Edith Head biography offers thrilling retrospective on Hollywood dress

Jay Jorgensen’s “Edith Head, The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer” is a biography and filmography filled with anecdotes from the grand dame of costumers and Hollywood stars. From the late 1920s, when she dressed supporting actors and was largely uncredited, through the late 1970s, after she became a superstar in her own right, Edith Head dressed everyone who was anyone. From supporting actors and actresses to major Hollywood stars – from Shirley Temple to Mae West to Clark Gable to Robert Redford – Head helped create countless silver screen icons from her work in Hollywood.

During her tenure, Head won eight Oscars and was nominated for an Academy Award 35 times. She was the costume design department head at Paramount and Universal, and over her 50-year career, she designed costumes for more than 400 films to her credit.

The anecdotes were so intriguing, I found myself unable to stop turning the pages. For example, Head met Barbara Stanwyck when she was assigned to costume her for the 1937 film “Internes Can’t Take Money,” for which Head dressed Stanwyck in clothes more feminine than was currently fashionable. Stanwyck’s own wardrobe was severe and simple. She changed her viewpoint on fashion at the premier of 1937’s “Stella Dallas.” Of the experience, Stanwyck wrote: “I arrived with Robert Taylor as my escort, and his cheering fans broke the barriers and surged around us. In the melee, an officer assumed I was a fan who had grabbed Bob’s arm. He yanked me away. Not until Bob started swinging, was I released. Not at all abashed, the officer said ‘she doesn’t look like a movie star to me!’ … At that moment I made up my mind to let Edith design my wardrobe from that day forward.”

In addition to the fascinating stories, there are page after page of stunning photos and original Edith Head costume sketches; the book is illustrated with more than 300 large, clear photographs. The large format and heavy, quality paper are a pleasure to behold. It could be classified as a “coffee table” book, but that description seems to fall short, as it offers so much more. And the presentation is attractive right down to the end papers, which are a montage of Edith Head sketches. This massive volume includes an index listing the movie titles and actors appearing within. 

The book’s introduction is written by Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, who writes, “This book isn’t so much a biography of Edith Head, the woman, but more of a biography of the clothes that she designed.” But really, it is both. The reader will get to see the transformation of a little girl who dressed horned toads into the woman who dressed Hollywood.
Author Jay Jorgensen is the photo editor of Palm Springs Life magazine and a collector of Hollywood costumes and sketches. The story is clear, well-written and easy to read. The author’s passion for his interests in fashion and Hollywood come through in the telling of the tale.

This book is a play-by-play account of the designer’s career and includes highlights of many of the relationships she developed with those she costumed. It is well written and interesting. It would have benefited from a final proofread; I was surprised to find smatterings of punctuation errors throughout a book of this caliber. Overall, this “Edith Head” is a joyride: it is a high-quality book in concept, content, construction and presentation.

The book has significant entertainment and informational value; anyone who is even remotely interested in Hollywood history, popular culture or fashion will find “Edith Head” worthwhile.

“Edith Head, The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer” by Jay Jorgensen, Running Press, 2010, hardcover with dustjacket, 400 pages, 10 inches by 12 inches, ISBN 978-0-7624-3805-1, $75. 800-343-4499

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