Before Edith Head became Edith Head—the legendary costume designer who was the subject of a recent Google Doodle on what would have been her 116th Birthday—she was just another Berkeley graduate with a French degree.
Head, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1919, went on to get a master’s from Stanford in romance languages, and then worked as a high school French teacher. When she wanted to teach art, which would have entailed a raise, she fibbed and told the school she had experience with art. In reality, she had taken the subject only for a short time in high school. Head started taking evening art classes to improve her skills.
Despite having no costume design experience, Head got a job in Paramount Pictures’ costume department in 1924 (she used another student’s sketches for her interview). She went on to design costumes for virtually every famous actress from the 1930s to 1970s, including a mink-lined gown for Ginger Rogers’ character in “Lady in the Dark”—the most expensive dress ever made for a film.
Although Head never wanted to make her clothes the star of a film—“My motto is that the audience should notice the actors, not the clothes,” she said—people noticed. Her work won eight Academy Awards for costume design, the most ever won by a woman. “Edith Head never failed,” Bette Davis said.
In addition to the Doodle, Head has been immortalized with a 2003 stamp, a pop song and a one woman show, but her most famous representation is probably the Edna “E” Mode character in Pixar’s superhero send-up, “The Incredibles.” The film’s director won’t confirm or deny it, but Head is often credited as one of the character’s main inspirations. Style-wise, the two women certainly had a thing or two in common.
Edith Head is just one of Berkeley’s many Hollywood connections. For more stories about Cal alums and faculty who’ve made their mark in Tinseltown, check out our Fall 2013 issue “Berkeley Goes to the Movies.”