. Works on show range from elaborate costumes designed for 18th and 19th century dramas and Biblical epics, through to stylish contemporary designs in films noir and Hitchcock thrillers.

‘I think we often forget the role that those costumes play in the depiction of character, the development of plot, all of those things. So this exhibition gives us the opportunity to think about how all of those costumes contribute,’ Curtin explained.

‘Of course directors like Hitchcock were well aware of the importance of costume and design in creating character and plot. So when we look at Edith Head we have the capacity to really think about that role in a closer way and to look at the role of this amazing woman – and she was amazing.’

Install photo of The Costume Designer: Edith Head & Hollywood courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery. 

Head was surrounded by men during her time as the head of Paramount’s costume department, Curtin explained, making her success all the more remarkable given the era she worked in.

‘She would have had to have been an incredibly empowered woman, as well as very diplomatic, to stand up and negotiate with the bigwigs of the studio. And this from a woman who came from a relatively impoverished background – she didn’t really know her father very well; she grew up with her mother and step-father and they were travelling around mining camps and she had very little early formal education. So to then become the most powerful costume designer in Hollywood really is an incredible feat.’

Book tickets for The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood

Across her glittering career, Head demonstrated remarkable versatility as well as a famed attention to detail.

‘She prided herself on doing research rather than using the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood,’ said Curtin.

‘One of the costumes she designed for Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress is a really great example; a 19th century-style gown with the big, full hoop skirt. But what’s amazing is that if you actually look at the costume it’s almost perfectly authentic. She took a lot of pride in looking at the details of historic costume and replicating those in a film.’

The exhibition also highlights some of the stylish designs Head created for the men of Hollywood, though some of them were deliberately designed for comedic effect.

‘One of my favourites, I’d have to say is this incredible 17th century gown worn by Bob Hope in Casanova’s Big Night, so a lovely cross-dressing outfit. It’s really over the top – and every Bob Hope film is hilarious of course … It’s frumpy and a bit lumpy because in the film he’s got a petticoat stuffed down the front of the dress. We’ve got Yul Brynner in there as well – it’s nice to have a few men in the exhibition too, because often we only get to see women’s costumes, but it’s really great to have some of those men’s costumes too.’

Install photo of The Costume Designer: Edith Head & Hollywood courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery. 

Fashion, textiles and interiors have often been identified as “women’s work,” and historically have been given less prominence by galleries and museums. Over recent years, this has begun to change, leading to some of the most popular exhibitions in Australia in recent years.

‘There has in the past been something of a negative attitude towards fashion and textiles and design in the museum context, but of course these are things we live with every day; these are things that people can easily relate to, so these are things people want to see,’ Curtin said.

Our familiarity with fashion and design means that such exhibitions are more accessible to the general public; consequently they provide a valuable entry point into institutions like Bendigo Art Gallery.

‘There’s this kind of immediacy that you get from fashion and design that perhaps is a little easier than looking at the visual arts. Anyone can look at a piece of costume and feel that their response is authentic and it’s valuable, whereas people sometimes feel with the visual arts that they have to have prior knowledge,’ Curtin said.

‘And with museums and galleries, often the hardest thing is to get people through the door – and we want to be open, we want people to feel comfortable coming in. And that doesn’t just have to be for special exhibitions; it can be popping in on your lunch hour because it’s just a beautiful space. So if there’s something that attracts people and then they build that confidence to visit more museums and galleries, then that’s fantastic. That’s what we want to do – we want to be open for everyone.’

The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood
Bendigo Art Gallery, 29 September 2017 – 21 January 2018

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Twitter: @richardthewatts