The Genteel
November 22, 2017
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Edith Head. Source: vintagelifemagazine.com.

"People say to me, Edith, what makes you different from other designers? And I say to them, I'm not different - I'm just the best."

Spoken by Susan Claassen within her one-woman touring play titled A Conversation With Edith Head, many would question the confidence behind making such a statement in front of a packed audience. Yet when speaking in reference to Edith, a woman whose career was marked by six decades of ambitious and talented work and a grand total of eight Oscars, suddenly Claassen's interpretative words lean away from arrogance and veer unassumingly towards the truth. 

Head is one of the most famous costume designers in Hollywood history, dressing everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Grace Kelly to Elizabeth Taylor. She worked on over 1,000 movies in her 60-year career, and although Head was a mere 5'1/2" tall, the mark she left on the worlds of cinema and fashion leveraged her to an incredible height.

Illustration by designer Edith Head, from the 1967 Random  House edition of her book "How to Dress for Success"

Illustration by designer Edith Head, from the 1967 Random
House edition of her book "How to Dress for Success".
Source: fashion-ill.livejournal.com

Claassen, an actress and Artistic Director at Invisible Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, saw Edith Head's story on the Biography Channel 13 years ago and quickly came to understand Head's impact on Hollywood.

"She was an executive woman before there really was such a thing. It was a boys' club, but she quickly learned how to play the game," said Claassen of Head, when speaking to The Genteel. "And then I realised that this would make a fantastic theatrical piece."

So began Claassen's six months of preparations for the first show she would create for her own performance: A Conversation With Edith Head.

She studied over 13 hours of footage to perfect Head's accent and mannerisms, and collaborated with Paddy Calistro who wrote Edith Head's Hollywood, a biography of Head, in 1983. She approached the Motion Picture and Television Fund for permission to rights of likeness and publicity. The events that quickly followed the show's premiere in Tucson in 2002 are what Claassen refers to as a miracle.

"The New York Times covered it," said Claassen, "As soon as that story broke, the Chicago Historical Society Costume Guild called and asked if we toured. And like a good actor, I said yes, of course we tour. And we realised we could place it anywhere, because Edith was everywhere. She became a household name."

No matter where the show takes place, it is always set in 1981; both the year Head died, and the year she worked on her final film, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The show is always tailored to each individual city. Claassen as Head sets off on a monologue almost immediately, often using it as a means of involving the audience and relating to the city.

 

In Toronto, Claassen - in character as Head - mentions her good friend Elizabeth Arden, who was born in Canada. She's sassy, poking fun at a man in camouflage in the audience, recommending that he re-evaluate his wardrobe choice. And she always takes several questions from the audience, as well as calling on them if she happens to forget a particular tidbit.

"I never really think of it as a one-person show because all of [Head's] memories are so active, and the audience plays such an active role," says Claassen to The Genteel. "Miss Head couldn't remember everything, so the speech patterns and everything we based the show on, this kind of rambling to remember something - that was her speech pattern."

Aside from the critical acclaim and many awards that the play has already achieved, witnessing just a few minutes of A Conversation With Edith Head clearly shows that all of Claassen's painstaking work paid off. From her striking resemblance to the title character, to replicas of all eight of her Oscars, the play captures the spirit of the tenacious woman Head truly was.

I wonder, I sometimes do, if a costume designer is really important? Do we do something of any lasting value?

It is easy to get caught up in how well Claassen captures Head's quirks and body language and forget that it isn't actually Miss Head on stage recounting her own incredible life. Claassen as Head talks about the ups and downs of Head's life, from winning her first Oscar to getting fired by Paramount after 44 years. In the play, Head is seen calling several happenings the "most disappointing thing that ever happened to me," and yet still portrayed is that she remained tough and smart throughout life.

"She maneuvered herself and got herself to Universal Studios," says Claassen of Head. "And there, she was more of an attraction. When the tour tram would come by, she would casually grab an Oscar and step outside. She knew how to work the crowd, and people would say that the biggest star they saw on the Universal tour was Edith Head."

"She really understood branding before there was such a thing, and she understood that the public was what was keeping her alive, really, and her name alive," notes Claassen. A Conversation With Edith Head ends with a carefully chosen musing that she pulled verbatim from the 13 hours of footage of Head she studied while creating the play: "I wonder, I sometimes do, if a costume designer is really important? Do we do something of any lasting value?"

Even though it has been more than 30 years since Edith Head died, and over 60 since she won her first Oscar, her name lives on, not only through her own enduring work, but also in the work of Susan Claassen - a conversation that really ought to be heard.

Related: Q&A With Denise Cronenberg 

Related: Designing for Anna Karenina

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