How to Dress for Success


How to Dress for Success by Edith Head with Joe HyamsAuthor: Edith Head with Joe Hyams
Publisher: Abrams (2011) [First published under Random House 1967]
Number of Pages: 181
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I bought this book: borrowed it from the library
ISBN: 978-0-8109-2133-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

I love classic movies. I read about them, blog about them and yes, even watch them. For this reason, I am very familiar with Edith Head, the legendary designer of some of the most beautiful film costumes of the golden age of Hollywood. Stars like Bette Davis, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor adored her because she made them look fabulous. How could she not be brilliant as a wardrobe adviser? When I decided to read this book, I was almost more curious to get fashion advice through the lens of the late 60s than I was to hear Head’s words of wisdom. So much has changed in the way we dress, but I wondered if Head’s advice might have some universal value beyond current styles. A part of me hopes some of the fashion advice might be outdated in a silly way, but not because I want to laugh at Ms. Head. No, the woman is a genius. I bow down to her.

Favorite Five

Whittling 15 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The influence of the teenager on our society cannot be overlooked, and if you have one in your home you might as well get hip to what beats in his or her world, or you’ll be slotted as a cube from nowhere.” (p.56)

4. “The eight-year-old who is allowed into a hotel lobby in shorts and bare feet is being given a head start on becoming an eighteen-year-old beatnik.” (p.53)

3. “Choose a few becoming colors and build your wardrobe around them instead of getting on your clothes horse and galloping in all directions.” (p.78)

2. “The woman who consistently makes errors in her choice of clothes in this age must be either stupid, careless or just plain neurotic….if she continues to wander off the path I outline, gathering all the wild flowers of fashion rather than the durable perennials available, her closet will always look like a jungle, and she’ll strangle in the overgrowth without even a decent fig leaf to wear.” (p.64)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The right clothes for you are invariably those you feel right in, that you can put on and forget about, because they let your personality dominate them.” (p.74)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: pantie-girdle (noun)

Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): a girdle with a crotch; also panty girdle
Origins (Source: Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia): Pantie girdles came on the scene when substantial numbers of women began to wear pants. Initially, girdles appealed to younger women and teen girls, but women of all ages eventually wore some type of girdle, before control-top panty hose supplanted the girdle’s functions for all but the most conservative women. The modern girdle’s origin may be traced to the short hip-confiners worn over corsets during the early 1900s, but the term itself began to assume its contemporary meaning in the mid-1910s.
As in: “The wildly popular pants craze which was started many years ago by Marlene Dietrich shows no signs of abating, but unless you look well in pants, or are willing to spend the time and money to equip yourself with a really efficient pantie-girdle, I say stick to skirts.” (p.143)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Even though I always suspected that the TV show ‘Mad Men’ was an accurate representation of its time period, I never assumed it. I didn’t live in that age, so how could I be sure? This book has me believing the show may actually be evocative of the time. It’s this section about dressing for success in the office that has gotten me thinking about it. Head talks about the woman who dresses for success, how she wears sharp dresses and neat little hats, as opposed to the less ambitious secretary who dresses in sweater sets and skirts and ties a scarf around her head when she goes to lunch. It made me think of Peggy, the character played by Elizabeth Moss. She started her career dressed in skirts and sweaters, but as she moved up the career ladder, she graduated to tailored dresses and chopped off her ponytail in favor of a short ‘do. I’m also thinking about a montage on one episode which showed all the things women had to deal with under their clothes in those days, from constricting bras to panty-girdles. This book describes some mighty painful-sounding underwear.”

“Head writes that if your style stands out too much, people will think you are a freak and you will have difficulty fitting in. Oh how I wish that wasn’t true! You can certainly embrace your freakiness and find people who appreciate your originality, but I see her point. People are afraid of the unknown. If you dress at least somewhat in line with the circles in which you travel, it is easier to earn the trust of those around you. Of course, that’s not always true. When I was in high school, I always wore black dresses and tights with nauseating colors and designs (Enormous pocket watches! Bright, Kermit green! Paisleys!). I did get teased for that a bit, but lots of people liked my crazy legs, and I felt okay being different, even a little proud. I think Head makes a good point, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, especially for the young. I’ve conformed more to the style of my peers as I’ve gotten older, but I think that’s partly because it can be exhausting to think up all those outfits. I still have a few pairs of those tights. (Only a few. I used to have forty pairs in my collection.)”

“I do a lot of the things Head suggests in this book—like shopping for clothes with specific items in mind and not investing too much in trendy items. Why is my wardrobe so lame then? Could it be because I’m a freelance writer who never buys dress-up clothes, and there’s only so much you can do with t-shirts and jeans? I’d love to make that excuse, but some of the most elegant-looking outfits I’ve ever seen have been stylish versions of that very combo. Nearly all of my jeans have a hole in the left knee. Apparently that one is especially pointy. Perhaps replacing those would be a good place to start. I’d really like to get Head’s opinion on how to dress today. Would she think I’m pathetic for dressing casually all the time? Perhaps she’d suggest a wrap dress for working in the home office. That’s not going to happen though. However, I can see how a stylish cotton top might be a good replacement for my V-neck t-shirts. It might even make me more productive to feel better about what I’m wearing. And yes, I admit I’m going to need to buy some new jeans, and maybe find out what’s going on with my left knee.”

Other Reviews of this Book

Kat Kiddles' Review of How to Dress for Success by Edith Head with Joe Hyams

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