Jack Edwards looks back on a life in costuming and couture
On a wintry afternoon at his St. Paul home, Jack Edwards is wearing black pajamas—“I only wear black or white,” he says. He sits on a white couch, surrounded by leopard-print pillows and the pelts of exotic cats, their heads frozen in fierceness. At 77, the costume and couture designer is largely retired. With a retrospective of his work opening this month at the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein
Gallery Museum of Design, he’s been reflecting. “Observation is my business—or was,” he says.
As a child in Pennsylvania, Edwards designed hats for his mom out of wire hangers and fabric. After college, he hitchhiked to New York and was soon designing gowns for opera stars and Broadway shows, including Coco, a musical about Coco Chanel. The French designer was told the star would be Hepburn—she assumed that meant Audrey. “It was Kate Hepburn,” Edwards says. “Chanel was appalled. Kate would say that when she met Chanel, ‘Coco looked me up and never looked me down.’”
Edwards came to Minneapolis in the
late 1960s early 1970s to create costumes for the Guthrie Theater and worked under every Guthrie artistic director since. In the 1980s 1989, he took a break to help design the holiday shows at Dayton’s in downtown Minneapolis, which he continued to do through 2002. He also created outfits for local socialites—and for Prince and his dancers, including Carmen Electra, during a 1992 tour.
Prince never came in for fittings. “He doesn’t like to be touched,” Edwards says. Or gazed upon. “The first time I met him,” Edwards recalls, “his assistant told me, ‘Don’t look at him! You’re not supposed to look at him!’ It was awkward.”
Asked what he considers the essence of good style, Edwards fetches a folder of photographs by Bill Cunningham, the indefatigable fashion photographer for the New York Times. They’ve been friends for decades—the florid chandelier in Edwards’s dining room was a gift from Cunningham. Edwards points to an image of a society matron draped in bold ethnic prints and harem pants. “Isn’t she wonderful?” he says. “A woman of style is courageous. She doesn’t follow the pack. She knows herself.” He waits a beat. “It helps if she has money."
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT JACK
1. His father labored in a steel mill and expected Jack to join him there. Jack demurred.
2. His favorite retort from Katherine Hepburn: “I can’t wear this—this color itches.”
3. In the ’60s, he worked in Hollywood with Bob Mackie on The Carol Burnett Show.
4. He helped create the Holidazzle Parade, designing the original electrified costumes.
5. He loved Tyrone Guthrie’s defiant sense of style—no socks, even with a tuxedo.