Edith Head is the undisputed costume Oscars queen. With a Hollywood career spanning six decades and a record eight Academy Awards to show for it, Head dressed an impressive array of Hollywood actors, from Jerry Lewis and Elvis to Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis. She died at age 83 in 1981, shortly after finishing work on "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid."
There's no telling who will get the award at this year's ceremony, but the winner will be unlikely to challenge Head's record because for much of her career, she worked for Paramount Studios, where movie production was executed in-house rather than contracted to different designers as it is today.
Also different from Head's early days is that the stars wear whatever they want to on the red carpet and are dressed by stylists rather than the studio dressmakers, as used to be the case. She not only dictated what actors wore in the movies, but what they wore to the Oscars, too.
"There were better designers, but she was the smartest," says Susan Claassen, an actress, writer and producer who plays the costumer in "A Conversation with Edith Head," which will be at the L2 Arts and Cultural Center in Denver March 3 for a one-night run as part of the Women+Film Voices Film Festival.
Claassen spends most of her time in Tucson, where she is the longtime managing artistic director of Invisible Theatre, but has performed as Edith Head throughout the United States and in Europe. Her desire to act and direct was fostered when she was a student of theater and education at the University of Denver.
She hasn't been back to perform here since she graduated in 1969 after having been in multiple college productions and on stage at such long-gone theaters as the
In a phone interview from Tucson, Claasen said that she became fascinated with Edith Head after seeing a program about the costumer on the Biography Channel. When Head got started, "It was a boys' club, to run that (costume) shop. She was an executive woman before there was such a thing," Claassen said.
Claassen began researching Head and realized no one had done a stage production about her long Hollywood career. Research led her to California writer, editor and publisher Paddy Calistro, who wrote "Edith Head's Hollywood" in 1983. The book was based on
Claassen was interested in playing Head because not only did she find her story interesting, she also resembled the costumer. "I was always aware that I looked a little like her. I had short dark hair and always had a style about myself."
Head had studied languages and art rather than wardrobing but quickly learned the ropes and applied herself when she got a job at Paramount. She worked with most of the major stars of the day and was careful not to try to overshadow them, whether she was dressing Bette Davis for "All About Eve" or Grace Kelly for "Rear Window." She put Dorothy Lamour in a sarong for "The Hurricane," and Robert Redford and Paul Newman in dapper suits for "The Sting."
Claassen wears a plain suit and clear nail polish when she performs her show. "She never wanted to upstage the star she was dressing and had no intention of competing with them," Claassen says.
In the 90-minute show, Claassen takes on the character of Edith Head working in her Hollywood studio, surrounded by photographs of the famous actors she worked with and sketches of what they wore in various movies. She takes questions from the audience and shares stories.
One that might come up that was a sore spot for Head is that while she designed all of Audrey Hepburn's costumes for "Roman Holiday," the actress developed a relationship with French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, and he created clothes for several of her subsequent films. "It broke Edith's heart that she never had that great connection that Audrey had with him," Claassen says.
But Head had plenty of work to keep her busy, amassing credits on more than 1,100 films in her career. Her influence extended in other ways, as she was wardrobe director for such programs as the Academy Awards, sending out mandates that men wear formal suits and women not reveal too much skin.
Head also spent time cultivating her image, greeting visitors who toured the Paramount lot, and going on shows like Art Linkletter to offer wardrobe advice.
In the show, Claassen, as Head, will share style tips. " I think her style tips are universal and classic," Claassen says. "She felt she should make the tricks that she learned in Hollywood accessible to all of America."
Suzanne S. Brown: 303-954-1697, email@example.com or twitter.com/suzannebro
"A conversation with Edith Head"
One-woman show co-written and performed by Susan Claassen; 7 p.m. March 3 at L2 Arts and Cultural Center, 1477 Columbine St. The one-night performance is part of the Women+Film Voices Film Festival. Tickets start at $25. VIP tickets, $100, include gold circle seating, a goody bag plus champagne reception after the show and photo with "Edith." denverfilm.org or call 303-595-3456.
Best costume design contenders
Five movies and designers are in the running for best costume design honors this year. The list:
"Anna Karenina," Jacqueline Durran
"Les Misérables," Paco Delgado
"Lincoln," Joanna Johnston
"Mirror Mirror," Eiko Ishioka
"Snow White and the Huntsman," Colleen Atwood