At 26, I got to hear first hand from Edith Head about Marlene Dietrich and her leather pants

Okay, I almost heard first-hand about Marlene Dietrich wearing leather pants. Some people say Dietrich is difficult but she’s a perfectionist. The story goes she would show up to dress fittings with a full thermos of coffee wearing leather pants and wouldn’t complain once, even if the fitting took 8 hours.

Edith Head and Joan Crawford

This story comes from actor Susan Claasen’s one woman play, A Conversation with Edith Head, where Claasen performs, with an extremely spot-on likeness, as Hollywood costume designer Edith Head.  The show visited Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this past weekend, January 17-19th, 2014.

Edith Head and Grace Kelly on set
of To Catch A Thief

Edith Head, who worked closely with starlets like Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Mae West, and many more, and who was good friends with Alfred Hitchock spoke to audiences as if truly there. Not only is the resemblance present in Claasen’s piece, but having sculpted the play with Head’s autobiography writer and personal friend Patty Calistro gives it a ring of truth.

The show was strangely inspirational.

The beginning begs of Head to ask, “What sets me apart from other designers?” Claasen walks around the stage smugly. “I’m not different. I’m just the best.” And Edith Head was.

Edith Head and her Oscars

The show invites audiences into the world of a talented and refreshingly average woman of the Hollywood industry who lied on her resume to get a job as a sketch artist on a Cecil B. DeMille film. It worked, and she learned her way to the top. Winning EIGHT Academy Awards in the 50+ years she worked for Hollywood, Head was a woman of wonder that many don’t know much about.

This first job with DeMille at Paramount introduced her to the wardrobes of Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombarde, and Claudette Colbert. Most amusing was her recounting of how hateful Colbert was towards her. The two did not get along.

Carole Lombard      
Claudette Colbert
Marlene Dietrich

Then there was Mae West. “38. 24. 38,” she said, vowing one would never forget a body like that. Adding insight to West’s character, she says, “She may not have been literate but she was a lady.”

Barbara Stanwyck’s body, she mused, required an optical illusion. Stanwyck’s bottom was so low that Head had to tie ribbon, high in the front, low in the back, to create the image of her behind being higher than it was.

How invigorating to hear that these beauties we find in films, calendar, posters, and fond memories are just as odd, hard-working, and average as the est of us. This is all a given, of course, but it’s fun to hear how these women were at work.

Edith Head and Audrey Hepburn

If you missed A Conversation with Edith Head and want to hear more about people like Elizabeth Taylor and Carrie Grant, Calistro’s book, Edith Head’s Hollywood, allows readers to delve into Head’s world and even her personal life.

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