Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Clara Bow, Gene Kelly … While costume designer Edith Head has worked with the biggest names in Hollywood, her extensive portfolio of designs makes her a star in her own right. Bendigo Art Gallery will host a selection of these in its latest exhibition, The Costume Designer: Edith and Hollywood.

With her dark, round glasses, tailored skirt suit and distinctive hairstyle, Edith Head’s signature look is now as famous as the actors and directors whom she worked for. But behind her self-imposed ‘uniform’ was a hard-working, shrewd businesswoman who will go down in history as arguably the most successful female costume designer. One documentary interviewee described Edith as not necessarily the most talented, but certainly the smartest. That being said, Edith’s designs were classic, memorable and perhaps, most importantly, created to appease everyone involved in the film-making process especially the stars she worked with during her career, which spanned more than five decades.
Edith worked on almost 1000 films, starting at Paramount Pictures and then Universal Studios. She created a rapport with the actors and actresses she dressed by designing clothes that highlighted their assets and disguised what they considered to be their flaws. It was the ability to do her job so well that made her a favourite for so many. Her costume designs, that earned her eight Academy Awards throughout her career, will soon be on display at the Bendigo Art Gallery. The collection of garments span her work from the 1930s to the 1960s, and will come from the archives of Paramount, and the Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design as well as from other private collections.

 

Edith Head in her Paramount Pictures studio 1940s © Paramount Pictures.

Here, three of the staff from Bendigo Art Gallery who have been involved in the organisation of this latest international exhibition, give some insight into their roles and the collection itself.

Collections Manager Simone Bloomfield oversees the “logistics side of things when organising and preparing for an exhibition, which includes engaging contractors and suppliers and ensuring they meet our strict deadlines”.
What have you needed to consider or work around for the exhibition to come to fruition?
Every exhibition is different, and each brings new challenges. With each new international exhibition, the layout and floorplan is different — to add interest and to accommodate the content and size of the exhibition. With this exhibition, one of the issues that revisited quite a few times was the point of entry. There was quite a lot of back and forth with the exhibition designer trying to decide the best location for entry; one that would stand out to visitors, would best cope with crowds, would not encroach on the actual exhibition layout …

Do you personally have a favourite exhibit or piece that appeals to you and why?
For me it would have to be the sketches. I studied drawing at university, so I am always very interested in sketches, journals and works on paper the most. I’m often very keen to learn about the preparatory work done before the final piece. Perhaps that is why I enjoy my role? I’m very involved in the planning before the final exhibition is revealed.
Has this exhibition presented challenges that have been new for you? If so how did you deal with those?
While I’ve been at the gallery for a long time — about 16 years — this is the first international exhibition where I have been in this role as collections manager. It was challenging at times, but very rewarding as you see it all coming to fruition. My institutional knowledge put me in good stead for making most of the decisions but lucky for me, if I were presented with something I wasn’t sure about, there is a great team of people here I can refer to.

Do you feel it’s important for the gallery to evolve and show new exhibitions and why?
Absolutely! We take pride in our ever-changing and progressive exhibition schedule. This constant reinvigorating of the space creates interest for our visitors.
Part of our mission statement is to ‘collect, preserve and display works of art and to elucidate their history and background for the pleasure and education of the public’. I feel that we do this very well, bringing many Australian exclusive exhibitions for both our local and broader community to enjoy.

 

Preparing a Shirley Temple dress from ‘Little Miss Marker’ for the exhibition. From the collection of Nicholas Inglis.

Curatorial manager Tansy Curtin is at the helm of the exhibition, taking care of its development including researching costumes, contacting owners and negotiating loans.
“For a designer such as Edith Head who was so prolific, it has meant that I have had to be quite selective with items for inclusion in the exhibition,” Tansy explains. “While I have significant experience in exhibitions relating to fashion and Hollywood having curated our Marilyn Monroe exhibition and project managed the delivery of Grace Kelly: Style Icon amongst others, I am by no means an expert in the history of Hollywood costume. So each time I begin working on a new exhibition I start by undertaking a lot of research, which luckily for me is something I love to do.

How do you feel about the pieces in the collection?
Often when I work on an exhibition for an extended period, I tend to develop a connection to the subject and objects. One of the aspects of my job that I love the most is I have the opportunity to see items as few people do — as I place garments on mannequins I can examine the sewing techniques and get a real sense of the fabric. Or if working on a painting exhibition, I get to see the backs of paintings — there is a real intimacy in seeing these significant objects up close and having the opportunity to touch them (with gloves of course!) is a wonderful experience.

Do you feel it’s important for the gallery to evolve and show new exhibitions and why?
Galleries and museums must change and develop exhibitions, programs as well as adapting to and engaging with new and diverse audiences. Bendigo Art Gallery’s exhibition program is very diverse and includes exhibitions across many genres — fashion and textiles, painting, photography, drawing and much more. Finding the right balance is one of the challenges of course, we work on our exhibition program anywhere from three to five years ahead for our larger international exhibitions, with a little more flexibility for smaller shows. So, as you can imagine it’s important to have a holistic approach to programming. Yet, sometimes opportunities arise which have to be taken, so we also pride ourselves on being quite nimble and flexible in our programming.  Moreover, galleries and museums are not simply a place for passive viewing of exhibitions or works of art, many visitors want a more social experience and so the programming and events for exhibitions are developed concurrently to add value to the exhibition experience.

You’ve been with the gallery for some time now, what do you personally get out of working on exhibitions such as these?
Exhibitions such as this allow me to indulge in my love of research and development. I very much enjoy developing an exhibition from a little kernel of an idea — undertaking research, catalogue writing, loan negotiation (sometimes travel!) — to finally installing and delivering an exhibition that people engage with and enjoy. Working in a public gallery such as Bendigo is very fulfilling since it is possible to see what a positive impact the gallery can have on individuals, the wider Bendigo community and the whole of Victoria. I get to indulge my thirst for knowledge and then share it with our community, often through beautiful and interesting objects — a great job if you ask me!

Curator Clare Needham has worked closely with Tansy on the development of this exhibition.

What has your role been in this exhibition?
A large part of my role has been sourcing and selecting still and moving image content for display within the exhibition. I was also lucky enough to work with Tansy on the Marilyn Monroe exhibition in the same way. I have really enjoyed having the chance again to dig deep into a range of archives to draw out some fascinating content that not only enhances the audiences’ experience of the static costumes on display, but their understanding of Edith Head and her fascinating career.
These visual elements provide a context for the costumes on display showing how they appeared on screen and how they transformed the characters who wore them. Edith Head had an astute skill for disguising apparent physical flaws and accentuating the assets of those she dressed. Having the opportunity to see the costumes she designed, not only in real life, but also on screen or in a photograph, gives audiences further layers of insight into her virtuosity.
Some of the moving image content sourced for the exhibition includes archival footage of Head on screen. In the height of her career, Head forged a popular and approachable personal brand. Through television appearances, in advice columns and a best-selling book titled The Dress Doctor, she offered fashion advice to everyday women, making accessible the glamourous world of Hollywood. Footage like this allows the voice of Edith Head to permeate the exhibition and really bring it to life.
From your perspective what have been things you’ve had to consider or work around for the exhibition to come to fruition?
Every exhibition has its own set of parameters and things to consider. In the context of the work I have been doing, sourcing still and moving image content, there have been several key things to consider including distance from the archives (they are all based in the United States), licensing copyrighted content and technological change. All of the still and moving image we are working with was produced in the middle of the twentieth century, so in many cases has not yet been digitised for play back or display in a twenty-first century context.  In the development of the exhibition, we have had to work very closely with those who manage the archives to ensure this fascinating content will work within the exhibition. This has been a really rewarding part of the process.

Do you personally have a favourite exhibit or piece that appeals to you and why?
Edith Head designed for such a diverse range of films so it is hard to choose a favourite item. While she wasn’t known for the flamboyance of other costume designers of her time, I respect the way she designed costumes not only with aesthetics in mind, but the potential for the costume to transform or define the character who wore it on screen. She really engaged with the psychology of the character and considered how the costuming would enhance the viewer’s experience of the storyline of the film. This really comes to the fore when you see the costumes being worn on screen. It is little wonder that throughout her career Edith Head was nominated for 27 and won 8 Academy Awards — the most ever won by a woman.

What is your favourite aspect about working at the gallery? What do you get out of your role, especially with regards to exhibitions on this scale, both professionally and personally?
I enjoy working hard as a team to bring an exhibition idea to fruition. Like Tansy I am interested in the research and development part of an exhibition, expanding my knowledge and being able to share these insights with audiences. I am always interested in the reaction to the exhibitions we produce; whether they are completely immersed, confronted or challenged, illuminated or inspired, as long as they engage on some level I am pleased.
Exhibitions, such as The Costume Designer allow the gallery to develop extended networks with collections and collectors across the world and provide professional development experiences. I really enjoy building collegiate relationships with others working in similar contexts across the world and having intimate access to amazing collections I ordinarily would have to get on a plane to visit.

For more information visits www.bendigoartgallery.com.au