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01 April 2016

When Mae Met Edith

Edith Head was one of the great costume designers of Hollywood's g
Mae West in a test shot for her costume
olden era. Raised in a Midwestern mining town, she went on to college in an era when few girls did so, and worked as a teacher of French in a girl's school. She was also interested in art, and eventually got a job as a sketch artist in Paramount Pictures' costume department.  Her career as a designer began in silent films as an assistant to the also great Travis Banton, and she became a good friend and designer for such stars as Clara Bow.

Head was a small, slight woman, barely five feet tall, with straight black hair that she wore in a short
A rare look at Head without glasses
fringe, and very thick, heavy glasses, because paradoxically she had very poor eyesight. She herself was not in any way glamor-girl material. In her younger years, however, her imagination doted on elaborate gowns, and in a book she published in 1959, The Dress Doctor, she ruefully recalls some of the wildly unrealistic and inappropriate costumes she created for stars like the exotic Lupe Velez. But with more experience her fashion philosophy began to jell; clothes could be stylish and becoming, and still be suitable for the character's circumstances, and even move the story forward. This would become the basis for her future work for Alfred Hitchcock, who had very specific ideas of what his characters would wear, and who hated furbelows. Happily, however, her love of gorgeous gowns could still be satisfied -- because in 1933 she began an artistic collaboration with Mae West that would be rewarding for both of them.

Mae in She Done Him Wrong
Mae had arrived in Hollywood to film a sort of try-out role in a George Raft vehicle about the romantic difficulties of a nightclub owner, Night After Night. She was not happy with the script, and re-wrote her own scenes (which were terrific). For what was supposed to be a bit part, she received $5,000 a week and went on to steal everything that wasn't nailed down in the movie, which included the first of her famous quips -- when the hatcheck girl at the club exclaims, as Mae slips off her fabulous white fox wrap to reveal a low cut white satin gown, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" Mae replies serenely, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie," and proceeds to sashay up the stairs followed by the camera's appreciative eye. 
This was such a success that Paramount decided to film her famous
Head as she was usually seen
play, Diamond Lil. The censors refused to allow this steamy tale to be produced as it appeared on Broadway, and in fact banned the title altogether. So it was slightly bowdlerized and re-titled She done Him Wrong. Her character was renamed "Lady Lou," a move which was clearly not intended to fool anybody but the simple minds at work in the censor's office.

With Gilbert Roland in She Done Him Wrong
The fate of the nearly bankrupt Paramount Pictures was in Mae West's hands; studio executives decided to risk everything on one throw of the dice, and spent a whopping (for the time) $200,000 on this single production. The story was set in the mid 1890's. The director was Lowell Sherman, an actor and director of wit and style; the costumes were by Travis Banton's studio. And the chief assistant who was sent to meet with Mae West and discuss design ideas was Edith Head.
Although superficially they could hardly appear more different,
A signature gown for both Head and West
apparently the two got along like a house afire from their first meeting, where Mae's exact measurements were recorded (38-24-38) for the gowns that were to be custom made from first to last stitch. Mae knew exactly what she wanted -- and what she didn't want. She would not wear bright green, for example, and felt that pearls were bad luck. Despite the fashions of the day, she preferred long skirts, tight waists, and bodices cut as low as they could get away with. She was willing to put up with what must have been considerable discomfort; for one thing, she wore amazing
Mae's elevator shoes
shoes that went beyond platform soles to be a kind of stilts, since she was actually a tiny woman. And her gowns, which she had to be stitched into without any underwear -- the structure was built into the silk-lined dresses -- were so tight that the she could
Jean Harlow using a slant board
only rest between takes on a padded slant board. 

Mae also taught Edith a lot about sex, at least in clothing terms. In one-on-one scenes with male actors, for example, she preferred tactile fabrics like satin and velvet. "A man likes a fabric he can feel," she said. But, showing an instinctive grasp of the visual nature of film, she also cast an analytical eye over the script to make sure she never faded into the background. Her lovely black
The diamond birds catch the eye
sequined gown wasn't quite showy enough for a dialog scene. "I don't have a lot to say in this scene," she told Edith, "so let's make sure they they have something to look at." Edith's solution was to add a flight of diamond birds moving diagonally across the bodice from hip to shoulder, which make this costume striking and memorable. 
As is well-known, She Done Him Wrong was a smashing success, bringing in more than $2 million, or ten times its production cost. Paramount was happy to pay Mae West $100,000 for the script alone of her next film, I'm No Angel. 
Overall, I'm No Angel is probably her best film; it is a rollicking, sexy, joyous comedy about an exotic dancer in a carnival who rises, through wit, courage, and sex appeal, to the top both professionally and socially. That she does this by putting her head in a lion's mouth
Tira proved that you don't need feet to be a dancer

-- literally  -- is only one of Mae's delightfully original ideas. She also rides an elephant, wins a Breach of Promise suit, and does song-and-dance of sheer joy with not one, not two, but four maids, including Libby Taylor, her real maid, Gertrude Howard, and future Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel.
In it, Mae wears some gorgeous Edith Head designs, including the black-and-silver sequined gown with a giant chevron design that even Mae designates a "flash," and a famous negligee with a skin tight (naturally!) black satin slip and sheer black chiffon robe with a
Mae and her girls sing for joy
glittering sequined spiderweb on it, complete with diamond spider on the shoulder. Head witnessed the exciting moment when Mae first appeared on the set wearing that costume -- having
With Cary Grant in I'm No Angel
removed the spider to a more titillating spot. She recounted in The Dress Doctor that it took half an hour for the hooting and hollering from the crew to settle down! Eventually the spider migrated to the hip, as in this scene with Cary Grant.


The collaboration between these two creative women lasted on and off for decades; when censorship pretty much forced Mae out of the movies, she returned to live performances in plays and nightclub acts. Head of course became one of the best known Hollywood designers, and, despite her unphotogenic looks, was often seen on television in the fifties
One of Mae's Schiaparelli gowns
and sixties. Mae inspired other designers; her spectacular wardrobe for Every Day's a Holiday, set at the turn of the 19th-20th century, was by Elsa Schiaparelli. 

Both of them were immensely influential women, each one blazing a trail in her own way. Without speechmaking, both Mae and Edith Head insisted on doing things her own way, and being treated with respect while she was doing it, relying on herself to succeed in a man's world.