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A Legendary Designer: Edith Head

Edith Head’s work as a costume designer created some of the most memorable works of any designer in film history. Her dressing of such icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood (to name a few) cemented their names in the world of fashion, along with her own. She also helped tell many a story, defining some characters in ways that words could not have. Grace Kelly’s playful use of high fashion as a working girl in Rear Window compared to her playgirl reputation in To Catch A Thief was largely due to her careful choice of clothing. Likewise, in Sabrina (1954), Audrey Hepburn’s evolution from the plain chauffeur’s daughter — in simple, somewhat unflattering, fit clothing — to elegant woman in Paris couture is key to transforming her into a character that attracts not one, but two older leading men. Head also dressed men in films, defining the most fashionable choices for Hollywood’s leading men at the time. While fashion at the time was largely used to characterize women in films (many of whom had underwritten roles) one film did the same for its male characters…The Sting.

If ever there was a film to be described as a “well-made” film, The Sting is it. Even if the film is somewhat lacking in the emotional and social meaningfulness of many other best pictures, the sheer delight and craftsmanship at hand makes the film stand-out as classic. There are few films whose plot is as well manicured (and certainly has influenced as many) as from that simple, perfect little script. In this one gem you have ideal casting, wise directing from a master (George Roy Hill), and the impeccable artistry of those hired to work on the film behind the camera. Not to mention Edith Head’s exceptional work was a deserving, if perhaps surprising, winner for best designer.

It is uncommon for costume designing to win when the clothing is

1) understated

2) non-fantastical

3) worn primarily by men.

For example, Edith Head won 8 Oscars for costume design, primarily for her work costuming the female stars. The Sting is somewhat notorious for the lack of female characters. While costuming the three female actresses in the film brings a greater depth to their characters than they otherwise might have (actress Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss’s appreciation for her works was well documented in the Sting’s outstanding Art of The Sting “making of'' documentary), the most memorable clothing in the film is that worn by the men at the center of the film. Head’s playful nature is on full display here perhaps more than most.

Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker (arguably the main character despite the opening credits) is one of Head’s greatest creations. The film is somewhat a coming-of-age story for Johnny; from a small-time crook (protected by a father figure played by Robert Earl Jones), to a big-time confidence man. In the beginning, Redford’s clothing choices are almost juvenile, his clothing appears slightly tight in fit, like a teenager after a growth spurt. There is a stark comparison between his look when first meeting him opposite the mobster he steals from (who is wearing a nice, well-fitted coat). Even after Hooker buys a new suit the choice feels like something selected without a sense of self. The color is off, the print too large, and the shoulders far too big for his body (there is a reason he’s told he’s acting like a pimp). It isn’t until he meets Paul Newman’s Gondorff that he is given a makeover and some better fitting clothing.

To play the big time you need to act the part, and like so much of the film (including the exquisite credits/chapter artwork) the film delights in calling attention to the similarities between a heist and movie making… you play the role until the very end. When Gondorff is in character his clothing and appearance is exactly right, presenting him (Newman) at his absolute dapper best. And when he’s not in character… well he looks nothing of the sort. Despite Newman’s attractiveness, even he can’t make those denim overalls look right… an accomplishment from Head who knew when to present her characters in fashionable and unfashionable pieces.

That stark contrast in the role played by the confidence men and the mobsters living that life are on display in the clothing choices. Robert Shaw’s mobster character is always in perfectly tailored, and in expensive clothing, because he lives the crime life. By comparison, the crew involved in The Sting have to put back on their costumes. And that slight difference is only evident when you see them around Shaw. There is a moment when Hooker is taken by Shaw and despite his new, well-made suit it isn’t as perfectly tailored as we first think, appearing to be slightly large in the fit compared to Shaw’s. Likewise, Gondorff seems to take on and off his gambling character as he takes on and off that character’s clothing.

Only one character seems to rival Shaw in the clothing department, the hilarious character of Kid Twist (perhaps my favorite performance in the film by Harold Gould). Before he even points to his nose to signal his role as part of the con, his entrance (in what seems like the highest price outfit in the film), swaggering down the hotel lobby with his three piece suit, elegantly placed coat on his shoulders, and brass walking stick, the audience knows he has to be “playing a part.” No actor seems to have enjoyed playing the dapper gentleman more than Gould, taking delight in the character’s slight absurdity. His sly smirk when walking around doing deals like a man of means, tugging at his perfectly tight leather gloves and winged tip shoes makes him stand out from the other conmen as the crew’s actor. No one in The Sting is at once in character, and playing a character, with as much gusto as Gould does in his relatively small part. And yet in a special touch, his brief scene playing another character in plainer clothing (closer to what would likely be his actual economic class), and almost identical to the type of well made suits others in the crew wear, Kid appears uncomfortable in such an ordinary costume more than in his somewhat absurd high-end outfits. Kid wants to be the character he plays, embracing the faction more than the others.

In some ways Head’s Oscar was a slight surprise. She was competing with three pre-20th century period films, and the fashion icon success which was The Way We Were. Other commercial hit films which weren’t nominated included other depression era films Paper Moon, Cabaret, and Dillinger. Head had also gone more than a decade between wins, and in some ways the New American Film revolution of the 1970s seemed to have pushed her off that winning pedestal. But her understated but exceptional design, fitting, and character focus in The Sting gave her back her crown and re-established her reputation as a modern designer for another decade. Although it would be her final Oscar, she would continue to have success with several more films… many seemingly inspired by her success with The Sting. The understated clothing, focus on both male and female characters, and playfulness in films such as The Great Waldo Pepper, Family Plot, and especially Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid all show a clear connection to that spark of genius that was Edith Head.


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