A Conversation with Edith Head, legendary Hollywood costume designer of days past

A Conversation with Edith Head is making its Canadian premiere at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre January 17-19, 2014. Audiences are invited to peek into the glamourous world of legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head who, in her 6 decades of costume design, worked on 1, 131 motion pictures, received 35 Academy Award nominations, and won 8 Oscars. Get your tickets here!

Below is our exclusive chat with Susan Claasen who performs as Edith. She discusses Edith’s character, how and why she’s such an intriguing personality, and the ways in which costume design is really just “an exercise in camouflage” – the camera never lies!

The play is based on the life of a Hollywood costume designer. How do you present this in A Conversation with Edith Head?

We set the play in 1981 during the making of her last film, Carl Reiner’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin. She died two weeks after the wrap of the film and the film is dedicated to her. Throughout the play we see glimpses of a woman who has outlived all her contemporaries and is wrestling with a lifetime of memories and regrets. It is some those vulnerable moments that resonate so deeply.  It is wall to wall with stories of Old Hollywood… photos on the set prompt remembrances of the history of both film and fashion. I have studied her mannerisms like the way she tilted her head or posed for photos and it seems to pass the test of industry insiders! The audience response has been amazing.

From Tbilisi to Edinburgh to Chicago audiences have been touched by Edith’s story.  What they take with them after having seen the performance is truly dependent on what they bring to it. Film buffs get immersed in  hearing stories from someone who has lived throughout the evolution of contemporary film, older audiences remember always seeing the closing credits, “Gowns by Edith Head” and it evokes a bygone era and younger audiences think of the Pixar animated film “The Incredibles” and Edna Mode, designer to the super heroes and the recent “Google Doodle”!

The universal response is summed up by a note I received from a fan, “My friend saw the show on Saturday and adored it. He said the same as me: If someone mentions Edith Head to me now, my first reaction will be to say, ‘Oh yes, I met her once and it was unforgettable!‘”

Who are some of the stars we can expect to hear about in the show?

Some of the stars include Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Tippi Hedren, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Mae West, Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamar, Clara Bow, Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Paul Newman.

Can you give us a peek into one of the juiciest stories?

This is the only time Edith ever complained to a publication about a review!

April 26, 1963

Blame the Hollywood Gremlins 

Sir:

What a difference a few pages can make. In the Show Business section of your April 19 issue, you credited me with helping Joan Crawford become the most photographed star at the Oscar presentations. My cup of pride ran over until I turned to Cinema, where your movie reviewer put me in the tomato-stuffing business as the result of a red chiffon dress Judy Garland wore in I Could Go On Singing.

Of course, since I was credited as costume designer, your critic would have no way of knowing this, but please, just for the record, I designed all of Judy’s costumes for the picture with the exception of one. Uh-huh. You’re right. I don’t know how that red number slipped in. I plead innocent. Hollywood gremlins, I imagine.

It’s always a pleasure to appear in TIME, but please, not as a tomato specialist.

Edith Head, LOS ANGELES

 As Lucille Ball said,  “Edith knew the figure faults of every top star. And she never told – Edith always knew how to keep a secret.”  Well, in this cozy conversation some secrets might be revealed … and fashion tips freely given. As Miss Head says, “if Cinderella had had Edith Head, she would not have needed a  Fairy Godmother!”

How do you think the industry has changed since Edith worked in film?

Susan Claassen as Edith Head; Photo by Tim Fuller

Edith’s career spanned 60 years during which time the studios flourished. That system no longer exists.  Edith paved the way for all costume designers. Edith was an executive woman before there was such a thing! It was a boy’s club when she started – 1923. Women in the Unites Stated had just recently got  the vote, if you can imagine. It has been said that Edith had the instincts of a pastry chef and the authority of a factory foreman. She herself said,  “I knew I was not a creative design genius… I am a better diplomat than I am a designer… I was never going to be the world’s greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I could not be the smartest and most celebrated.”

She knew how to play the game better than anyone. Her concern really was to change actors into characters. Edith said, “I make people into what they are not – ten years older or younger, fatter or thinner, more handsome or more ridiculous, glamourous or sexy or horrible.  The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage.”

She was women with a great heart, a great sense of humor, and great, great determination.

What initially drew you to Edith Head (besides the resemblance!)?

Susan Claassen as Edith Head; Photo by Tim Fuller

I first got the idea to create a theatrical presentation when I was watching a television biography. I contacted Edith’s estate and they granted me permission to pursue this project. I madly read anything I could find and when I came upon Paddy Calistro’s book, Edith Head’s Hollywood, I decided to attempt to locate its author. I called telephone information for  where I thought Paddy lived, and voila, she was listed. I placed the phone call and it was kismet.  At our first meeting in Los Angeles we knew the connection was right and we agreed to collaborate.

With Paddy’s connections we received the blessings of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They prepared a reel of film clips of Miss Head’s appearances. I was able to study her physical traits.

The way she walked, a tilt of the head, how she gestured – really, how she carried herself.  I also studied her speech patterns and rhythms.  She had been a school teacher so she had distinct way of speaking – clipped and to the point!   I work with a voice and movement coach in order to constantly perfect the details of her mannerisms and vocal qualities.  My studying is ongoing.

I remember seeing Edith Head on television when I was a child. I was aware of her work when I would see “Gowns by Edith Head” but I wasn’t really aware of her as a person. Some of the common misconceptions are that she lacked a sense of humor and that she was rigid. You rarely hear about her charitable efforts and her kindness and mentoring of other designers.

She was extremely charitable and provided many opportunities for other designers. In fact, she was one of the founders of the Costume Designers Guild and an early member of Fashion Group International (1935)

Paddy had not only written the book but had inherited 13 hours of taped interviews with Edith Head – it was truly a gift from heaven. We can honestly say that A Conversation with Edith is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head – the ”Edith-isms’. In hearing her speak, it struck me how bright she was – and she did not suffer fools lightly. She had to keep up a strong exterior in order to mask  her vulnerability. Her longevity is a direct result of her tenacity. We have worked very hard to create an intimate portrait that reveals the complexity of this fascinating woman.

What’s the greatest lesson Edith has taught you?

Edith often quoted Mae West when she said , “Find a magic that does something for you honey and  stick with it.”  I think that defines my  sense of fashion.

Article by Andrea Wrobel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: