Head of Class

Readers,

When I learned that a show of Edith Head’s costumes was headed for the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in the little town of Lancaster, I jumped up and down and hollered “oh my gosh!” over the phone a couple dozen times.

Can I realize my ambition to look like Edith Head? We shall see.

Can I realize my ambition to look like Edith Head? We shall see.

The sister who called me with this news tidbit had figured I’d be interested in this exhibition but wasn’t prepared for such audible enthusiasm. That may be because I’d never told her I’d had ambitions to dress up as Edith Head’s double. Now I would get to see–for free!–a few dozen of the hundreds–no, probably thousands–of garments she’d had a hand in designing over her decades-long career in Hollywood.

What do I even know about Edith Head, and how did I come to know it?

The formidable, inimitable, inscrutable Edith Head.

The formidable, inimitable, inscrutable Edith Head.

Not a whole lot, and I don’t know.

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I love this lettering, and how about that notation about Claudette Colbert?

I’m not alone in having strong and yet vague impressions of Edith Head, or at least of her unsmiling, enigmatic, no-nonsense persona, who started in the ’20s with  Clara Bow in the silents, moved on in the ’30s to ’60s designing for such stars as Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly, in the ’70s with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting and ending in 1982 with Steve Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

Self-described "hider and hoarder," archivist Randall Thropp regaled his audience with one story after another about Edith Head, her costumes, and the people who wore them.

Self-described “hider and hoarder,” archivist Randall Thropp regaled his audience with one story after another about Edith Head, her costumes, and the people who wore them.

Randall Thropp, the costume, prop and set archivist at Paramount, who opened the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio’s show with a curator’s talk June 8, said that on the VIP tours of Paramount someone in the group inevitably asks about Edith Head. He also noted that a recent New York Times book review cited Ms. Head’s view that “You can do anything you want in life if you dress for it.”

Ginger Rogers playing an attorney in a early version of the "power suit."

Ginger Rogers playing an attorney in a early version of the “power suit.”

The suit in the exhibition.

The suit in the exhibition.

It took more than Ms. Head’s memorably severe coiffure, tinted glasses, and neat, classic clothes to earn 35 Oscar nominations and 8 wins, however. She also said “In any one building on New York’s Seventh Avenue, there are twenty designers better than I, but they wouldn’t last a day in Hollywood.”  Dressing for the part may get you noticed, but without grit you won’t be around long.Edith_Head_0914

Edith Head’s costumes would not be around long, either, had it not been for Randall Thropp’s self-described “hider and hoarder” tendencies. If you can believe it, until 2006 it was possible for the public to rent costumes from Paramount that included some by leading designers like Head. As Thropp discovered labels with Head’s name sewn  into waist or sleeve seams he took an executive decision to remove the garments from circulation. Then he sequestered the garments for a while till it was safe for them to come out again.Edith_Head_0853

Paramount had been known to turn historically significant props and costumes over to auction houses, dispersing a cultural legacy forever into the hands of private owners.  On his own initiative and in his own cunning way Thropp preserved the work not only of a designer who remains practically a household name but that of hundreds of seamstresses, tailors, jewelers, milliners, beaders and other practitioners of the costume arts.

While I am mesmerized by the tools of the trade, Randall Thropp chats with visitors.

While I am mesmerized by the tools of the trade, Randall Thropp chats with visitors.

When I saw the glass case my first thought was, “This reminds me of Wayward,” the vintage shop in St. Leonards on Sea, England I visited in January. The cones of colored thread, trims, packets of pins, Paramount labels, a hat stretcher, an Art Deco-era hosiery box with a beguiling typeface, and what appeared to be a specialized iron, were at one time the everyday supplies and tools of the costumer’s art.

I suppose that's a special kind of iron. Have you ever seen one like this?

I suppose that’s a special kind of iron. Have you ever seen one like this?

While I come to costume shows to see the costumes, obviously, it’s almost more poignant to see these mundane objects that have become equally rare and often obsolete.

Ever on the lookout for ideas for my own label, I was taken by Paramount's lettering for its label.

Ever on the lookout for ideas for my own label, I was taken by Paramount’s lettering for its label.

The yellowed typed index cards listing workers’ names, job titles, periods of employment, and wages are additional silent witnesses to the cast of thousands behind the scenes that produced the finery to dress the casts of thousands parading before the camera.

Just a few of the employee cards on display. If only they could talk!

Just a few of the employee cards on display. If only they could talk!

I look at the variety of names, job titles, promotions and handwritten notations aching to know the people and stories behind them. Were those living wages? Did they get lunch at an employee canteen at the studio as part of their compensation? I hope so.

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As for the costumes: Okay, I admit I’d hoped to see Audrey Hepburn’s blouse and skirt from Roman Holiday. I suppose they’re jealously guarded by their owner, who must have paid a bundle for them, I don’t know.Edith_Head_0771

I pretend to be dazzled by sequin-encrusted gowns that weigh ten pounds, but I can’t imagine myself wearing them. Instead, I was predictably drawn to the Adrian-like suit from The Big Clock worn by Maureen O’Sullivan. The trompe l’oeil bow is a tailored little stroke of genius.

A clip from The Big Clock showing Maureen O'Sullivan in her suit with the fetching faux bow.

A clip from The Big Clock showing Maureen O’Sullivan in her suit with the fetching faux bow.

I wandered among the four rooms and the main floor marveling at the costumes’ technical mastery I could barely imagine, much less achieve. Add to that deadlines, budgets, and egos, and I wonder how costumes get made at all.

Sketches, some with swatches.

Sketches, some with swatches.

Edith Head most certainly did not fret as I do about getting things sewn. No, orchestrating the talents of hundreds of skilled workers over 60 years she got thousands of things sewn.Edith_Head_0821

Nevertheless, those efforts would fall to wrack and ruin without the talents of today’s curators, conservators, and exhibition specialists diligently, devotedly spending years to preserve records and create informative and entertaining exhibitions giving context for us visitors.

Thanks to Carol Abbott’s inventiveness, on an iPad placed in each room you can tap on the image of a costume and see a clip from the movie it was in. In a minute you get information, entertainment, and context in a format that couldn’t be more intuitive.

Adjunct professor Carol Abbott put together 35 clips from 31 films that show the costumes with just a tap on an iPad.

Adjunct professor Carol Abbott put together 35 clips from 31 films that show the costumes with just a tap on an iPad. Maureen O’Sullivan’s suit is visible at upper right.

And thanks to Randall Thropp, an elderly and ailing Shelley Winters got to see the costume (the one survivor of a set of four) that she wore in the rowboat scene in 1951’s A Place in the Sun. Clearly moved, she told him, “I can’t believe you saved my costume.”

Shelley Winters was grateful Randall Thropp rescued her costume, and so are we.

Shelley Winters was grateful Randall Thropp rescued her costume, and so are we.

If you’re in central Ohio sometime this summer, head over to the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio to catch this entrancing show.

Joan Fontaine on the cover of a fan magazine, with a swatch from her dress.

Joan Fontaine on the cover of a fan magazine, with a swatch from her dress.

If you’re there August 17, don’t be surprised to see me tailing actress Susan Claassen portraying Edith Head as she leads tours through the galleries. I could use some tips on how to get that hairstyle right.

Starstruck, or just dizzy? Who cares?

Starstruck, or just dizzy? Who cares?

(Photos by Cynthia DeGrand)

 

Backstage at the Goldstein: The Gift of a Hat

Readers,

I came across this delightful and touching story of an American GI buying a Paris hat for his wife in 1944 when I was working on a large files project at the Goldstein Museum of Design, which is on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

Tres chic!

Tres chic!

I don’t remember now whether I first saw this handwritten account by the husband, Thomas McCart, and photographs of his wife, Melva McCart, in a file folder or in the Goldstein’s image database. At any rate, the story stuck with me when I came across it earlier this year. It deserves a wider audience.

This is a perfect little story of a giver, a gift, and a recipient.MadameSuzyHat3 (364x460)MadameSuzyHat1 (307x460)MadameSuzyHat4 (353x460)MadameSuzyHat2 (307x460)MadameSuzyHat5 (353x460)

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Did she make her suit?

Look at that shoulder line!

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Even the label design is beautiful.

To see these and more photographs up close, go to the Goldstein Museum of Design database:

  • Click here to go to the home page of the Goldstein Museum of Design
  • Click on the tab Collection
  • Click on Search the Collection
  • In the Word Search box, type McCart
  • The record for this hat will appear. Click on the photo of the hat
  • You will see more detail than you can see in this post.

All photographs by the Goldstein Museum of Design.

Where Labeling Is a Good Thing

Readers,

When I worked in bakeries and restaurant kitchens and for years after I left commercial kitchens but still baked at home, I had an imaginary bakery. I never wanted the responsibilities of a real bakery owner; I just enjoyed thinking about…

The cursive of "Valerie" suggests extravagance, but "Modes" suggests restraint (to me, anyway.)

The cursive of “Valerie” suggests extravagance, but “Modes” suggests restraint (to me, anyway.)

the packaging.

The cake boxes. The business cards by the cash register. The printed paper bags. The labels.

All designed beautifully, as a final expression of craftsmanship and caring to send out the door with the customer.

It's time to graduate to a label of my own design.

It’s time to graduate to a label of my own design.

When I was fanatical about bakeries I sought them out on my travels. From bakeries in Copenhagen, Budapest, New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, Rome, and elsewhere I brought back cards, bags and wrappers too memory-laden and beautiful to throw away.

When I left my pastry-shift job at Mrs. London’s Bake Shop in Saratoga Springs, New York at the end of the racing season in 1983, I took a little sourdough starter and a sheet of labels as souvenirs. Old friends who rolled croissants with me that spring and summer get a Christmas card every year decorated with one of those labels.

I don’t think any more about having a fantasy bakery. But I still like labels.

I’ve sewn “Hand Made by Paula” labels into the shirts I’ve made for Jack for maybe fifteen years. I’ve never sewn one of these into a garment for myself.  I would feel silly doing that.

"Miss" suggests youth.

“Miss” suggests youth.

But I find myself wanting that final custom touch in my own garments and have started researching vintage garment and hat labels online for inspiration.

Scrolling through more than 400 records of hats in the collection of the Goldstein Museum of Design that have been photographed, often including their labels, I was struck by how much information and atmosphere can be conveyed in those tiny bits of real estate.

This label says "I bought a hat--hooray!--and it's from a special store.

This label says “I bought a hat–hooray!–and it’s from a special store.”

The label that crows, “My hat’s from Harold,” with an image of a hat box, captures the excitement of this purchase.

“Miss” refers to the youthfulness of the purchaser.

But “Madame” suggests the experience and taste of the hat maker.

So say I, at any rate.

I imagine Madame Georgette being a hat maker of taste and experience.

I imagine Madame Georgette being a hat maker of taste and experience.

What does “Mr.” convey?

I haven’t figured that out yet. But I know I’d like to meet Mr. Arnold, whose “A” is made from two hand-mirrors.

Ever seen such a fanciful "A"?

Ever seen such a fanciful “A”?

And who wouldn’t want to meet the whimsical stick figure Mr. Martin, elegantly proffering a plumed hat with a deep bow?

A label to make you smile.

A label to make you smile.

These labels represent both the actual artistry of makers and wearers and a lovely make-believe land that mingles elegance, humor and delight.

A land of millinery make-believe.

A land of millinery make-believe.

(Photographs of all hat labels are from the Goldstein Museum of Design.)