The Woman Who Brings Edith Head, Hollywood’s First Stylist, to Life

Susan Classen as Edith Head

Susan Claassen as Edith Head

With who wore what now just as talked about as who won what on Oscar night, Hollywood stylists have become stars in their own right. And while not every stylist can get a Bravo reality TV show a la Rachel Zoe (or a spin off of one), they can all thank one woman for making it possible: legendary costume designer Edith Head, Hollywood’s original superstar stylist.

While it’s usually only fashion cognoscenti (and few at that) who can spot, say, an Elizabeth Stewart-dressed starlet (she happens to dress Sandra Bullock, Amanda Seyfried and Cate Blanchett), fans of film could likely easily spot Edith Head’s handiwork without even realizing  it. Celeb stylists today certainly boast pretty impressive client lists, but they don’t hold a candle to Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Roman Holiday, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Katherine Hepburn and more — the list literally goes on and on.

Actress Susan Claassen has been bringing the costume designer to life on stage for nearly a dozen years in her one-woman show A Conversation with Edith Head, which she helped to write (along with Paddy Calistro) and produce as well. We saw the show several years ago (See our first write up here) and were quite simply dumbstruck with glee at how Claassen totally and utterly became her.

We’ve since gotten to know Claassen and are even more impressed with her own passion, deep knowledge and generosity of time and spirit in helping people to appreciate the powerhouse that was Edith Head — not to mention a treasure trove of memorabilia! Edith herself would have been proud. We talked with Claassen about playing Edith, the Academy Awards, Google’s tribute and Claassen’s own celebrity fans.

FASHION TRENDS DAILY: It’s Oscar season, so of course Edith’s name is coming up all over. What is it about Edith that remains so enduring today?

SUSAN CLAASSEN: 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.

Edith Head with her eight Academy Awards

Edith Head with her eight Academy Awards

FTD: She ended up being exactly that — one of the most celebrated costume designers of all time. She was awarded eight Academy Awards and was nominated 35 times.

SC: 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.”

FTD: Have you had a chance to see those awards? You must have had to sift through a lot of archival material to put together the show.

SC: Our research led us to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills where Edith Head left most of her papers, sketches, photos and eight Academy Awards. Through Paddy [Calistro]‘s connections, meetings were also set with Bob Mackie, who was once a sketch artist for Edith Head.

FTD: And he’s still working today! Edith was connected to a lot of Hollywood’s biggest names. Who did you contact while you were researching for the show?

SC: Edie Wasserman, wife of the late Lew Wasserman, famed agent and head of Universal Studios; and Art Linkletter, host of the long-running TV magazine show “House Party,” on which she regularly appeared. These extremely generous people provided first-hand insights into a world I had only read about.

FTD: You used Paddy Calistro’s book as a starting off point, did you get the opportunity to work with her?

SC: 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.”

Google's Edith Head doodle

Google’s Edith Head doodle

FTD: Back in October, Google had a little surprise for fashion fans when they changed their logo to an illustration of Edith. Did you know about it beforehand?

SC: Yes, I did. I had to keep it a secret which was so hard!

FTD: What would Edith think of the Google doodle?

SC: She would have loved it. It would have been especially gratifying that a 21 year old artist chose to create this homage and place “Edie” front and center!

FTD: How long have you been playing Edith Head on stage?

SC: Since 2002.

Susan Classen and Joan Rivers

Susan Claassen and Joan Rivers

FTD: I’m sure you’ve been told that you bear more than just as passing resemblance to Edith, is that part of what drew you to her?

SC: I first got the idea in 2001 when I was watching a television biography of Edith Head. I literally did a double take when I watched … 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.

FTD: Do people often think of you and Edith as one in the same?

SC: We are quite different. I embrace the responsibility of keeping someone’s legacy alive, so when I portray Edith Head, it is a fully researched and detailed performance.It is such a privilege to keep this amazing woman’s legacy alive.

The show’s next performances are set for Asheville, North Carolina, May 14 – June 8. For more information, visit the official A Conversation with Edith Head website at www.edithhead.biz.

Images courtesy EdithHead.biz and Google

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Author:Michelle Dalton Tyree and Christopher Luu

One Response to “The Woman Who Brings Edith Head, Hollywood’s First Stylist, to Life”

  1. Richard Glazier
    March 3, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    Terrific interview. Susan has put together an amazing show. Not to be missed.