The Oscars are on their merry way, with the 95th Academy Awards taking place on Sunday 12 March.
It’s no hot take to say that the film industry is a male-dominated one, and the number of female winners is still far from the number of awards won by their male colleagues.
On International Women’s Day, let’s answer one question, which will make you shine on quiz nights: Which woman has won the most Oscars?
Many may think that the woman with the most Golden Baldies is a performer.
It’s certainly not a director, as only 3 women have ever won Best Director in the Academy’s 94-year history: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010, Chloé Zhao for Nomadland in 2021 and Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog in 2022. And until today, only seven women in total have been nominated in the Best Director category in the history of the Academy Awards: Lina Wertmüller with her film Seven Beauties in 1977; Jane Campion with The Piano in 1994; Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost In Translation; Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2018; Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) both in 2021; and Campion again last year.
Acting wise, Katharine Hepburn still holds the record title of the most wins for a female actor in Oscar history (4 Oscars and a total of 12 nominations), with Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep all not far behind with 3 Oscars to their names. Cate Blanchett may soon be adding her name to this illustrious group if she wins Best Actress on Sunday evening for her towering performance in Tár.
But none of them come close to the top spot.
Let’s end the suspense.
The woman who holds the records for the most wins is a costume designer: Edith Head.
In a career that spanned over five decades and 400 film credits, Edith Head (1897 – 1981) garnered an incredible 35 Oscar nominations and 8 wins for Best Costume Design, the most for any woman in history.
And more than anyone in history, for that matter, apart from a certain Walter Disney.
Head was born in San Bernardino, California in 1897. She graduated with a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley in 1919, and followed that up with a Masters of Arts in romance languages from Stanford University in 1920.
After her studies, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1923. She would go on to work for Paramount for 44 years before moving to Universal Pictures in 1967.
She won acclaim for her design of Dorothy Lamour’s sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, and soon became a household name after the Academy Award for Best Costume Design was created in 1948.
Her iconic designs made clothes speak volumes and helped to develop characters. Her costumes include Audrey Hepburn’s reverse makeover for Roman Holiday (going from the high fashion to ‘regular gal’ circle skirts) and the timeless costumes worn by Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gloria Swanson’s expensive dresses and eccentric gowns in Sunset Blvd, Ingrid Bergman’s superb dresses in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, Grace Kelly and her gorgeous frocks in Rear Window ,and the pin-striped suits worn by Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting.
She maintained close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively. Head designed for the likes of Mae West, Veronica Lake, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, amongst countless others.
Her first win was for the 1949 film adaptation of The Heiress, for which she designed voluminous Victorian gowns. Her second Oscar win was the following year for Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic Samson and Delilah.
The six other films she won for were All About Eve, A Place in the Sun, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Facts of Life and The Sting – her last Oscar in 1973.
Edith Head received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1974, and since her death, many tributes have been paid to Head and her unparalleled ability to tailor her versatile craft to any era and style.
She was honoured as part of a series of stamps issued by the US Postal Service in February 2003, who were commemorating the behind-the-camera personnel who make movies happen.
It is also widely acknowledged that the look of Edna “E” Mode, the costume designer in Pixar’s The Incredibles and Incredibles 2, was inspired by Head as a tribute to the designer’s impact on Hollywood, film and style.
Edith Head was not only the leading and most influential costume designer of her era, but of all time. She paved the way for the likes of four-time Oscar winners Colleen Atwood and Milena Canonero, and four-time nominee and Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter.
Although actors and directors get the most credit and recognition for their work, a figure like Edith Head shows that films have always been and always will be a collaborative effort. Beyond the red carpets and the light of the projectors, films would not exist or succeed without countless other departments. They should be recognized and celebrated for their achievements, especially when women are involved, as male-dominated film industry means that women fight harder to earn a position. With the example of Head in mind, viewers would do well to further dwell on how costume designers and departments are not only an integral part of filmmaking, but can truly elevate a film to greatness.
So the next time you’re watching the Oscars and wishing the time away until the final act when the acting and directing awards drop before Best Film, take the time to cheer on the people who ensure that the performers, the mood and the look of the films are stellar enough to be nominated in the first place.