Reviewing Edith Head’s ‘The Dress Doctor’

edith head mannequins

Photo of Edith Head and mannequins (shared via Flickr CC license, click image for source + CC license info)

The subtitle for this post:  How do I love thee, Edith Head? Let me count the ways.

I recently came across a mention of Edith Head’s 1959 book, The Dress Doctor, and I was intrigued. Edith Head (1897-1981) was a legendary Hollywood costume designer, earning 8 Oscars along the way for Best Costume Design, spanning from The Heiress in 1949 to The Sting in 1973. Her personal look — dark bangs, dark glasses, dark suit — is as iconic as she herself was, and she was the inspiration for the “Edna Mode” character from The Incredibles. (“No capes!“)

(In fact, more than one person has suggested I dress up as Edna Mode for next Halloween! 😀 )

So I tracked down a first edition of The Dress Doctor through our regional library borrowing system:

Librarian for Life + Style | The Dress Doctor collage

I noted on the book’s copyright page that parts of it were previously published in an article, “I Dress the World’s Most Glamorous Women,” from the March 1959 issue of Good Housekeeping. Being a librarian, OF COURSE I then tracked down the full citation for that article and then requested a copy of the article via our library’s InterLibrary Loan (ILL) service. A couple of days later, I received a scanned color copy of the original article via email. Gotta love libraries and librarians!

Here’s a peek at the article from Good Housekeeping, written by Edith Head and Jane Kesner Ardmore. (Ardmore is also listed as a co-author of The Dress Doctor.)

Librarian for Life + Style | Edith Head article collage

After having read the book, I now know that this article is a collection of snippets from the book about famous actresses Edith Head worked with, including Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, and more.

The article ends with this great quote:

Clothes not only change the way you look; they can change the way you feel. Any actress uses clothes to convey the kind of person she wants you to believe in. Any woman can do the same.

The book expands on the interesting behind-the-scenes look at glamorous actresses and their real-life personalities, but it’s much more than that. A few early chapters delve into the personal childhood and early career of Edith Head — she grew up in a desert mining town (!) and taught French in a girls’ school (!).

The first half builds up to Edith Head’s overall mission to help the average American woman dress herself and feel more confident doing so:

  • The correct clothes are much needed therapy I’ve come to realize from the hundreds of letters that pour onto my desk weekly, from women across America who are deeply dissatisfied with themselves. They need help and hope, and both are available.
  • Clothes counter-balance personality, play it up or play it down. Each woman’s task is to be a do-it-yourself dress doctor, and the person she must know is herself.
  • I’m a realist now, and I know that time is a frantic thing for the homemaker without help, and for the working wife, and for the career girl… The more urgent the time, the more important to make that shopping time count.
  • The economic problem is a pressing one, not because clothes aren’t available, but because a great many women who have homes to care for, a number of children and a limited budget don’t have the time to spend on self-grooming.
  • If you are not appropriately dressed, you lose the essential importance of grooming — you lose the feeling of being comfortable and feeling assured. And for every moment of a woman’s life, within her home, with her family, in business if she’s a professional person, feeling comfortable and assured are exactly what she needs to feel.

The second half of the book then focuses on just that, with chapters on “What Clothes Can Do For You” and “What You Can Do For Clothes,” filled with practical advice for how to discover or hone your own personal style.

Librarian for Life + Style | The Dress Doctor chapters

Here are some of my favorite tips from this part of the book:

  • Every woman has weapons. One of them is color:  color not only can change the way a woman looks, it can change the way she feels, the way she thinks.
  • Height and measurements — not weight — determine your clothes figure.
  • Don’t worry about your age.
  • You can buy wonderful clothes inexpensively.
  • I don’t believe in a hundred rules. They dull a woman’s native creativity. Half the fun of being a woman is to experiment with the way you look.
  • Everyone has a day’s work, a career, in home, office or wherever, and why not express your individuality? See how you can best dress for the day’s work to give yourself assurance. Life is competitive; clothes gird us for the competition.

The final chapter is essentially a detailed listing of appropriate clothing and accessories for just about any outing. It almost reads like a time capsule, with sections for “luncheon” and “trousseau” and “resort” — and the wedding section is over 3 pages with multiple wedding scenarios and categories!

Librarian for Life + Style | The Dress Doctor section on weddings

The book’s title, The Dress Doctor, is a metaphor and motif Edith Head uses throughout the book to weave her personal story along with her job as legendary Hollywood costume designer and onto her later style gigs on the Art Linkletter radio and television shows to help real women dress better. Edith Head was a self-described (or self-prescribed? 😉 ) “dress doctor,” helping evaluate women’s personal issues with their bodies — or self-perceptions of body issues — and how to dress in clothing that helps each woman feel confident, whether it was to play a part in a film or to carry out one’s tasks in real life.

Below are additional quotes from the book that demonstrate how much I love Edith Head and how practical she was about how clothing can affect one’s life. A lot of her advice, although written in 1959, reveals how timeless her outlook on clothing is, and especially how spot-on she is about American style.

  • And so far as clothes go — today’s American clothes have a young look, they’re adaptable to fifteen or fifty-five. … Obviously young clothes make an older person look older. The point is not how old or how young clothes are, but how well they suit you.
  • Don’t be afraid to wear a becoming costume many, many times. It’s an old-fashioned idea that you must have a new dress for every occasion or party. Even if you have the money to do so, it isn’t necessary. The modern approach is to change accessories.
  • Don’t buy clothes that do not belong in your life:  suit your shopping to your activities.
  • Better than “elegant” to me is APPROPRIATE. the message I’m trying to convey on the air is: Look right for the time and place. The cardinal sin is not being badly dressed, but wearing the right thing in the wrong place.
  • It isn’t those who spend the most money who are the most smartly dressed. It’s those who spend the most time and thought. If, when you go out, you know that your costume is smart and that you’re neatly and securely put together, if you do not feel it necessary to hike your girdle, adjust your straps, pull your stocking seams straight; you have physical and mental poise. You can wear your clothes with grace and pride — with assurance.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dress Doctor, and I delighted over Edith Head’s practical (and timeless) advice and body-positive perspective.

I will end with what is arguably Edith Head’s most famous quote:

Librarian for Life + Style | The Dress Doctor quote

The book was adapted and reprinted as The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style, from A to Z, back in 2008, and is also available in paperback. I enjoyed the book so much that I think I need a copy of my own to keep!

What’s your favorite Edith Heath quote? Please share! 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Reviewing Edith Head’s ‘The Dress Doctor’

  1. Salazar

    That sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve been interested in Edith Head ever since I found out she was the model for Edna in “The Incredibles”, so now I might have to check this out!

    Reply
  2. momofdox

    What a fascinating person is Edith Head! I must admit, I’d not heard of her before reading your post, but now I want to go find her book and read it for myself. How very inspiring!

    Reply
    1. Jen @ Librarian for Life and Style Post author

      Yes, she was a fascinating person, by all accounts (even her own!). There is some controversy about her, of course, especially about her Oscar win for Sabrina — she was given sole credit for the costumes, although Givenchy designed the more memorable outfits (which Audrey Hepburn personally chose). Edith Head addresses that a little in ‘The Dress Doctor’, and also freely admits that she totally “borrowed” other art classmates’ work when she interviewed for her first job at the movie studio’s costume department! But there is no doubt she was highly talented, and her understanding of the working woman’s needs and related clothing anxieties shines through ‘The Dress Doctor.’ I want to print out several of her quotes and hang them up, since they are so inspiring! 😀

      Reply

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