The golden age of Hollywood movies was chock-full of glamour. Few movies at that time were truly realistic; they were all more dramatic, more glossy, more violent, more more more than real life. Coco Chanel was fired from her brief stint as a costume designer after a single movie–the New Yorker quipped that the producers “told [Chanel] her dresses weren’t sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies!” This is the era when women woke up in hospital beds wearing lipstick, when factory workers wore designer dresses, and when everybody wore false eyelashes and heels for their dirtiest work (remember Joan Crawford renovating her restaurant in Mildred Pierce?).
In 1924, Edith Head started working in the costume department of Paramount Pictures. She weaseled her way in by submitting a friend’s drawings as her own–she’d never been to art school and didn’t have any experience sewing. She quickly made her way to the top, and by the 1930’s, she was head of the department. She cared about character above all else, and while designers like Adrian and Orry-Kelly were known for their drama and glamour, Edith was criticized as being “queen of the shirtwaisters” for dressing her characters in boring clothing. Looking back, it’s plain to see that the clothes she designed were not boring at all. They were classic. In fact, she avoided fashions and fads, saying, “It is only by accident, if a script calls for fashion, that some beautiful ‘clothes’ will emerge.” She herself wore the same round glasses and neutral colored suits until her death in 1981.
Edith may have had classic taste, but she knew how to make her stars look their loveliest when the script called for it. In 1951’s A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift plays a poor young man struggling to make his way in the world. He gets a job at his wealthy uncle’s bathing suit factory and quickly starts going out with a cute girl on the assembly line, played by Shelley Winters. Then he meets Elizabeth Taylor at his uncle’s house, and he’s done for. Elizabeth Taylor positively glows. Monty cannot dump poor Shelley Winters fast enough. Edith Head’s costumes make perfectly clear who the glamorous girl is, and who is going to sink out of sight. Let’s start with Shelley’s date night attire:
Ah, poor, poor Shelley Winters. This movie has been blamed for typecasting her as a frumpy kook, whereas before this movie she was more of bombshell. The bombshell is nowhere to be seen here. For her big first date with Monty, she’s wearing a peasant blouse and a skirt. Both items are tasteful enough, and if done right, could actually look pretty good. The mistake here is that both the top and the skirt are blousy. If one or the other were more fitted, her lovely figure could shine through. Even standing up and with the blouse more neatly tucked, she looks sloppy.
Elizabeth Taylor wears this outfit for a ride in her convertible, though this picture was taken behind the scenes. The skirt is roughly the same shape as Shelley’s, but fits infinitely better. Another costume designer, Irene Sharaff, described Elizabeth Taylor’s figure as “most difficult to work with. She was 5 feet 2, and had a high waist, large bosom, short arms, no behind, but wide hips.” No wonder Edith Head was Elizabeth’s favorite costume designer, if others were saying things like that. “Short arms,” bah!
Elizabeth Taylor wears this plaid-and-jeans outfit to go horseback riding. Monty wears jodhpurs and a t-shirt for the horseback riding scene, but apparently looked too ridiculous in that getup to put him next to Elizabeth in it for these publicity stills, I suppose. His upper arms were incredibly hairy. Anyway, what makes Elizabeth look glamorous, even in plaid and jeans, is again the incredible fit of her clothing. Edith chose dark jeans rather than faded, and they fit Elizabeth to a T. The shirt isn’t tight, but doesn’t tent out from her “large bosom” either, so she manages to look put together and fresh rather than dowdy. Moreover, even though she is riding a horse through the woods, she’s wearing lipstick and mascara, and her hair is loose and casual, but “done” nonetheless. Next time I go to the gym, I will be sure to wear tinted lip balm. Simple enough, but it makes a big difference.
Early on in the movie, Monty goes to a party at his uncle’s house. Shelley Winters waits at home with melting ice cream for him to come celebrate his birthday with her. When he finally shows up, she asks him what took him so long and why does he like this Elizabeth Taylor so much anyway. He mumbles something about Elizabeth dressing well, and Shelley snaps “Why shouldn’t she, with all that money?”
Here’s where Edith is very clever indeed. Shelley is right, of course, that it is easier to look good when you have money, but she has committed the cardinal sin of dressing frugally. Her dress has too much frippery. It has lace, ruffles, a stand-up collar, cap sleeves, decorative buttons, and, worst of all, it fits terribly and is cinched with a too-long belt. This is the very display of cheap extras that fashion magazines have been warning us about. They’re always telling us to save on basics in dark fabrics, and spend more on things with detail, because poor quality in details is much easier to spot.
What kept Monty from getting to the ice cream before it melted?
Gaaaaah! Elizabeth Taylor, stop being so gorgeous! Poor Shelley doesn’t stand a chance. This dress is the opposite of Shelley’s party dress. It is a simple shape and it has one detail that sets it apart–the daisies–rather than dozens of details. Edith has dressed Elizabeth to look like a beautiful young girl, not a sophisticated woman, and the dress is accessorized with simple earrings and nothing else. Elizabeth doesn’t appear to be wearing more makeup than she does for the rest of the movie, even though this is a big-deal party. And even though Edith never set out to start a fashion trend, this dress was replicated by prom-goers and debutantes for the next decade. One studio exec said he counted 19 of them at one of his daughter’s parties!
I’ve only just scratched the surface of Edith’s genius, and I barely mentioned the actual plot of A Place in the Sun. The movie is a great introduction to both Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Their on-set meeting was the beginning of a beautiful friendship in real life. Monty was incredibly talented, and Elizabeth credited working with him on this movie for teaching her how to act for the first time, after she had been making movies for nearly a decade already. You can watch A Place in the Sun for free on Amazon Instant Watch if you have Amazon Prime. Otherwise it’s a few bucks to rent it for 48 hours–well worth it.
Written by guest contributor: Mary D. Freiman.