May 23, 2018

As far as we’re concerned, the only movie this summer is Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles 2. Why? Because it marks the triumphant return of the superhero community’s costume designer of choice, Edna Mode. Fourteen years after the first film, Edna is clearly what everyone remembers about it; when Rolling Stone ranked Pixar’s greatest characters, she came in ahead of Mr. Incredible and the rest of the family! Edna is prominently featured in the advertising for the sequel, getting her own poster and even a signature trailer with fashion luminaries like André Leon Talley praising her genius.

It’s accepted wisdom that Edna is based on Edith Head. We’ve never done a book event without being asked about the connection between these two tiny titans of the costume world.

Brad Bird, who wrote and directed both Incredibles movies and also provides Edna’s wonderful voice, has always been cagey when discussing the character’s inspirations. When asked point blank on Twitter if Edna is really Edith Head, he said no. But in interviews he has explicitly acknowledged Edith as a primary influence. Other models that have been mentioned: Vogue editor Anna Wintour, fashion designer Mary Quant, author Patricia Highsmith, even Bette Midler; Brad Bird met Midler in person and was amazed someone so small in stature could be packed with enough energy to guarantee she’d be the biggest personality in whatever room she entered. That’s the essence of Edna, whom Bird describes as the one person “who makes superheroes uneasy.”

Still, Edith is always the first name to come up. Based on the earliest concept sketches of Edna on the Incredibles DVD, it’s obvious they were thinking of Edith from the start. A comparison of the two designers bears that out.

Appearance. Does Edna have Edith’s distinctive eyeglasses, the origins of which are explained in Design for Dying? Check. (Although as Brad Bird has said, “flamboyance and large glasses just go together.”) Her instantly recognizable hairstyle, acquired during the period covered in Dangerous to Know? Check again. The monochromatic wardrobe, which Edith adopted so she wouldn’t outshine the actresses she was dressing? You know the answer.

Attitude. Edith was famously diplomatic, able to get along with the most domineering directors and the pushiest producers. She was quietly in control—unlike Edna, whom Brad Bird called one of those people “so confident that they blow over everybody.” Aside from that, though, Edith would echo many of Edna’s sentiments. “I used to design for gods!” Edna exclaims, and Edith always wanted the biggest names in her dressing room. Edna’s maxim “I never look back, darling, it distracts from the now” is one Edith, who refused to shy away from an opportunity, would wholly endorse. We love the moment when Elastigirl tells Edna that Baby Jack-Jack won’t need a costume because he has no superpowers (ha!) and Edna merely shrugs and says, “He’ll look fabulous anyway.” Edith also knew looking fabulous was a superpower all its own.

Technique. “No capes!” That’s Edna’s defining moment and the reason why she’s so beloved a character, her adamant insistence that no superhero costume include a potentially fatal design element. (It’s part of Pixar’s regular storytelling genius that Edna’s pragmatism proves crucial to the Incredibles plot.) Edith, like Edna, prized function. “First and above all,” she would ask whenever starting a new project, “what kind of character are we dressing?” She adored working with Bette Davis, who would throw herself bodily around the fitting room recreating the movements the script demanded to ensure her new wardrobe was equal to the challenge. Edith and Edna shared the same watchwords: “simple, elegant, yet bold.”

These two design dervishes most definitely have common DNA. We’d point out other similarities, but we have to get in line for Incredibles 2 tickets. While we’re all waiting, here’s Edna at the Academy Awards, co-presenting the Costume Design Oscar—which Edith won a record eight times—alongside Pierce Brosnan.

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