Designer Edith Head – San Bernardino’s Most Famous Daughter

Edith Head is quite possibly the most famous daughter of San Bernardino, a costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for best costume design, starting with The Heiress and ending with The Sting.
Her status as a California girl and her proximity to and familiarity with Hollywood assisted her in breaking into the business, but it was her natural feel for fashion at multiple stages of history as well as in different cultures, not the least of which was contemporary America, that made her what she was.
She managed to get a job as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures without any relevant training and bootstrapped her way up, first acquiring notice for Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong dress, and then became a household name after the Academy Awards created a new category for costume designer in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects during her heyday, practically every top female star in the American movie business with the exception of Marilyn Monroe, with whom she consulted extensively and tirelessly.
She was born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino on October 28, 1897, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener, a haberdasher in San Bernardino, and Anna E. Levy. Her father, who was born in January 1858 in Germany, came to the United States in 1876 and was later a naturalized American citizen. Her mother was a first generation American, having been born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1875, the daughter of an Austrian father and a Bavarian mother. Max and Anna married in 1895, according to the 1900 United States Federal Census records.
Max Posener’s San Bernardino haberdashery went out of business in 1898. Max Posener did not raise his daughter beyond the age of six. Rather, young Edith went with her mother when her parents parted. In 1905 Edith’s mother married mining engineer Frank Spare of Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently as Spare’s jobs moved. The Spares lived for a time in Searchlight, Nevada. Frank and Anna Spare passed Edith off as their mutual child. As Frank Spare was a Catholic, Edith converted.
In 1919, Edith received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1920 earned a master of arts degree in Romance languages from Stanford University. She became a language teacher with her first position as a replacement at Bishop’s School in La Jolla, teaching French. After one year, she took a position teaching French at the Hollywood School for Girls. Subsequently, she taught art there as well, though she had no training in art outside of high school at that time. She began taking evening drawing classes at the Chouinard Art College.
On July 25, 1923, she married Charles Head, the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. She and Charles divorced in 1936, but she was known professionally as Edith Head throughout her life.
Even though she had no art, design, and costume design experience, in 1924 the 26-year old borrowed some other student’s sketches for display during a job interview and was hired on the spot as a sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in the costume department. She began designing costumes for silent films, starting with The Wanderer in 1925. By the 1930s, she had established herself as a real workhorse among Hollywood’s costume designers. She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967, possibly prompted by her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock, who had moved to Universal in 1960.
Initially, Head was over-shadowed by Paramount’s lead designers, first Howard Greer, then Travis Banton. Head was instrumental in conspiring to have Banton leave Paramount. After his resignation in 1938, she became a major asset in the Paramount stable of designers. In 1937, she designed the “sarong” dress for Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane, which overnight rendered her well-known among the general public. Although successful, she was not as flamboyant as either Banton or Adrian Adolph Greenberg.
Head’s marriage to set designer Wiard Ihnen, on September 8, 1940, lasted until his death in 1979. Over the course of her long career, she was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, annually from 1948 through to 1966, and won eight times – receiving more Oscars than any other woman.
Her design flew in the face of wartime austerity when she came up with the mink-lined gown worn by Ginger Rogers in 1944’s Lady in the Dark. The creation in 1949 of the category of an Academy Award for costume designer advanced her career. She dominated the category for the next generation, as she garnered a record-breaking run of award nominations and wins, beginning with her nomination for The Emperor Waltz.
Unlike many of her male contemporaries, Head worked closely with the female stars for whom she designed. She was, paradoxically, a very plain dresser, preferring thick-framed glasses and conservative two-piece suits. She was indisputably the designer of preference of Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor during the 1940s and 1950s. Despite her contract with Paramount, she was sometimes “loaned out” to other studios at the request of their female stars.
Head authored two books, The Dress Doctor (1959) and How To Dress For Success (1967), in which she expounded upon her career and design philosophy.
In 1967, at the age of 70, she left Paramount Pictures and joined Universal Pictures, remaining there for the rest of her life. In 1974, Head received a final Oscar win for her work on The Sting.
During the late 1970s, Edith Head was asked to design a woman’s uniform for the United States Coast Guard, subsequently receiving the Meritorious Public Service Award for that work. Her designs for a TV mini-series based on the novel Little Women were among the last of her design efforts. Based on her expertise in 1940s fashions, she was chosen as the designer for the Steve Martin comedy, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, which was filmed in black and white. The movie was released just after her death in 1982.
Among the actresses Edith Head designed for were: Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, 1933; Myra Breckinridge, 1970; Sextette, 1978; Frances Farmer in Rhythm on the Range, 1936, and Ebb Tide, 1937; Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane, 1937; in most of “The Road” movies; Paulette Goddard in The Cat and the Canary, 1939; Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels, 1941; I Married a Witch, 1942; Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, both 1941; Double Indemnity, 1944; Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, 1944; Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell in The Uninvited, 1944; Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, 1946; Betty Hutton in Incendiary Blonde, 1945; The Perils of Pauline, 1947; Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter, 1947; Bette Davis in June Bride (1948); All About Eve, 1950; Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, 1949; Hedy Lamarr and Angela Lansbury in Samson and Delilah, 1949; Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, 1950; Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, 1951; Elephant Walk, 1954; Joan Fontaine in Something to Live For, 1952; Carmen Miranda in Scared Stiff 1953; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953; Sabrina, 1954; Funny Face, 1957; Ann Robinson in The War of the Worlds, 1953; Grace Kelly in Rear Window, 1954; To Catch a Thief, 1955; Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, 1954; Jane Wyman in Lucy Gallant, 1955; Shirley MacLaine in Artists and Models, 1955; The Matchmaker, 1958; What a Way to Go!, 1964; Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956; Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments, 1956; Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, 1957; Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables, 1958; Kim Novak in Vertigo, 1958; Sophia Loren in That Kind of Woman, 1959; Rhonda Fleming in Alias Jesse James, 1959; Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger, 1963; Sex and the Single Girl, 1964; Inside Daisy Clover, 1965; The Great Race, 1965; Penelope, 1966; This Property Is Condemned, 1966; The Last Married Couple in America, 1980; Tippi Hedren in The Birds, 1963; Marnie, 1964; Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, 1967; Claude Jade in Topaz, 1969; Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, 1975; Jill Clayburgh in Gable and Lombard, 1976; Valerie Perrine in W.C. Fields and Me, 1976
She received eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, more than any other person, from a total of 35 nominations.
1949 – Color – The Emperor Waltz
1950 – Black and White – The Heiress – won
1951 – Color – Samson and Delilah – won
1951 – Black and White – All About Eve – won
1952 – Black and White – A Place in the Sun – won
1953 – Color – The Greatest Show on Earth
1953 – Black and White – Carrie
1954 – Black and White – Roman Holiday – won
1955 – Black and White – Sabrina – won
1956 – Color – To Catch a Thief
1956 – Black and White – The Rose Tattoo
1957 – Color – The Ten Commandments
1957 – Black and White – The Proud and Profane
1958 – Best Costume Design – Funny Face
1959 – Best Costume Design, Black and White or Color – The Buccaneer
1960 – Color – The Five Pennies
1960 – Black and White – Career
1961 – Color – Pepe
1961 – Black and White – The Facts of Life – won
1962 – Color – Pocketful of Miracles
1963 – Color – My Geisha
1963 – Black and White – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1964 – Color – A New Kind of Love
1964 – Black and White – Wives and Lovers
1964 – Black and White – Love with the Proper Stranger
1965 – Color – What a Way to Go!
1965 – Black and White – A House Is Not a Home
1966 – Color – Inside Daisy Clover
1966 – Black and White – The Slender Thread
1967 – Color – The Oscar
1970 – Sweet Charity
1971 – Airport
1974 – The Sting – won
1976 – The Man Who Would Be King
1978 – Airport ’77
Edith Head died on October 24, 1981, four days before her 84th birthday, from myelofibrosis, an incurable bone marrow disease. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6504 Hollywood Boulevard.

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