Bob Mackie is a three-time Oscar-nominated costume designer who has worked on everything from The Carol Burnett Show to Lady Sings the Blues to The Cher Show. Early in his career, though, he was a sketch artist for the legendary costume designer Edith Head, who was born on October 28, 1897, and died in 1981. Bob spoke to us about his days with Edith, and her legacy, from his home in Palm Springs, where he’s been spending time since the start of the pandemic, working on his forthcoming book, The Art of Bob Mackie.
I was born in 1939, so I didn’t really know about movies much until the ’40s. I was only 3 or 4 when I’d go [to the theater] with my mother and my teenage sister, and usually a little kid at that age falls asleep. Well, they found out that I didn’t fall asleep, and then I would ask all these questions afterwards. “Why did they wear this? Why did she have that? Why were her dresses so long?”
All those years, going to the movies was my favorite thing to do. They always took me when it was a musical or a comedy; I loved those fabulous, glamorous Technicolor movies. I trained myself over the years, and by the time I got to high school, I was designing productions.
Working at Paramount
The first time I went to Paramount to work, I was only 22 years old, and it was fun to just observe the way things worked. I had just gotten out of school and a designer from New York called Frank Thompson, who is no longer with us, saw my portfolio—first time anybody had seen it—and they just hired me without even meeting me. They were renting an office in Edith Head’s little suite of offices for a movie that was going to be made in Europe with Charles Boyer and Glenn Ford and Hope Lange. If I hadn’t been hired there, I would have been in some backroom somewhere and Edith Head never would have even known me.
Edith kept coming in and checking my sketches out. She didn’t make me nervous or anything. I was glad to meet her. Before I knew it, after two or three weeks of finishing off this little movie, I got called to come in and work with her. That’s when I did two or three years between Jean Louis (doing Marilyn Monroe’s sketches) and Edith Head. When one was done with me, I was the extra boy. I liked working with her because she gave me a chance to do what I do. Then you got to watch and see if everybody liked it or not. It wasn’t my fault if it didn’t work—I was the extra boy.
The thing that I loved about working for Edith was that she didn’t draw you a little sketch and say, “Here, this is what I want you to draw.” She just said, “Did you read the script?” I said, “Yeah.” “What do you think?” And we would talk for 10 minutes and she’d say, “I’m going to lunch, I’ll be back later. Draw some things up.” I was pretty fast, so it became my favorite place to work, really.
I was in costume designer heaven. There was Western Costume next door, and Paramount was there with these huge workrooms, and all the designers would go to a restaurant that was right across the street. It was like a dream kind of for a new kid.
Creating Edith Head
I knew who Edith Head was from the time I was a little kid, because she used to be on Art Linkletter’s House Party on TV and radio. It was so weird because she would give advice to these women on the radio, so you didn’t quite know what she was telling them to do, but I just listened. “That’s Edith Head.” Then, when the show was transferred over to the TV network, everybody knew what she looked like, which wasn’t considered terribly glamorous. She wore beautiful little suits and her hair was always with bangs in a bun. I was always very impressed that her PR was more important than almost anything else.
She was always working on the legend of Edith Head. She loved being famous and it took her a while at Paramount to get to that point. She was the helper girl; she wasn’t considered a big deal. They had some really impressive designers there at the time, Travis Banton and all these New York theater designers that had worked at Paramount while she was there.
They never gave her much credit for anything. But I think what happened later is somebody didn’t show up or got sick, and before you know it, Edith had to do something on her own. She became quite popular with certain stars and she worked it. She was working it all the time. For me, she wasn’t one of those designers that you just couldn’t wait to go see that film because she had done it. But she had all that experience for years and years before she ever had a chance to design anything to speak of.
Then she got her moment. I never knew anybody who pushed herself, her PR, quite like Edith did. That was amazing when you think about it, especially when you’re there. I always got a kick out of her when she would just stop work and get on the phone and give somebody her enchilada recipe for some magazine.
She had worked there at Paramount since the 1920s. She had gone to the Chouinard Art Institute, a school that I went to many, many years after her. She went up into the attic of the school and borrowed drawings and sketches and took them over to Paramount, and showed off her portfolio, which wasn’t hers at all. This is a very famous story. So Frank Richardson, who was there when I was there, hired her because she had such a fabulous portfolio.
He came and discovered her in her office, dissolved in tears because she couldn’t do the work that they were asking her to do. She told him what happened and he said, “If you have that much nerve, I’m going to hang onto you, because you’re going to make it just fine.” She had that kind of nerve and chutzpah to make that happen.
Edith always had it all worked out. She must have been at Paramount 40 years when I first started in the business, and then they started laying off their contract designers. Everybody had designers: Helen Rose worked over at MGM and Edith worked at Paramount, Billy Travilla was over at Fox, Adrian was at MGM. There were different ones under contract at different studios, and they stopped doing that. [That’s when she was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to join Universal Studios.]
That first year that I was working [at Paramount], I figured that she was in her 60s, and I thought, “She’s going to retire any minute.” You were supposed to retire when you were 65. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen for many, many years after that. She loved to work and she loved being famous. She had no intention of ever retiring if she didn’t have to. I think she had a fashion show one day and died the next.
Sketching Edith’s Designs
A lot of times, the films would be so enormous, with tons of people and period clothes, that a designer that could even do their own sketches often didn’t have time to do that many. So they would hire sketch artists to come in and work with them. Sometimes, they’d have two or three different sketch artists working on the same film. It was a very important thing in those days.
A lot of them are done on the computer these days, but then, you had to have a sketch to show the producer and the star and the director what you had in mind for that star to look like. If you could draw it with the spirit of that performer, even better. They would sign the sketch if they approved it, so you’d have that as proof. When they said, “That doesn’t look like what I said,” you’d show them the sketch.
Edith would draw this little figure that was maybe two inches high. You’d look at it and you couldn’t tell what the hell it was. I’d say, “Oh, thank you.” Then, I would just look at it and I would just draw something that I thought she’d like.
I always did three or four sketches per change, or even more than that sometimes. Fortunately, I worked fast and she liked that. She liked people that were thinking and were good designers. She never had anybody there that could just draw.
Creating Glamour On and Off Screen
Edith was always working the public. And she got a lot of Oscars, quite a few from black-and-white films. She had little tricks that she used as a designer. She would love to do fur-trimmed suits on the leading ladies, and the leading ladies always felt very glamorous in them. In the ’40s, ’50s, you rarely saw a contemporary film that didn’t have a suit with either mink trim or fox trim or something. We don’t even see that anymore because it’s so politically wrong at this point in time.
She knew what it was like to make a star glamorous. In the ’30s, even if you were playing a shop girl or a secretary, your clothes were beautifully designed. They would be designed appropriate for the character, but they would be beautifully done. You didn’t run over to the closest department store and buy an outfit. It didn’t work that way. Very often, they would sell the rights to a store or to a manufacturer for that outfit if it was very popular, so they could buy it in the department store. That happened a lot at MGM—things that Joan Crawford had worn were duplicated that the average woman could buy for much less money.
During the Depression, nobody had any money, and so there were a lot of movies made about people that had money and rich people and clothes were very important. People were watching what characters wore in movies. It became probably less important during the war years, and then we got back to the 1950s, when I think it was a big influence on fashion.
Edith certainly did everything because, when you’re under contract to a studio, whatever comes up, they hand it to you. But then, she always had plenty of help in the sketch department, so that was never a problem for her. Edith was one of those people that you just say, “How did she get away with that?” She’s become an iconic legend in this town. Of course, if you talk to all the other designers in Hollywood, they wouldn’t agree with you … because she was so aggressive about promoting herself. In the old days, a lot of them were horrified because they just thought of her as that little helper over at Paramount. God bless her, she was smart and funny. If you like me, I like you—and she liked me.