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Secrets, romance and sizes: The life and thoughts of Edith Head

Susan Claassen stars in
Susan Claassen stars in "A Conversation with Edith Head."
Angel City Press
Susan Claassen stars in
After winning her seventh Academy Award for the Facts of Life (1960), Edith agreed to another publicity shot; 1961.
Angel City Press (AMPAS)
Susan Claassen stars in
Edith, at left, discusses costume with Alfred Hitchcock, while Bergman and an unindenfitied woman listen in. The gown in the sketch was rejected for Notorious (1946), since the script called for a demure and extremely simple wardrobe for the star.
Angel City Press
Susan Claassen stars in
A beaming Elizabeth Taylor shows off her trim waist and ample bosom in another New Look adaptation by Edith Head for A Place in the Sun (1951).
Angel City Press (Stacy Endres Collection)
Susan Claassen stars in
Grace Kelly’s black-and-white beach ensemble for To Catch a thief (1955) was “as fashionable as anything we saw on the sand in the south of France,” Edith recalled.
Angel City Press
Susan Claassen stars in
To make Tippi Hedren utterly peckable in The Birds (1963), Edith chose a textured wool fabric that could be easily snagged and torn during the terrifying attack sequence.
Angel City Press
Susan Claassen stars in
Wearing a signature blouse, Edith completes one of her sketches; 1946.
Angel City Press

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“Good clothes,” said Edith Head, “are not a matter of luck." The California-born Head ushered in what some consider a golden age of costume design, dressing everyone from Faye Dunaway and Tippi Hedren to Steve Martin, but she was just as famous for her acerbic wit.

Head won eight Oscars from a total of 35 Academy Award nominations, more than any other woman to date.

On Oct. 28, playwright and actress Susan Claassen came to Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre with her one-woman show, “A Conversation with Edith Head.” In the play, Claassen simulates an interview by posing as the late costume mogul, answering questions submitted by the audience each night.

Claassen told KPCC’s Patt Morrison Tuesday that she feels privileged to keep Head’s legacy alive – a woman, Claassen says, who established herself as a great designer because of her versatility. Head’s repertoire ran the gamut, from the glamorous gowns in Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” to period pieces in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”

“She knew her costumes would only be as good as comfortable as the actor was wearing them. And so it was never about the costume, it always had to further the story,” Claassen said.

Paddy Calistro, Claassen’s co-writer and author of Head’s posthumous autobiography, said that Head understood how to make actors and actresses feel like movie stars and accentuated their finer points.

“Edith was the ultimate executive, and she knew how to deal with directors, she knew how to deal with stars. She was a manager even more than a designer,” Calistro said. “She knew how to please people, and that allowed her to work her way up the ranks in Hollywood.”

Claassen agreed.

“She said her motto was Bing Crosby’s theme song, [Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive]: ‘You have to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative.’”

A Conversation with Edith Head runs from Oct. 28 through Nov. 13, 2011, at the Odyssey Theatre. For more information, see OdysseyTheatre.com.

KPCC's Andrea Wang contributed to this report.


Susan Claassen, co-creator and star of “A Conversation with Edith Head”; managing artistic director at the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, Arizona

Paddy Calistro, co-author of “Edith Head’s Hollywood”; president and publisher of Angel City Press.