Susan Claassen becomes a fashion icon in A Conversation With Edith Head
A Hollywood stylist before the term was even coined, costume designer Edith Head was the imagination behind the wardrobes for hundreds of films. For decades, the petite, behind-the-scenes boss oversaw a majority of Paramount's clothing-design work, dressing stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis. She was the recipient of eight Oscars, wrote three books and was an influential voice for fashion on television long before couture went mainstream.
Susan Claassen as Edith Head.
As part of the programming for 2013's Women + Film Voices Film Festival, Susan Claassen brings her one-woman show, A Conversation With Edith Head, to the L2 Arts and Culture Center this Sunday, March 3. Claassen's expertly researched, elegantly portrayed tribute to the fashion icon is so dead-on, friends of Head -- who passed away in 1981 -- have carried on conversations with the actress while in character.
In advance of this special one-night performance, Claassen -- who also wrote the play -- talked to Westword about the depths of her Edith Head research, the Academy's gracious help and why Head is important to contemporary fashion.
Westword:Your discovery of a personal resemblance to Edith Head physically seems to be what planted the seed for this show. How did you go about it from there?
Susan Claassen: Yes, and it's so interesting because I've been doing theater for a very long time, and no one had ever said that to me. Isn't that funny? People would say, oh, you look like Imogene Coca or a short Carol Burnett. But now everyone says, we know why you're doing this show! You look so much like Edith Head. I had never thought of that, so it was a most interesting kind of thing.
The next step, literally was, well, I was watching Biography. That's when I saw the biography of Edith Head. I had always been aware of Edith; I certainly knew who she was and what she did, but never to the detail. When I watched it, her story was intriguing; she was an "executive woman" before there was such a thing. Forty-four years at Paramount and then maneuvered her way to Universal when big corporations took over the studio. She saw the writing on the wall.
After watching that, I thought, this would be great. I'd performed other one-woman shows, having the good fortune of performing as Shirley Valentine. And I'd put shows together for other people, but I had never done anything for myself. So I immediately went to find out if a theatrical piece had ever been done on Edith Head -- and there hadn't.
Then I went to see how many books there were written by Edith. There were three.The Dress Doctor, which is how she referred to herself. There was How to Dress for Success, and then there was a book called Edith Head's Hollywood; it was published posthumously with Paddy Calistro. At that time, all three were out of print.
I saw that Edith had left her estate to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, so I contacted them and got right of likeness and right of publicity. Then I asked if they knew where I could find this woman, Paddy Calistro. They had no idea. [When the book was published in 1982] it said she lived in the Los Angeles area, so I just called information and there she was. I her called and explained that I was the artistic director of an intimate theater in Tucson, Arizona, and that I was interested in doing a theatrical piece on Edith Head.
I asked, are you the Paddy Calistro who wrote the book, Edith Head's Hollywood? You could hear her, so reserved, say, "yes." I told her I wanted to fly over and meet her and explore the possibility -- which I did. It was like kismet; we became immediately like best friends. Paddy had thirteen hours of taped interviews.