In 1947 Bette Davis already had a dresser, the famed costumer Orry-Kelly, who had worked for Warner Bros. since the early talkies. But the two fought like cats, and Kelly’s ongoing bitchy comments about Davis’s aging looks and expanding figure didn’t help the relationship. Perhaps that’s how Paramount costumer Edith Head came to accompany Davis on a shopping trip to advise her on what to wear for the upcoming film, Winter Meeting, even though it was a Warner Bros. project. Head favored the longer hemlines that were coming into style and told Davis, “Don’t let anybody talk you into wearing a tight skirt. You’re not the type.” Davis was so smitten by Head’s straightforward advice that she bought everything Head told her to, and even copied her trademark schoolmarm haircut for her Winter Meeting role as a New England spinster and submitted a request to Paramount to loan Head out to her for upcoming projects, becoming the first star to do so. This is how Edith Head came to design the costumes for 2oth Century Fox’s All About Eve, which premiered on this day in 1950.
All About Eve is a deliciously sharp and snappy behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of New York theater, and well-known for its biting dialogue, particularly the famous “fasten your seatbelts” line. But another quip, an aside from the comedic actress Thelma Ritter, who plays the maid to Davis’s Margo Channing, could have summed up the back story of the costuming of the film: “Next to a tenor, a wardrobe woman is the touchiest thing in show business.” Indeed, the politics surrounding the wardrobes of All About Eve were as backbiting, paranoid and touchy as they come.
So fasten your seatbelts; I’ve got a bumpy tale to tell: To start with, Davis was a last-minute choice to play Margo Channing: Claudette Colbert was set to play the role but injured herself and no other actress would touch the part of an aging, bitter star. Davis’s own star was fading and her reputation as difficult preceded her; as a result she had very little work. So Fox reluctantly offered her the part (Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck “couldn’t stand” Davis) and Davis accepted under the condition that the studio borrow Head from Paramount to design all of her costumes. This might have been fine except that the man in charge of costume design for Fox, Charles LeMaire, despised Head, and for years had sworn she would never set foot on a Fox film. Not only was Eve shaping up to be a juicy project and LeMaire wanted to costume it himself, but Head had a reputation for raiding the costume closets of other studios, and LeMaire didn’t want her anywhere near competing sets. Long story short, the crew’s ongoing scheduling conflicts and pressure from higher-ups led LeMaire to eventually give in, though he was crushed to lose the opportunity to design for Davis.
If you haven’t seen All About Eve—and you should—the story is based on a true-life incident that happened to actress Elizabeth Bergner (not Tallulah Bankhead, as widely rumored). The title character is a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, a young, desperate liar who snakes her way into the inner circle of an aging star (Margo) in an effort to steal her identity. Eve’s bitter climb to the top is chilling to watch, and the costumes needed to reflect the icy personalities set in a cosmopolitan drama.
Bankhead may have never known a real-life Eve, but she was the living embodiment of Davis’s Margo, and Head later said she also used Bankhead as inspiration for the costumes. For the centerpiece of the film, a crucial party scene in which the women compete for attention in the same room, Edith and LeMaire coordinated so that Margo and Eve’s dresses were similarly dramatic but also demonstrated each woman’s age. When Davis tried hers on for filming, the dress was far too big and slipped off her shoulders. Head was aghast; she’d built in a support system for Davis’s large breasts that didn’t work without fitted shoulders. But Davis liked it that way and yanks at her dress as she chugs martinis. Somehow it worked. There are dozens of costume changes in the film, but that dress is the one audiences remember. Edith also designed a number of dramatic hats to help hide Davis’s lopsided ears (something she had corrected when her face was lifted years later), although only a few of them made it into the film. LeMaire did design one dress for Davis—a period costume Margo wears on stage—but it barely appears on screen.
All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Costumes, an award Head shared with LeMaire, who dressed the other characters in the film. “Over the years it galled him to no end that he had to share the Academy Award for this film with Edith,” writes David Chierichetti in Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer. Perhaps LeMaire knew what audiences understood: The award was all Head’s. —Ali Basye
Photos: Top: The promo poster. Middle: Edith Head’s sketch for the famous dress and a head shot of Bette Davis in the oversize bodice. Bottom: A promo shot shows the dresses of the three female stars: Head’s dress for Davis, Charles LeMaire’s dress for Anne Baxter is purposely similar to Davis’s, and LeMaire’s dress for sidekick Celeste Holm’s, designed to look nothing like the other two. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.