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With the Oscars wrapping up movie award season just days ago, the timing couldn’t be better for actress and artistic director Susan Claassen to bring her one-woman-show, A Conversation With Edith Head, to Denver. Claassen (a University of Denver alum) stars as the costume designer extraordinaire, who worked on 1,131 movies during her nearly 60-year career and dressed some of the most famous stars of the 20th century, including Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Roman Holiday. I recently chatted with Claassen about Head’s lasting influence on Hollywood and the fashion industry.
5280: How did this show come about?
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Susan Claassen: I was watching her [Edith Head’s] biography on TV, and thought I looked somewhat like her. After some research, I realized that a theatrical play about her life had never been done. So I connected with Paddy Calistro who wrote the book Edith Head’s Hollywood, which was out of print by then, and eventually we started working together. She had 13 hours of taped interviews with Head, and I did additional research at the Margaret Herrick Library [Editor’s note: The Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences’ research facility in Los Angeles], which houses the bulk of Edith’s papers and sketches. The play premiered in 2002.
5280: Head must be a pretty formidable woman to take on as a character—her career as a designer was so influential and so long-lasting.
SC: She was an executive woman before there was such a thing, and she was also a stylist at a time when there were none. In addition to her film work, she was the costume supervisor for the Academy Awards for many years. In fact, in 1968 she sent out a letter—much like the Grammys did this year—telling people how to dress: Gowns should be maxi or floor-length—no minis; men should wear a white tie, etc.
5280: She seems to have had both business and design savvy.
SC: She knew how to market herself as a product. She wrote for magazines, she designed a line of Vogue patterns, she recreated her greatest costumes for Hollywood fashion shows, and she even did makeovers long before the term was coined. She was also a founding member of Fashion Group International and the Costume Designers Guild. She understood the value of branding and put a face to what a costume designer does.
5280: Did studio executives ever think she crossed the publicity line?
SC: The studios loved that she attracted publicity! She was in Photoplay Magazine giving fashion tips and, at the same time, promoting their films. Plus, she would outfit anyone who was representing the movie studio, whether they were major stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly (who were also close friends) or contract players. Stars trusted her because they knew what was said in the confines of a fitting stayed there.
5280: Besides her actual design work, what is Head’s legacy?
SC: She was a one-of-a-kind. If you Google “Top 10 Red Carpet Dresses of All Time,” her gowns are always included on the list. She created lasting designs, and her work was almost chameleon-like. Whereas Adrian Adolph Greenberg [Editor’s note: the chief designer for MGM] was always identifiable by his tailoring, Edith’s work was timeless, like in Rear Window. It had to be. The editing process at the time meant that films were shot two years before they were released.
5280: How long will you continue to play Head?
SC: I never tire of doing this show!