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Costume drama

'A Conversation With Edith Head' profiles the designer who became as big a star as some of those she dressed.

October 24, 2011|Susan King
  • Susan Claussen plays the famed costume designer in "A Conversation with Edith Head" at the Odyssey Theatre.
Susan Claussen plays the famed costume designer in "A Conversation… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Edith Head had grand designs on Hollywood for six decades, earning 35 Oscar nominations for her influential costume designs and winning eight Academy Awards for such films as 1949's "The Heiress," 1951's "A Place in the Sun," 1954's "Sabrina" and 1960's "The Facts of Life."

She was a favorite of Billy Wilder, designing the costumes for his classic 1944 film noir "Double Indemnity" and his 1950 masterpiece "Sunset Boulevard," as well as of Alfred Hitchcock, creating iconic looks in such romantic thrillers as 1946's "Notorious," 1954's "Rear Window," 1958's "Vertigo" and 1963's "The Birds."

Besides designing costumes for films, Head also created personal wardrobes for the likes of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Crawford. She designed the uniforms for Pan Am airline stewardesses and she offered frank makeover tips to housewives as a regular on Art Linkletter's "House Party" CBS daytime series.

In fact, Head became as big a star as some of the performers she designed for at Paramount for 44 years and Universal from 1967 until her death in 1981.

For the last decade, the designer has been brought to life by Susan Claassen in her one-woman show, "A Conversation With Edith Head," which opens on what would have been her 114th birthday on Oct. 28 at the Odyssey Theatre and continues through Nov. 13. This is a return engagement to Los Angeles for Claassen, who played Head a year ago at the El Portal in North Hollywood.

Based on "Edith Head's Hollywood" by Head and Paddy Calistro, the play written by Claassen and Calistro premiered at the Invisible Theatre in Tucson where Claassen is an actress and managing artistic director. Since then, Claassen has toured the U.S. and internationally.

The genesis of the play began more than a decade ago when Claassen was watching an episode on Head on the TV show "Biography" and discovered that she looked like the designer. On stage, Claassen transforms into Head's doppelganger, complete with the designer's dark glasses, cropped hair and business suits.

Head never changed her look over the decades. "She took her philosophy from Mae West," Claassen said. "Mae West said when you have a magic that does something for you, honey, stick with it. Never change it. And she never did."

When Head began working in Hollywood in the 1920s, costume design was strictly a boys' club. But she got along so great with the "boys," she became head of the costume department at Paramount. "She survived by not letting her ego ever stop her from collaborating," Claassen said. "She knew her costumes would only look as good as the stars wearing them. And she was totally discreet."

Head, from San Bernardino, earned a master's at Stanford in foreign languages and was teaching French at the Hollywood School for Girls when, in 1923, she began working for director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount.

Explained Claassen: "She needed money and looking through the classifieds, she saw an ad: sketch artist work for Cecil B. DeMille, call Howard Greer for an appointment. She knew Howard Greer was a chief designer at Paramount."

But Head wasn't an artist. She had started taking art classes because her duties had expanded to teaching art at her school. But Head was just a beginner. "She was only drawing oceans," Claassen said. So she "borrowed" work from her art school and created a dazzling portfolio that wowed Greer. Head bid adieu to teaching French.

"That started the world according to Edith," Claassen said. "She learned to draw. She was so smart. But she considered herself a better diplomat than designer."

Head was "collaborative in taking people into the process," Claassen said. "She said with every director you have a certain language. With Hitchcock, she didn't even need words. He was very specific in the script."

For more information on "A Conversation with Edith Head" go to www.odysseytheatre.com.

susan.king@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Designer's Oscar-winning looks

Edith Head won eight Academy Awards, including for these three films:

"A Place in the Sun"

Head's clothes heightened the drama in this 1951 film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy."

"Roman Holiday"

Audrey Hepburn looked stunning in her princess gowns and street clothes in this 1953 classic.

"The Sting"

Head earned her final Oscar for this 1973 best picture winner dressing Paul Newman and Robert Redford in vintage '30s clothes.

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