Her clothes told them what to do

A restrospective of costume designer Edith Head’s work includes “Double Indemnity,” “The Lady Eve,” and “Roman Holiday.”
A restrospective of costume designer Edith Head’s work includes “Double Indemnity,” “The Lady Eve,” and “Roman Holiday.”

The most incredible character in “The Incredibles” (2004) isn’t any of the superheroes, incredible though they are. It’s the woman who designs their outfits. Edna Mode is short, imperious, and looks a bit like the actress Linda Hunt. It’s the bangs, petite size, and oversize glasses.

Edna also looks like someone else, someone she shares a profession with: Edith Head. With all due respect to Adrian (Garbo’s favorite), Travis Banton, and Irene Sharaff , Head was the greatest movie costume designer. A 16-title retrospective, The Queen of Seam: Edith Head in Hollywood, runs at the Brattle from Christmas Day through Dec. 31. (Titles in the series are in boldface.)

Linda Hunt has won one Oscar. Head won eight and was nominated for 27 more. As such numbers suggest, her career is one of the most incredible (that word again) in movie history.


Sixteen movies might sound like a lot for a retrospective. Hey, Daniel Day-Lewis has made only 21. He plays a fashion designer in his latest, “Phantom Thread,” which opens in Boston Jan. 12. But 16 films is barely a button in the all-seasons wardrobe that was Head’s career. She designed costumes for more than 500 movies. In 1950, she worked on no fewer than 12. Two of them were “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve.” Quality, no less than quantity, defined her body of work.

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Head’s career began in 1925, with “The Golden Bed,” and ended in 1982, the year she died. Her last movie was “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” It was a true Edith Head flourish: Her finale has a fashion reference in the title.

“Dead Men” includes a bit from “Double Indemnity” (1944). Barbara Stanwyck’s white angora sweater doesn’t just show off her figure. It’s a deadpan commentary on the darkness of her character. As for Stanwyck’s bare-midriff gown in “The Lady Eve,” how could Henry Fonda not go for someone wearing a number like that? “You’re certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year!” a smitten Fonda stammers. She’s that much funnier because of the dress.

Head worked on 11 pictures for Alfred Hitchcock. Three are in the series: “Notorious” (1946), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), and “Vertigo” (1958). In “Vertigo,” Kim Novak’s character impersonates someone else; and a sense of dubiousness is central to her performance. A particular gray suit that Head designed for her was like an acting lesson, Novak has said. It “helped me stand so straight and erect, the way Edith had built it. I hated that silly suit, to tell you the truth, but it helped me feel uncomfortable as Madeleine.”

Costume design might seem, at best, secondary in making a movie. Novak knows otherwise, and so did Tony Curtis. In 1953, Curtis played the title role in “Houdini,” one of 19 (!) credits Head had that year. Among the others were “Shane” and “Roman Holiday.” Curtis liked to say that Laurence Olivier gave him one of his favorite acting lessons: “Just put on the clothes, Tony, and look at yourself; you’ll know what to do.” Making the clothes, Edith Head was way ahead of the actors. She already knew what the actors had to do. It was her clothes that were telling them.

Mark Feeney can be reached at