Updated: Jan 11
An actress with a back injury, a rushed shooting schedule and a miscalculation in fitting: These are just a few of the fateful circumstances that led to one of the most beloved film costumes of all time.
In April 1950, Claudette Colbert ruptured a disc in her back while filming Three Came Home, and soon informed Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary studio head at 20th Century-Fox, that she wouldn’t be healed in time for the starting shoot date, two weeks hence, of her next project: starring as Margo Channing in All About Eve, written and to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had won a pair of Oscars the year before for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives. Rather than delay production (a costly prospect), Zanuck set about the task of looking for a replacement, and sent Mankiewicz’s script to Bette Davis. No longer happy with the roles she had been getting, Davis recently had purchased the remainder of her contract at Warner Bros., where she had reigned as the queen of the lot for 18 years, and believed that at the age of 41, she likely was done with movies. And then All About Eve arrived.
Davis loved the script and quickly signed on as Colbert’s replacement. She had just one request: Could Edith Head design her costumes? The star and the costume designer had formed a friendship on two previous films, 1948’s June Bride and 1949’s Beyond the Forest. For June Bride, Head had earned Davis’s respect via the sketch of one design, a coat dress with multiple pockets, both stylish and practical for the high-powered magazine editor Davis would be playing. As Head later would write in 1959’s The Dress Doctor, Davis loved the look, pronouncing it a “high-fashion carpenter’s coverall!”
“She grinned a regular blockbuster of a grin, and we were in business,” Head wrote. “Bette liked the coat dress so much, she had six of them made for herself in varied colors.”
Fast-forward two years, and it’s no surprise that Davis might request Head’s services for All About Eve, though the costume designer may have nudged her to do so. Either way, the pair had just one obstacle: Charles LeMaire, the head of wardrobe for 20th Century-Fox, who already had completed the costumes for all the cast members of All About Eve — not just Colbert’s, but also the designs for the star-studded lineup, which included Anne Baxter as Eve, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe and a largely unknown Marilyn Monroe. But like the other moments of kismet in the final few weeks before filming began, LeMaire was already busy with other projects and didn’t have any interest in doubling back to produce a new set of Margo Channing costumes. He was happy to call Frank Richardson, his counterpart at Paramount Pictures’ wardrobe department, and request the loan of Head’s services. Colbert’s costumes were packed up, to be used for future productions.
Thus the race was on to get Davis’s costumes completed while not impacting the shooting schedule, which was set at a slim and efficient 40 days. Yet one of the reasons Davis and Head got on so well was that they were both no-nonsense women, and approached their respective jobs with that mindset. Soon enough, the pair was meeting to review sketches and fabrics — and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Davis wore one of those coat dresses to do so. “She strode about, hands deep in her pockets, studying the fabrics, the sketches,” Head wrote in The Dress Doctor. “For each costume, I’d place my favorite sketch on top, then alternates. In nothing flat, she’d whipped around the room, selected each of the top drawings, and was saying, ‘When do we fit?’”
The pivotal party scene would be shot after the cast and crew returned from two weeks of location shooting at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, providing Head with a bit of breathing room to craft one of the film’s most integral costumes. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, published two years after the designer's 1981 death, she noted that “Bette Davis is a perfectionist when it comes to costumes. So am I. That’s why we work together so well. She tests her clothes, she takes time with the fittings to make sure everything works well for the requirements of the script, and she discusses any problems long before she goes on camera.”
Any conversation about All About Eve inevitably includes a mention of the dress Davis wears for the party scene, when it’s clear Margo has reached her limit on Eve’s behind-the-scenes machinations. After downing one martini, and then a second, Margo proceeds to exit the room, but pauses for dramatic effect on the stairs, announcing to those within earshot, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
For this climactic moment, and to suit the superstar personality of Margo Channing, Head envisioned the iconic cocktail-dress silhouette of 1950, heavily influenced by the New Look collection Christian Dior had debuted in 1947, and which was still considered the height of fashion: a tight bodice, belted waist and full skirt that descended to calf length. “My original sketch had a square neckline and a tight bodice,” she said in Edith Head’s Hollywood. “I had extremely high hopes for this dress because the fabric, a brown gross de Londres (a heavy silk), photographs magnificently in black and white, and it was trimmed in rich brown sable.” (Head’s quote also puts to rest the speculation that occasionally arises about the true color of the dress, with fans often theorizing that it was black based on its look on film; but Head knew better, believing the chocolate hue and the fabric’s sheen would create a beautiful depth of tone onscreen.)
Sketch and fabric approved by Davis, the dress’s construction was underway, but with the accelerated workload of the multiple costumes worn by Davis, who appears in almost every scene of All About Eve, this particular design wasn’t completed until the night before the party scene was due to be filmed. Head recalled arriving at the studio early, wanting to ensure the dress was pressed and camera-ready, only to walk in and see that Davis was already wearing the dress, “looking quizzically at her own reflection in the mirror,” she said in Edith Head’s Hollywood. “I was horrified. The dress didn’t fit at all. The top of the three-quarter-length sleeves had a fullness created by pleats, but someone had miscalculated, and the entire bodice and neckline were too big. There was no time to save anything, and a change would delay the shooting.”
Head knew she had to take responsibility, and told Davis not to worry, that she would let Mankiewicz know that the costume wasn’t ready. She walked to the door, noting that she felt her knees about to give way, when Davis called her back: “Don’t you like it better like this, anyway?” The actress had pulled the sleeves off her shoulders and gave a bit of a sexy shrug. “It looked wonderful and I could have hugged her. In fact, I think I did,” Head added. After a few stitches to secure the revised neckline in place, Davis sailed off to do the scene.
That happy accident not only saved the filming schedule, the revamped dress also makes a wonderful statement about Margo’s sensuality, a woman who is contemplating her age, the ingenue parts she’s still playing, and the difference in age — roughly a decade — between her and her younger boyfriend, Gary Merrill’s Bill Sampson. “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men,” she famously, and drunkenly, says later in the same scene. (Art may have been imitating life; Davis and Merrill, who was indeed seven years younger, fell in love during filming and were married not long after shooting wrapped — and both their divorces were final.)
But Margo’s bare shoulders communicate that this is a woman who is well aware of her sexuality — if the dress had fit as it originally had been designed, might that statement have been so clear? Soon after Margo bemoans Bill’s age, she encounters Eve in the foyer, and a nice juxtaposition also happens in this moment between Davis’s dress and the costume worn by Anne Baxter, who also wears a style that sits at the tip of the shoulders, with just a touch of girlish lace trimming the neckline. Eve is still a girl, but Margo is a woman, the two looks seem to say.
Head and LeMaire ultimately would share the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for All About Eve (the film garnered six wins, including Best Picture, out of 14 nominations, a record at the time). And 70 years later, Head’s design — from its chocolate silk fabric and crystal buttons to the matching sable that trims both the sleeves and the pockets, as well as the kismet of a fitting mistake — is still considered one of cinema’s most legendary dresses. (As just one example of its fandom, Whoopi Goldberg loves the dress so much, she had it copied and wore it to the 2016 Academy Awards.)
The ultimate fate of the original costume remains unknown; Head made a copy of the dress, which she used for a fashion show she would present of her most iconic designs during personal appearances. She also reportedly made a replica for Davis, who kept the dress in her personal collection (more on that in a moment). Davis gave that dress to costume designer Don Feld before she died in 1989, and it went up for auction after Feld’s death in 2007. The winning bidder paid just $2,270.50 for the dress, which seems like an incredible bargain given how Hollywood costumes and other memorabilia have earned princely sums in subsequent years.
The other keepsake from Davis's All About Eve experience? Head’s sketch of the dress’s design, as she notes in the foreword she wrote for Edith Head’s Hollywood. (The sketch of the dress also is featured on the 1983 cover, which was changed out for a photo of Head for the book’s 25th-anniversary edition in 2008.) “My own memento of Edith’s long career hangs on the wall of my home: a sketch of that fabulous brown cocktail dress Margo Channing wore in All About Eve,” Davis wrote. “I bought the dress and I treasure the sketch. It’s simply signed ‘To Bette, from Edith.’” It’s not clear if Davis knows she means a replica, or in the confusion of the ensuing years, she actually did purchase the original. Just imagine if she had — that dress purchased at auction in 2007 for less than $2,300 would be worth considerably more.