A blog about vintage fashion, vintage jewels and art.....

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Conversation with Edith Head

A Conversation With Edith Head is a glorious behind the scenes feast of great movie legends and delicious stories that provide an insight into Hollywood’s legendary costume designer. In her six decades of costume design, she worked on 1,131 motion pictures, dressed the greatest stars of Hollywood, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won an unprecedented eight Oscars - a record that will never be broken. This exclusive interview with impersonator Susan Claassen delves deeper into the character of this extraordinary woman.

FF: How did you 'meet' Edith Head?
I first got the idea nine years ago when I was watching a television biography. I literally did a double take when I watched that TV biography. My physical resemblance to Edith seemed uncanny! And what's even more bizarre, we are the same height and both born 50 years apart in October! The more I watched, the more I knew there was a great story to be told.

I contacted Edith's estate and they granted me permission to pursue this project. I madly read anything I could find and 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 is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head - the ''Edith-isms'.

FF: What intrigued you about her apart from the fact that you resemble her so much?
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 Stated had just recently got ten 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."

FF: What were the challenges of doing this part?
It is a privilege to keep her legacy alive. The preparation to be comfortable in some else's skin is enormous. I must always be present to be able to respond to any question. I want them to feel as if they have just met Edith Head. I am constantly researching and trying to understand this amazing woman. I have my rituals before every performance. It is an enormous responsibility but well worth the effort. I feel so blessed. The audience response has been amazing. From Tbilisi to Edinburgh to London 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 through the evolution of contemporary film, older audiences remember always seeing the closing credits, ‘Gowns by Edith Head’, it evokes a bygone era and younger audiences think of the Pixar animated film The Incredibles and Edna Mode, designer to the superheroes.

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 unforgetable!"

FF: Did you get to research her costume design work?
Yes, and I own many original sketches in addition to the reproductions on the set. Edith's story is as fascinating as the history of the film industry itself, filled with humor, frustration and, above all, glamour. This diva of design helped to define glamour in the most glamorous place in the world - Hollywood! Remember, Edith Head did Hollywood Red Carpet commentary while Joan Rivers was still in college.

Edith Head may not be a household name these days, but in her prime she was one of the most colourful characters in Hollywood. She was dishing out caustic fashion advice years before Trinny and Susannah made careers out of it, and was confidante to the stars long before Celebrity Sleuth broadcast their measurements.

As Lucille Ball said, Edith knew the figure faults of every top star. And she never told - Edith always knew how to keep a secret."

Well, in this cozy conversation some secrets might be revealed and fashion tips freely given. As Miss Head says, "If Cinderella had had Edith Head, she would not have needed a Fairy godmother!"

FF: Which costumes did impress you most & why do you b elieve she achieved such huge success in Hollywood?
That would be like picking a favorite child! I have to admit I do love the costumes from To Catch a Thief - she had an extravagant budget and a gorgeous star, Grace Kelly - who could ask for anything more.

High fashion is of the moment and the best of costume design is timeless. You must remember that costumes were often completed a couple of years before the release of the film.
A perfect example are Elizabeth Taylor's gowns in the 1951 A Place in the Sun . The film was shot in 1949 and released in 1951.The silhouette was the most important aspect of any of the ensembles, therefore the costumes in the Academy Award winning film could be worn to any society event today. The woman wearing it would evoke an era classic couture and look as dramatic as Liz did when she danced with the dreamy Monty Clift!

Edith had the ability to shape each gown to a character or image. This is what made her as popular with film directors as with the glamour girls she dressed in both their private lives and screen roles.

FF: Did you ever meet her personally or get anywhere near her, her home, her studio?
No, but I feel as if I have met her. I know we would have been great friends.

September 24, 2010
Hollywood Premiere
El Portal
North Hollywood, CA


BaronessVonVintage said...

WOW... this is really great. Boy, does she EVER look exactly like Edith Head!!!

Francy said...

Fantastic interview! I've always loved Edith Head and her costumes. I read Edith Head's Hollywood last year, and just became even more enchanted. This production looks so great!


Witchcrafted Life said...

This is fantastically interesting, I've actually not heard about this famous film about Edith before, thank you so much for bringing it to my attention, sweet dear!

I'm sorry to hear that you've been having a bit of a rough week, mine has been on the rocky side, too, so I completely understand (actually the past couple months have been less than stellar, but I'm optomistic that the rest of the spring will get better - for us both!)

Wishing you a gorgeous, serene Friday & weekend ahead!
♥ Jessica