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  • Clothes Make the CharacterCostume Collaborations of Edith Head & Alfred Hitchcock

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Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock, Family Plot, 1976, Collection Christophel, Alamy Stock Photo

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"I knew I was not a creative design genius. I was never going to be the world's greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I couldn't be the smartest."

—Edith Head

In 1946, Alfred Hitchcock arranged for Paramount to loan Edith Head to RKO to dress Ingrid Bergman in his spy thriller Notorious. This was Edith's first time working with the English director, and she found in

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Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, Notorious, 1946, courtesy George Eastman Museum

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Ingrid Bergman, Notorious, 1946, courtesy George Eastman Museum

him a like-minded collaborator who was as exacting and blunt as she was. While her fellow costume designers often made clothes to display their style, Edith had learned over her past twenty years at Paramount that the objective was to create clothes to suit the character and advance the storyline, an approach that suited Hitchcock's philosophy. Hitchcock was famous for using clothes in his films to express the psychology of his characters. In his scripts, he was explicit about color, style, and accessories. Once the parameters were decided, Edith was given creative freedom and a big budget to make beautiful garments. [End Page 19]

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Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains, Notorious, 1946, courtesy George Eastman Museum

For Notorious, the costumes Edith designed for Bergman required restraint. Because Bergman was playing a secret agent, Hitchcock did not want her clothes to be a focal point; they had to suggest a woman who was trying to blend in. This required Edith to subtly convey elegance. "The clothes couldn't be smart in the ordinary sense. They had to avoid fussy or extreme." While Hitchcock requested outfits that were simple and skillfully designed, with minimal ornamentation, in a few key scenes, Edith managed to give Bergman a bit of flair: a zebra-print blouse with her midriff exposed and a black velvet V-neck gown with a chain [End Page 20]

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Grace Kelly, Rear Window, 1954, courtesy George Eastman Museum

belt. The film was a success; it was also the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between director and designer that would last over thirty years.

Edith Claire Posener was born in 1897 in San Bernardino, California, and spent much of her youth with her mother and stepfather, a mining engineer, in mining camps in Mexico. Mother and daughter cooked and cleaned for camp occupants. Edith dreamed of city life and got what she wished for when the family returned to California in 1911. After high school in Los Angeles, she attended the University of California at Berkeley and then got a master's in Romance languages from Stanford. In 1923, [End Page 21]

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Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, Rear Window, 1954, courtesy George Eastman Museum

she taught French at Hollywood School to the daughters of motion-picture industry employees while studying art at night at Otis Art Institute. That year she married Charles Head, a tall and handsome traveling salesman.

Feeling stymied and underpaid as a schoolteacher, Edith answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times for a sketch artist at Famous Players– Lasky Studio, which would become Paramount. She applied for the job even though she had no experience in costume design. She gathered up artwork from her classmates at Otis—landscapes, portraits, and costume sketches—signed her name to the pieces, and placed them in her portfolio. Rather than lie, she told chief designer Howard Greer, "This is the sort of thing we do in school." The artwork in a variety of styles impressed Greer, and later he recalled that he was "struck with admiration" for her diverse talent. He hired Edith on the spot at $50 a week, double her teacher's salary. Edith confessed to Greer that the work wasn't hers, but her life at...


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