Before fierce was fierce: A collection of costumes from famed designer Edith Head in Lancaster, Ohio

By Michael Mackie

Edith Head and Company: Costumes & Jewelry 1924 – 2015
Now through August 14, 2016,  Decorative Arts Center of Ohio

A tomato-red evening gown by Edith Head, from the 1957 film "Beau James".

Back in Hollywood’s illustrious Golden Age, one diminutive woman was a literal force to be reckoned with – and she did so from behind the scenes. During Edith Head’s prolific career as Hollywood’s go-to costume designer, she created a remarkable array of ensembles for well over 600 movies. Now some of her famed, signature costumes, gowns and dresses are on display for the first time ever – just outside Columbus, Ohio. “There have only been two other times that any of Edith’s pieces have left Hollywood,” said Barbara Hunzicker, Exhibitions Director at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio located in Lancaster. “About 95% of this collection has never been seen.”

If you can think of a classic Hollywood starlet, you can be assured Edith Head likely once dressed her to the nines. (Madonna’s “Vogue” names off a majority of them -- from Rita Hayworth to Bette Davis to Marlene Dietrich et al.) Now visitors to “Edith Head and Company: Costumes & Jewelry 1924 – 2015” exhibit get the chance to see Head’s insane attention to detail – the minutia of which can only been seen up close and personal. 

The Paramount Archive is the only studio archive to house a jewelry collection -- which dates back to 1923. There are over 12,000 individual, custom-made pieces.

Back in the day, some of Hollywood’s biggest female celebs demanded Head make them all look their very best – all while being coolly comfortable in front of the camera. “Edith was famous for making costumes that looked good … yet were functional,” said Hunzicker. “If an actress didn’t like prints, she wouldn’t make them wear prints.”

This bold yellow/green suit was featured in the 1947 film LADIES MAN and designed by Mary Kay Dodson. It was a black and white movie -- alas, viewers could never appreciate the delicious chartreuse color.  

The treasure trove of costumes from Paramount Picture Archive vault is endless – but finding them was half the battle and restoring them was the other half. Cue Randall Thropp, the curator of the never-before-seen exhibit. “Randall is the savior of these costumes,” said Susan Chilenski, a docent at the exhibit. “They used to be rented out. Can you imagine?”

A wedding train created by Travis Banton -- one of Edith Head's mentors -- for the 1929 film "The Love Parade". The length? 21 feet! It was carried by ten small boys in the film.

“I've been fascinated with Edith Head since I was a kid. I remember seeing her on Art Linkletter's ‘House Party’ giving advice to women on how to dress,” said Thropp. “As an adult, I truly admire her ability to create characters through costume design, not to mention the impeccable tailoring she was able to incorporate into every suit. When I started working 13 years ago in the Paramount Costume Department, it was an overwhelming experience seeing the costumes up close. I made it my mission to set those pieces aside for future preservation - and it paid off!”

Some of Edith Head's original sketches were found a few years ago and are now on display as part of the exhibit.

Edith Head at work -- alongside actress Mitzi Gaynor. 

Bangles, baubles and beads ... oh my! This purple-beaded gown was created for Gloria Paul - who played a stripper named, Crepe Suzette in the film DARLING LILI (1970). It was created by Jack Bear who was nominated at the 43rd Academy Awards for Best Costume Design. Bear also designed ensembles for the TV series "Dallas" and was mentored by Edith Head.

The bulk of the display shows off Head’s ever-present fashion-forward designs. However, other designers that orbited around Head are featured in the exhibit as well – both predecessors and protégés. “It's the first time I have mounted an exhibit with this theme and it's also the largest collection of Paramount costumes I've put together,” said Throop. “There are 46 pieces in this exhibit and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is the only place it will be on display.”

Edith Head inspired suit, worn by Whoopi Goldberg

Ruth Morely -- a protégé of Edith Head -- dressed Whoopi Goldberg for her Academy Award-winning turn in "Ghost".  

Edith Head sketch

Edith Head sketch

To say some of the dresses are larger than life would likely be an understatement – given how petite some of the actresses were at the time. Many were likely corseted within an inch of their life. “The biggest waist size in any of these dresses is 22½ inches,” said Hunzicker.  Several of the featured pieces feature hidden, built-in padding, extra fabric or creative cinching to enhance an actress’ figure or detract from any “perceived flaws”. 

Original dress by Edith Head.

Original dress by Edith Head.

Turns out, Head was quite the character – a talented, self-taught fashionista who struck up close friendships with many of her muses. Some of the stories you’ll hear during the exhibition’s tour are quite interesting. “She really had a dual personality. She always wore bland clothes so as not to interfere with her stars,” said Chilenski. “But in real life, everything she owned was very flamboyant and colorful.” Another nugget shared on the tour? Head never smiled in photographs because she had bad teeth. After actress Barbara Staywyck and she became friends, Stanwyck kindly “bought her new teeth”, mentioned Chilenski. 

Edith Head

Even though many of the films Head created outfits for were in black and white, the outfits themselves are actually quite vibrant. Head was famed for her blue-lensed, oval glasses she always wore – which allowed her to see things in a neutral, colorless motif. Visitors can click on various interactive movie clips that showcase the featured costumes in front of them – from bejeweled bikinis to hand-drawn plaids. Her nuance clearly paid off – as only Walt Disney has won more Oscar awards than Head did in her heyday.

Each room in the exhibit has interactive touch screens. Patrons can view movie clips that feature the costumes on display.

You can thank Edith Head for Endora’s psychedelic, flowing muumuus on “Bewitched” and Tippi Hedren’s epic, wool-crepe sheath dress in “The Birds”. You can thank Randall Throop for saving many of these cinematic works of art so generations to can celebrate the hyper-detailed genius of Edith Head’s ornate designs. “I want people to walk away from the exhibit with an appreciation for not only the designers, but for the talented crew that the Paramount costume department assembled to execute these costumes,” said Throop. “Between 1934 and 1967 over 1300 people were employed at various times in the department.”

As Head once said, “What a costume designer does is a cross between camouflage and magic.” Once you peruse this exhibit, you’ll note truer words have never been spoken.

Actresses suits by designer Irene Lentz - who was a protege of Edith Head.

Decorative Arts Center of Ohio

145 E. Main St., Lancaster, Ohio 43130
Phone: 740-681-1423


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Tours & things to do in Ohio picked by Viator (a Trip Advior company)