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Sunday, October 29, 2023

In the world of fashion-forward superheroes, one name stands out as a symbol of designer genius: Edna Mode from The Incredibles. But, did you know the iconic character— known for her elaborate, technical, and particular method of costuming— owes her existence to a real-life Hollywood legend? Enter the world of costume designer Edith Head, who not only inspired the beloved character Edna, but also served to elevate the role of characters on the television and movie screen with the transformative power of costuming.

Edith Head was an American costume designer who won a record number of eight Academy Awards for her designs, and she is largely considered one of the greatest, most influential costume designers in film history. Head, with her unparalleled talent and keen eye for detail, not only dressed some of the most iconic stars of her time, such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, but breathed life into their roles through her creations. Unlike most of her male-costuming counterparts at the time, she emphasized the idea of working with the star and having her pieces reflect each individual character. She consulted extensively with her actors, designing not for her own personal style but in order to allow the role that the actress was playing to shine through. The look of female characters thus shifted from the usual awkward, ill-fitting clothing of the time to costumes that allowed them new carriage and awareness. Gone were the goofy, hard-to-move-in gowns that relegated females to be decorative fixtures on the side of the screen. Female roles, thanks to Edith, were now seen as individual, with stunning yet practical clothes that they could perform in.

Costume design today is 83% female, a significant shift from Edith Head’s time when males dominated almost every space in the film industry— a shift that can be partially attributed to Head’s success and influence in the costume design space. However, costume designers are currently paid 30% less than all other production designers. Costume Designer’s Guild objects to this heavily, citing the notion that set construction and sound production continue to be male-dominated and are thus paid more, while clothing and costume production is considered frivolous and therefore an area of lesser importance, and thus, lesser pay. When the guild members come together for their next negotiation session with the International Alliance to set a pay base on par with that of other production designers, they should draw inspiration from Edith Head, who was not only super prolific and deemed essential to film creation, but proved how essential clothing is to a film by changing the look of Hollywood.

Costuming is transformative. It allows each actor to feel completely immersed in their role, and it is an enormous part of what makes film a craft that is both representative and visually compelling for an audience. Edith Head was the one who recognized the power of fashion on the silver screen, and her work with women, elevating their role in movies from just frilly poofs to strong characters dressed in elegant and practical clothing, transformed the look of female characters forever. Her legacy on both the artistry, feminism, and business in costuming is prevalent in Hollywood even today.

The intriguing connection between Edith Head’s work and Edna Mode only emphasizes her incredible impact. As young audiences appreciate the detail and care that Edna took to clothe her superheroes, they can see the legacy of Edith Head, whose costumes were not just clothes, but threads that wove cinematic magic.


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