Exhibit of Edith Head’s fashion a big hit

Charles Horak with ‘Edith Head,’ as portrayed by Susan Claassen

This summer’s big buzz is the glamorous new fashion exhibit at the El Paso Museum of Art.

Women who haven’t been to the museum in ages are thoroughly enjoying “Designing Woman: Edith Head at Paramount,” the largest-ever showing of work by the most award-winning costume designer Hollywood has ever known.

As you know from last week’s column on what local women wore to the exhibit opening, the show features 40 outfits worn by movie stars in films dating back to the 1920s.

This unprecedented exhibit is certainly in keeping with the current trend of fashion exhibits in museums around the world, and is a real coup for El Paso.

This exhibit is so fabulous that visitors from other cities would like to see the landmark show in their own locales. One of our customers visiting from Lubbock is going to bring back some folks to see the exhibit and work on getting it installed there.

This El Paso show of Edith Head’s work may signal the beginning of a change of tune for the studio industry. It’s interesting that El Paso’s exhibit is nudging Paramount and other studios to value their precious costume collections and the work of costume designers.

As people walk through the free exhibit of sparkling and pristine outfits, it’s hard to imagine what these garments looked like just last winter.

As we learned from Betsey Potter, the costume designer and conservator who repaired and cleaned all the items for the exhibit, movie studios used to be very frugal.

No matter how valuable a garment might be or how famous the actress who wore it, studios would lend out and rent out costumes again and again for whatever show or event happened along.

Naturally, over the decades, many garments were severely damaged. Many were filthy and torn, and some of the delicate fabrics were shredded and deteriorating.

Thousands of carefully constructed costumes were crammed on hangers in a nearly forgotten warehouse, without heat, air conditioning or humidity control.

When Charles Horak, “Designing Woman” curator and director of the Plaza Classic Film Festival, was going through Paramount’s racks, the garments were so packed that he could only see an edge of a dress at a time.

After his selection, based on which movies that would be shown in this year’s festival and which pieces best represented the four decades Edith Head worked at Paramount, the restoration work began.

Six months of work

To do the restoration, Paramount hired Potter, a member of the board of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and an Emmy-nominated costume designer for more than a dozen TV series.

While Potter was here for the exhibit opening, she described how she worked in a tiny cubicle only big enough for one garment. For six months, she worked to clean and repair the 40 outfits, sometimes teaching herself the art of costume restoration through countless experiments.

Because some garments were terribly damaged, she tried some risky processes, knowing that failure was a possibility. However, she thought, the garments were already pretty much ruined, so why not take a chance?

My favorite story was how she tried washing a stained and yellowed white wool gown in her bathtub. She tried soaps, stain removers and other solutions, but simple shampoo and conditioner did the trick.

“After all, hair is a natural fiber, and so is wool, so let’s try it,” she recalled saying. I loved her dedication and passion!

Edith the El Pasoan

Did you know that Edith Head is believed to have once lived in El Paso? She was born in 1897 in California, but her stepfather was a mining engineer and apparently the family spent a year in El Paso, probably 1900 to 1901.

Interestingly, although her parents were Jewish, the stepfather was Catholic and young Edith Posener apparently converted to Catholicism, partly under pressure to assimilate.

She married Charles Head, the brother of an art school classmate, in 1923, the year before she began working at Paramount.

I hope you get a chance to see this exhibit before it closes Sept. 11. It’s a real bonus for our museum to be the first to show these fashion masterpieces, none of which have been outside Hollywood before.

Whether you are drawn to the idea that someone famous wore these costumes or you are interested in film, you can’t help but appreciate how showing these items at the art museum transforms them.

As Charles Horak said, “The exhibit’s not about kitsch or nostalgia – it’s about the art of movies and the art of the garments.”


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