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The Lady Head and The Lady Eve

October 11, 2014

Shot in black and white as were most films of the time, The Lady Eve presented obstacles for Head since color would only show up in shades of black, white and gray. In this film, at least, four main techniques were utilized by the costume desinger, the first being contrast, as Nadoolman Landis noted before the film that we would see a lot of black and white looking prints (which could have been navy and yellow or anything with high contrast) on men's ties, jackets, and dresses. 

Jean wearing dark colors mixed with light and a striped hat, and Charles in a light colored outfit with what looks like an intricately printed tie. 

As Lady Eve, Stanwyck's warbrobe is much classier, but the contrasts are still there.

Secondly, Nadoolman Landis pointed out Head's tendency to dress Barbara Stanwyck in white gowns.

Stanwyck wearing a flowy yet form fitting white gown as Jean.

Lady Eve is about to get married, so obviously, this dress is going to be white...

Thirdly, reflective materials were frequently utilized, such as sparkles, beading, crystal, and sequins. 

A closer look at the dress Lady Eve wore to the dinner in her honor. There's a lot going on here!

It's hard to tell, but there is some sparkly material on this outfit.

Finally, Head used movement in Stanwyck's costumes, such as fringe and beading that shifts as the actress walks. 

It looks like the top of this dress was made with least it moved when Stanwyck did!

Though Head became famous for several iconic looks and trends throughout her career, The Lady Eve stands as a milestone for the designer and Stanwyck as well, the latter of which I'll get in to a little later. The film granted Head such acclaim that apparently there was a whole newspaper article devoted to her work on the film (though where, I do not know!) and provided the designer "her best opportunity to date to display her high fashion skills" (67). In fact, Head had the chance to show off her technique in a unique way, as she was dressing almost two completely different characters in her leading actress: one a seductive card shark and the other a 'royal' lady. 


For Jean Harrington, the hard edged gambler who meets Charles Pike on the boat, Head made great use of sharp contrasts to "make her appear a tad coarse," which frequently stood out against Pike's outfits and also stressed the stark differences in their respective characters. Additionally, Head utilized sequins and glitter, which provided Jean a more playful, brash, and flirty look, which works perfectly for her as she swoops in to seduce Pike. 

This is a fun, glittery dress (and don't forget the cape).

When Stanwyck assumes the guise of a noble Englishwoman to seek revenge on Pike, Head unsurprisingly picked luxurious fabrics and color schemes that would appear more subtle in black and white, in line with a character from a dignified background. 

She's not even officially Lady Eve yet, but she sure looks the part in a sophisticated white outfit with a classy black hat.

Furthermore, because Pike meets Jean aboard a boat on its way back from South America, Head took the occasion to throw a Latin flair into Stanwyck's wardrobe, because the actress just so happened to look great in "poncho and serape styles" (44). The idea turned out to be quite timely: in the days before America entered World War II and with the implementation of FDR's Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America only a few years prior, Latin America was a very topical subject. Stanwyck's glamorous appearance helped herald the looks as a national fashion craze, just as Head had done with tropical prints on Dorothy Lamour a few years before in The Jungle Princess (1936).  

Jean's cape flowing in the wind on board the ship.

Not exactly a normal serape style, but going in that direction.

As mentioned above, Head's designs for The Lady Eve not only made a positive mark on her career, but also greatly impacted Barbara Stanwyck's image, as this was really the first time the star looked and felt alluring and seductive onscreen (68). Prior to The Lady Eve, Stanwyck was best remembered for her rough, gritty working woman roles, which usually placed her in rather dowdy clothing (though there were a few exceptions, such as 1934's Gambling Lady, in which Stanwyck donned lavish gowns, capes, and negligees courtesy of Orry-Kelly) (388). However, since many of Stanwyck's roles after Gambling Lady, such as 1937's Stella Dallas, put her back in a dreary mode, The Lady Eve was the film that really opened the doors for the actress and changed that perception in both the public's eyes and Stanwyck's herself, pushing the star up to fashion icon status. As Head noted, it was the star's "first high-fashion picture and her biggest transition in costuming." That transition was a personal and professional one, as Stanwyck admitted that she "was never a clotheshorse...but suddenly I felt like one in that picture...Edith made the most beautiful clothes I had ever worn. Every change was spectacular" (42). 

Stanwyck being glamorous 7 years before in Gambling Lady.

The pair's trustworthy relationship extended into their personal lives as well. Stanwyck enlisted Head to design items for her outside of the studio, because, according to her, "nobody understands my figure as well as my Hollywood designer" (42), while Head trusted Stanwyck enough to take her advice on a dentist who could help replace her missing front teeth (even after they were fixed, Head rarely smiled in photos).   


It seemed as if Head's glamorous costuming on The Lady Eve influenced the types of characters Stanwyck would accept in the future, since she was now able to see herself in a different light. Seriously, could it really be a coincidence that Stanwyck accepted roles in both Ball of Fire, released some eight months after The Lady Eve, and 1943's Lady of Burlesque, movies that were both made after this one? (If you haven't seen either of those movies, check out the below images, and I think you'll see what I mean).

Stanwyck with Gary Cooper in 1941's Ball of Fire.

Showing some skin in 1943's Lady of Burlesque.

And with that, I'd say the title of UCLA's retrospective was definitely spot on; Head certainly worked her magic on Stanwyck and The Lady Eve!


How to fall for The Lady Eve: The Criterion Collection released a wonderful DVD full of fun extras, including some of Head's costume designs. Side note: They also have a wonderful article all about dressing the movie, including images of Head's designs, here. The movie is also available on Amazon Instant, if you're like me and simply can't wait for the DVD to arrive in the mail. 

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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