Edith Head at the Bendigo Art Gallery


Film & Television Costume Designer

I hope some readers have been fortunate to see the current exhibition of Edith Head movie costumes from the Golden Years of Hollywood currently on display at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

This extensive exhibition showcases 70 of her costumes from the 1930s to the 1960s in a number of galleries.

Each costume is accompanied by a description and photograph of the actor wearing the outfit in a movie.

Each gallery has a film display with short clips rotating featuring the costumes in action in the original film.

Many of the costumes are in glass cabinets and difficult to photograph, but I would like to share some of my favourites.

The first section displays costumes contemporary with the time in which the movie was made, and this constitutes the bulk of this collection. Fortunately for me, it's also what I'm most interested in.

1940s gown 

This fabulous 40s gown shows Head's ingenuity at getting around the constraints of the Hays Code. The Motion Picture Production Code, nicknamed "the Hays Code," was a censorship code enforced from 1934 into the 1960s.

Amongst many other things that were banned, costume designers could not show a woman's midriff, cleavage, any part of the breast or even a navel. With this gown, made for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve in 1941, Head creates the illusion of a bare midriff with the use of a flesh coloured "mousse". The fabric is continued above the neckline and also incorporates the necklace.

black gown 1940sbare midriff black gown 1940s

rita hayes black gown 1940

Head designed for Stanwyck on a number of occasions and helped to turn her career from one where she played the honest working girl kind of roles to one where she took on more glamorous roles. Stanwyck thought her waist was too long, and Head used her talents to design gowns that gave the illusion of a shorter waist. In this gown, a waistband wider in the front and narrower at the back.

Head said that the actor who she found the most difficult to design for was Veronica Lake. Lake was a huge star in the early 40s. She was very petite and had a tiny waist - only 53 cm (20.75")

Dressing Gown 1942

This beautiful dressing gown never featured in a movie, only used here in a publicity still in 1942.

dressing gown 1942

veronica lake dressing gown

Men, said Head, were much easier to work with, and were often expected to provide their own costume.

Bing Crosby reportedly hated getting dressed up. Head says he opened every conversation with her with the line "Can I wear a sports jacket?"

Sunset Boulevard 1950 Style

Head says her most difficult design brief was for the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, herself a star of the silent screen, plays a faded silent screen actress living in a fantasy world.

Head's brief from the film's director and co-writer Billy Wilder was "to show Swanson as a wealthy and stylish woman while simultaneously indicating that she dwells in the past, frozen in the heyday of her career" (from the exhibition notes).

sunset boulevard 1950s dress

Swanson herself, in her autobiography, described these clothes as "a trifle outmoded, a trifle exotic".

Long-sleeved bikini

created in guipure lace

Here is possibly my favourite costume in the exhibition. Made for Shirley Maclaine in What a Way To Go in 1964, a black comedy, it's a long sleeved bikini in guipure lace, complete with matching sunglasses, shoes and bag.

bikini,sunglases, shoes and bag

I also loved this . . .

peignoir set and dressing gown / robe.

robedressing gown

Beautiful . . .

cotton Alencon lace

alencon lace

For Susan Hayward in Where Love Has Gone, 1964.

This beautiful robe was made for June Allyson in Strategic Air Command, 1955. I was astonished to see that this beautiful dressing gown/robe is made from silk, net and horsehair!

dressing gown 1964

I was surprised to see how many of these costumes and evening wear were made from silk and other luxury fabrics, with superb craftsmanship. Regrettably, Head did apologise, budgets had to be met and synthetics were often substituted for silk.

Another section of the exhibition dealt with Head's period costumes. Head had a team of researchers who meticulously uncovered the appropriate ladies' fashions, fabrics and detailing for the time the film was set.

Edwardian Style Gowns

lillian gish gown 1946

This gown, made for Lillian Gish in 1946 for her role in Miss Susie Slagle's, features elaborate soutache embroidery, popular in Edwardian times, and also making a comeback in the 1940s.

The Great Race, 1965, was one of my father's favourite films and I watched it countless times as a child and adored it, so I was delighted to see Natalie Wood's Edwardian style dress in the exhibition. I must watch it again soon.

edwardian dress

Head's costumes were not always 100% authentic to the time and place. The sarong dress she created for Dorothy Lamour would not have been seen in the South Seas, but Hollywood was not ready for bare breasted islanders.

Cecil B. De Mille insisted on a dress and cape lavishly trimmed with peacock feathers for Hedy Lamarr in her role as Delilah in Samson and Delilah, 1949. Not authentic at all, but who was going to argue with him?

Hooded Coat 1946

A couple more gems which I have to share are this hooded coat, made for Barbara Stanwyck  in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946. I would love to have this coat, it would go sideways into my wardrobe though and not into the store.

hooded coat

barbara stanwyck in hooded coat

Art Deco Print dress 1939

I also love the Art Deco print on this dress made for Carole Lombard in 1939.

art deco print dress 1939

The final part of the exhibition is a film installation. Edith Head appeared on a regular TV segment in the 1960s where she gave style advice to viewers. Scenes from this are rotated with two other short films.

One is The Costume Designer, where Head herself gives many insights into her work and role, including the important dramatic role played by the costumes in a film.

They also had a delightful short film which is almost like a screen test for Audrey Hepburn, made for Head before she designed Hepburn's costumes for Roman Holday, 1953, Hepburn's first film. Head had not met Hepburn, and Hepburn was working in Europe while she was designing her costumes. Head said she needed to see Hepburn's posture and how she moved before she could design for her. It's a delightful view of a very young and charming Audrey Hepburn.

Head won 8 Academy Awards for costume design, the greatest number of Oscars awarded to a woman.

This exhibition is on at the Bendigo Art Gallery until 21st January. See it if you can.


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