If you’ve visited my website, you know it’s pretty much a shrine to one of the greatest of Hollywood’s costume designers, Edith Head. Why Edith? Well, aside from the accolades of the many actors who were made more beautiful, glamorous and comfy by her, thousands of style-obsessed movie fans, like me, admire her unshakable sense of style, her bulldog determination and her outrageous chutzpah. The story is all over the web, about how she stole, cheated, and lied her way into a plum job at Paramount, so I won’t repeat much of it here. Other designers sometimes hated her, but then, we all know fashion is a rough playground.
Edith’s mostly low-key, classic designs provide some of the defining moments for any fashion-in-film fan: Grace Kelly’s Grecian gowns and eye-popping bathing costume in To Catch a Thief;
Elizabeth Taylor’s breathtaking flower-bodiced chiffon-skirted beauty in A Place in the Sun,
Bette Davis’s slip-shouldered mink-trimmed evening dress in All About Eve;
Barbara Stanwyck’s dual personality costumes for The Lady Eve…
(Barbara learned glamour from Edith and became a lifelong friend; read the full story here)—the list goes on and on. After all, she worked for over half a century and racked up 8 Oscars (she also insisted that the Academy start a second costume category, so that she could win even more. You’ve got to love that kind of savvy self-promotion!).
Edith dressed everyone from Danny Kaye to Doris Day and, like any branding genius, she created her own trademark look. She indulged in some self-mockery once, saying “”I have the world’s straightest hair, and I have to wear these big thick glasses because I’m nearsighted. I always wear beige, black or white. For one thing I look good in them. For another, when I’m beside a star at a fitting, and she looks into the mirror, I don’t want to be competing in any way. And I always wear gloves. I’m a caricature, really. I have this image of myself streaking stark naked in glasses and gloves.”
October is her birth month, so I’m devoting the entire month to St. Edith, a tiny, terrific dynamo, the patron saint of ambitious women. Instead of repeating the well-known stories (honestly, just Google her or buy Ms. Calistro’s marvelous book or Edith’s own wonderful self-help fashion books: How to Dress for Success…
…and The Dress Doctor, and you’ll learn everything about her—including the BIG scandal of how she swooped up credit for Audrey Hepburn’s gorgeous Sabrina dresses, when Audrey herself had purchased them from Hubert de Givenchy!!—and then some), I’ve opted to talk to some pretty amazing people who knew her in unique ways.
First up, an interview with a woman who channels Edith to such a degree that her photograph is often mistaken for Edith’s on the web. Susan (Suz) Claassen is an actress whose one-woman show—“A Conversation with Edith Head“—was built on meticulous research and the help of Paddy Calistro, a woman who literally wrote the book about a woman she admired and knew intimately as a friend and companion. I asked the talented, charming Susan what it’s like to play the part of such a famous (some say infamous) personality and what being Edith has taught her. Here’s what Suz had to say.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this show?
I first got the idea eleven years ago when I was watching a television biography of Edith Head. I literally did a double take when I watched that TV biography… my physical resemblance to Edith Head seemed uncanny! And what’s even more bizarre, we are the same height and both born in October 50 years apart! The more I watched, the more I knew there was a great story to be told.
Edith’s estate was managed by The Motion Picture & Television Fund. I contacted them and they granted me permission to pursue this project. I madly read anything I could find 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 Santa Monica, 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. 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 HEAD is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head – the “Edith-isms.”
Q: What is it about Edith Head that attracts you as a performer and as someone who loves style?
She was one of a kind. In a world of knock-offs Edith was a true original. I would say she recognized opportunity and worked extremely hard. Edith was determined. She had tenacity and knew how to play the game in Hollywood better than anyone.
Q: So, what’s your take on Edith’s creative abilities as a costumer?
Edith was a very smart woman. She would read a script and confer with the director. She knew that a costume must further the story line. She also knew that things could change dramatically from the time of shooting to the release of the film. She made sure that her costumes were timeless.
Q: What was Edith’s secret to her long success?
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 States 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, glamorous or sexy or horrible. The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage.”
Q: Did Edith ever confront critics about her abilities?
Just this once in Time:
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
Q What do you think was the most important film Edith costumed?
It is the entirety of her work that is important.
Q: Did Edith have a favorite film?
“To Catch a Thief” was one of her favorites. She would always say that her favorite film was the one she was currently working on! (Here she is, discussing sketches for that marvelous film with Grace Kelly.)
Q: Edith’s wonderful friendship with Barbara Stanwyck is well documented. Did she have other favorite actresses?
She had many who she worked with in a professional capacity. She usually stayed out of the private lives of her stars but Anne Baxter was a friend. In fact Edith is godmother to her daughter Melissa Galt.
Q: Okay, I just have to ask..you wear an amazing copy of a stunning signature necklace of Edith’s–a charm necklace comprised of antique ivory French theater tokens–how did you find it?
I had a jeweler make it after we got a close-up in the Elizabeth Taylor Jewelry book. Edith willed it to Elizabeth Taylor, probably assuming that since Elizabeth loved jewelry so much, there was no better person to bequeath it to.
Q: What kind of responses do you get for your one-woman show from younger generation audiences?
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 credit, “Gowns by Edith Head” and it evokes a bygone era…
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 i.e 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!”
Q: I’d love to know what you, as a performer, have learned about your own style as a woman by studying Edith’s philosophy! Has your style changed since you’ve been portraying her?
As a performer it is a privilege to keep Miss Head’s legacy alive. I have always had a “Look” doesn’t fit the norm. By studying Edith’s philosophy, my belief in developing a personal sense of style is the way to go! Edith loved Mae West’s quote, “Find a magic that does something for you honey and stick with it – never change it!”
Now, I’m sure you’re all dying to see Suz in action, so here’s a clip from You Tube. If that’s not enough, click here to visit Suz’s website, A Conversation with Edith Head, to learn more. And she’s on Facebook, too! And if that’s still not enough, why not take in the show, like Joan Rivers did?
Suz has been nominated by Broadway World LA for Best Actress/Best Production, and was the 2011 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Nominee for Best Actress. Recently, she made the Phoenix Times “Best Of” list as 2012’s Best Actress. She is based in Arizona, drat it all, but she does take Edith on the road.
I want to thank Suz for several things; 1) For keeping Edith Head “alive” so that those of us who admire gutsy gals like her have the chance to “meet” her, 2) for dedicating her art and craft to honoring a true Hollywood legend, and 3) for being so sweet to take the tme from a brutal schedule to chat with me.
Here we are, together at last, at a wonderful Edie evening in New York City at the National Arts Club. Marvelous show!!! And yes, she really is that small and I really am that tall. No camera tricks, just living proof that beauty comes in all sizes!
Thanks, Suz! You’re amazing! (Even Tippi thinks so!)