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August 28 2014

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A Little Wardrobe Wisdom From Edith Head

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Hollywood legend Edith Head holds the distinction of the most Academy Award nominations ever: 35, for her work designing costumes for some of the great pictures and stars of cinema’s golden age. (She won eight, and you can see her work in Sabrina, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, The Ten Commandments, All About Eve, and Funny Face, which she co-designed with no less than Hubert de Givenchy.) And even with all of that, she found time in the late sixties to pen a how-to guide to style. Next week, How to Dress for Success gets the full reissue treatment ($19.95, abramsbooks.com). Some of Head’s wisdom may seem a little retrograde to the reader of the aughts, but her salty wit and curlicue prose hold up quite nicely. (Not to mention her original black-and-white line drawings, complete with helpful suggestions: “Too big! Too much! Too heavy!”)

Here’s Head on “How to Dress to Get a Man…And Keep Him”: “The contents of this chapter may be a shock to the woman who feels that the less she wears in pursuit of a man the better. To her we can only say that while the boys ogle and applaud the charms of Venus Unadorned in art galleries, night clubs, and between the covers of some magazines, it’s the covered girls rather than the Cover Girls they invariably marry.” It’s what you might expect the typing pool at the Mad Men office to tell one another—although Edith, unlike them, goes into more detail concerning each specific type of man you might hope to land, from the football fan (“dress warmly! There’s nothing more revolting to the rugged gridiron enthusiast than a shivering, complaining female whose only comment about the game is ‘I’m freezing!’ “) to the far-out intellectual (“What would be the shy man’s chloroform is this man’s meat”).

And, despite the occasional feminist-riling bit of man-trapping, there are also plenty of celebrations of all women, great and small (and charts for how to dress either, and everyone in between). “One of the few fallacious quotations ever attributed to our beloved and revered forefather Benjamin Franklin was, ‘With a pillow over their heads all women look alike,’ ” begins the chapter on “How to Analyze Your Figure.” “Knowing women’s figures as I do, I would have to tell dear old Ben to go fly his kite. If he were alive today, I’d take him into my designing room where stand hundreds of white cotton and fabric torsos which are replicas of the figures of famous movie stars whose wardrobes I create. There’s no such thing as a standard size movie star, or woman for that matter.” She should know—she dressed them all.

Photo: Mark Sullivan / Getty Images

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  1. SuzTucson says:

    Thanks for the great article. I have the privilege of helping to keep Miss Head’s legacy alive in my play A CONVERSATION WITH EDITH HEAD – http://www.edithead.biz. She was really an original!

  2. AnnimalHouse says:

    This book is so well written and totally stands the test of time. Edith Head was a genius and her contribution to fashion is epic!! I will purchase this book for my young niece, we can all learn from her legendary insight!! Thanks for this article!

Dept. of Culture