Clothes Make the Character: Costume Collaborations of Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock

Clothes Make the Character: Costume Collaborations of Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock

“I knew I was not a creative design genius. I was never going to be the world’s greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I couldn’t be the smartest.” —Edith Head

In 1946, Alfred Hitchcock arranged for Paramount to loan Edith Head to RKO to dress Ingrid Bergman in his spy thriller Notorious. This was Edith’s first time working with the English director, and she found in him a like-minded collaborator who was as exacting and blunt as she was. While her fellow costume designers often made clothes to display their style, Edith had learned over her past twenty years at Paramount that the objective was to create clothes to suit the character and advance the storyline, an approach that suited Hitchcock’s philosophy. Hitchcock was famous for using clothes in his films to express the psychology of his characters. In his scripts, he was explicit about color, style, and accessories. Once the parameters were decided, Edith was given creative freedom and a big budget to make beautiful garments.

The Great British Teddy Girls: Ken Russell’s Forgotten Photographs

The Great British Teddy Girls: Ken Russell’s Forgotten Photographs

When the Second World War ended in 1945 after six years of conflict, it quickly became evident that Britain had paid a high price for victory. The nation’s wealth was severely depleted. The German blitz had destroyed large swaths of English countryside and many cities were reduced to ash and rubble, resulting in a dire housing shortage and a reduction in the number of functioning factories and stores. Postwar London resembled the city of Charles Dickens’s novels, with overcrowding, rubbish-filled alleys, poor sanitation, and only intermittent running water and electricity. Social services struggled to serve the physically and mentally scarred people who grappled with loneliness, illness, and bereavement. It was also clear that the responsibilities of a large empire were handicapping the home economy. During the Age of Austerity, as it came to be known, meat and petrol were in short supply and sold at high prices, while basic household necessities such as milk, butter, and sugar, as well as clothing and shoes, were rationed. After almost ten years of impoverishment, austerity finally began to recede. Unemployment and the working and middle classes were able to participate in consumer culture for the first time in decades

Hans Christian Andersen: Cutting Out Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen: Cutting Out Fairy Tales
In Andersen’s paper-cuts you see
His poetry!
A medley of diverting treasures
All done with scissors.
—Hans Christen Andersen, from a scrapbook made for a friend’s great-granddaughter
Hans Christen Andersen met Charles Dickens in 1847, when the two authors were at the height of their fame. Despite a language barrier, they discovered that they had a lot in common and forged an immediate friendship. Both had had childhoods of hardship and struggle but had transcended their origins by becoming internationally renowned authors. When Dickens invited Andersen to visit his family’s country home in Kent in 1856, the Danish author made the arduous journey to see his old friend. The timing of Dickens’s invitation couldn’t have been worse. He was exhausted from writing Little Dorrit, his marriage was ending, a close friend had just died, and he was rehearsing a play in London. Used to being fussed over, Andersen was a demanding houseguest, expecting his clothes to be laundered, his face shaved, and his meals produced punctually. Despite the strain of the visit, the children—“We have all sizes,” Dickens had written—were enchanted by the gawky, funny-looking Dane. Andersen returned their affection with evening entertainment around the family dinner table. Henry Dickens, who was eight years old at the time, recalled that Andersen communicated with his siblings through paper cutouts. With a large pair of ordinary scissors, he made “lovely little figures of sprites and elves, gnomes, fairies, and animals of all kinds, which might have stepped out of the pages of his books. These figures turned out to be quite delightful in their refinement and delicacy in design and touch.”

Just Nina Mae: The Struggle of an Early African American Movie Star

Just Nina Mae: The Struggle of an Early African American Movie Star

During Hollywood’s early years, tantalizing stories of discovery flourished, luring young hopefuls to the fledgling industry out west. According to movie lore, The Hollywood Reporterfounder Billy Wilkerson came across sixteen-year-old Lana Turner drinking a Coke at a soda fountain. Photographer David Conover spotted Marilyn Monroe while she was working on an airplane assembly line. And John Wayne was a prop man on John Ford’s movie set when the director made him an extra in his film. Fame and fortune for these actors soon followed.

Nina Mae McKinney’s story of discovery was no less fantastic. She left high school at sixteen to join the chorus of impresario Lew Leslie’s all-Black Broadway musical revue, Blackbirds of 1928. Hollywood directors and producers regularly raided Broadway productions for fresh, inexpensive talent to fill their stables at their California studios. After failing to sign jazz singer Ethel Waters, one of MGM’s top directors, King Vidor, was on the lookout for an extraordinary Black actress to play the title role of Chick, a singer and dancer in Hallelujah. The movie was a serious look into the lives of African Americans in the South. When he saw Blackbirds, McKinney stood out. He later recalled, “She was third from the right in the chorus. She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.” When they met after the show, he offered her the lead, skipping the usual preliminary screen tests, acting classes, and makeovers. There is no evidence that McKinney was seeking a movie career; she had fallen in love with theater as a young girl growing up in South Carolina and trained herself as a singer and dancer, borrowing songs and choreography from the movies she saw at the local theater. In many ways, films were still inferior to Broadway, which in 1925 staged over two hundred productions; nevertheless, she accepted Vidor’s offer.

Coles Phillips in the Golden Era of Magazines

In 1907, when Coles Phillips sold his small New York City advertising agency, he had enough money to set himself up for one month as a magazine illustrator. He convinced a landlord to rent him an artist’s studio, promising payment as soon as money from his commissions came through. In truth, Phillips had not yet sold a single drawing, but he worked well under pressure. He studied the market and decided that Life, one of the top general-interest magazines in the country, suited his style and sensibility. For days, he sketched ideas for cartoons, but nothing seemed fresh or inspired. Frustrated, he took his sketch pad to a neighborhood tavern. Across the room, two women—one young and pretty, the other older and handsome—sat at opposite ends of a long wooden table and toasted each other over a shared carafe of wine. It was a simple yet compelling moment that inspired him to draw it.

The Glass Artists: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls

A lamp may be as much an object of art as a painting or a piece of statuary. In fact, it should be.

—Tiffany Studios, a company advertisement

In 1903 a strike was brewing at the Tiffany Studios in New York. The men of the Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters Union were demanding that Louis Comfort Tiffany fire Clara Driscoll and thirty-five women who worked for her in the glass-cutting department. The men complained that Clara’s thirty-five-dollar-a-week salary was a personal affront and that the young women were taking jobs from men who needed to support their families. They got the dirty work. They assembled the lampshades and soldered the cut pieces of glass, while Clara’s department designed the shades, selected the glass, and cut the individual segments.

Curio Cabinet

The Many Lives of Anna May Wong

“Life is too serious to take seriously”
—Anna May Wong
While walking to school on the outskirts of LA’s Chinatown, Anna May Wong parted ways with her older sister, Lulu, and used her lunch money to go to the Nickelodeon Theater House to see the latest chapter in the serial film The Perils of Pauline. She memorized Pearl White’s melodramatic emotions—joy, surprise, bashfulness, frustration, and anger. When she returned home, she slipped into the house, avoiding her parents and siblings, and shut herself in her bedroom above the family laundry. In front of the mirror, Anna May recreated White’s scenes while daydreaming of stardom. In her recurring fantasy, she appeared at the top of a winding staircase dressed in a trailing white gown and blazing with diamonds. At the bottom step her director proclaimed, “You are a film star, Anna May Wong.” While she was bathing in the adulation of her imagined fans, her mother walked in on her and scolded, “You are needed in the laundry.” Anna May resumed her more pressing role as dutiful daughter.

Stage Pictures: Jo Mielziner and the Art of Set Design

“Literalism has no place in theater.”

—Jo Mielziner

 

NOTES FOR THE DESIGNER

The set is the bed-sitting-room of a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. It is along an upstairs gallery which probably runs around the entire house: it has two pairs of very wide doors opening onto the gallery, showing white balustrades against a fair summer sky that fades into dusk and night during the course of the play which occupies precisely the time of its performance excepting, of course, the fifteen minutes of intermission.

Charles Dickens’s Reading Copies

Literary success came to Charles Dickens with the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836-37. Following Pickwick, he brought out in quick succession Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-53), as well as A Christmas Carol (1843), four other Christmas books, three additional novels, two books of travel writing, and a history of England from the Roman conquest in 1688 intended for children. By the early 1850s, he was a world-renowned celebrity.

Silence to Sound: the Resilience of Marion Davies

—I thought I didn’t want to go back. I thought I’d like to jump off the boat and wished the earth would open up, because I said “I cannot do sound pictures.”

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