Play channels classic costume designer Edith Head Lifestyle/Features Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
Getting inside her head
By EVERETT EVANS Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 21, 2008, 7:23PM
Famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head returns, after a fashion, for A Conversation With Edith Head, opening tonight at Theater LaB Houston.
Susan Claassen has been channeling Head since originating the solo show in 2002 at Tuscon, Ariz.'s Invisible Theatre Company, where Claassen is managing artistic director. Claassen has performed the work from San Francisco to Chicago to London, where she had an acclaimed monthlong run this summer.
Since Claassen has absorbed pretty much all there is to know about her subject, we decided to have our own conversation with "Edith Head."
Q: You've been described as discreet but also tough and driven.
A: I've had to be to survive six decades in the Hollywood boys' club. People have accused me of being a master of self-promotion. I suppose I am. I hate modesty, don't you?
Q: How would you sum up your philosophy of costume design for film?
A: It must fit the character. At the same time, I've always designed for the actor. How good the clothes look on screen depends on how comfortable the star is wearing them.
Q: Is that why you've sometimes been willing to adapt your designs, to change a detail, to keep the star happy? Producer Hal Wallis said you had "great rapport" with the stars you dressed, especially the women.
A: I never walked off a set in a huff. Early on, I learned the value of understanding their (actors') vulnerabilities. I know how to keep people's secrets.
Q: What designer influenced you the most?
A: Travis Banton, who was the head of Paramount's costume department from 1927 to 1938. (Head was his assistant in those years, replacing him at his departure to become the first woman to head a major studio's costume department.) I learned everything by studying his work, especially the way he created the signature look for the three graces of Paramount: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert.
Q: You've been quoted as saying that you were sometimes a better politician or diplomat than designer. Could you give an example?
A: On Vertigo, Kim Novak said the one color she absolutely hated to see herself in was gray. Alfred Hitchcock always came into a film with very detailed ideas about what he wanted. And naturally, for a key scene in Vertigo, he had distinctly said, "I want her in a gray suit." So it was up to me to find a way to bring Kim around, showing her swatches and swatches of different grays, until we finally came to a lavender-gray for the suit, and she loved it.
Q: How would you rate yourself among your fellow designers?
A: There probably have been greater designers. No one could surpass the glamor of Adrian designing for Greta Garbo. But where some excelled chiefly at one type of film, I've enjoyed being a chameleon who can do any type of picture, from Westerns to monster movies, musicals to biblical spectacles. Designing gorgeous gowns for Grace Kelly to wear in To Catch a Thief is one kind of thrill. But in The Country Girl (the drab character role for which Kelly won her Oscar), to make Grace Kelly look plain was a challenge unto itself.
Q: How important is authenticity to period or locale?
A: That depends on the project and the director. For The Heiress, I did the kind of research (director) William Wyler wanted, because he was adamant about authenticity. But on the Road pictures, if Bob Hope wanted to wear something just because it was funny, nobody gave a damn. Cecil B. DeMille never made an "authentic" picture.
Q: On House Party, you were known for being frank with the audience members. Such as telling a portly lady, "Go on a diet!"
A: The sponsors requested that I be nicer to the ladies. I tried.
Q: Was it part of your "self-promotion" to make cameo appearances as yourself in films like Lucy Gallant and The Oscar? Did you enjoy being on the other side of the camera for a change?
A: I hated doing them. It's difficult to portray yourself. You have to keep repeating the same thing. I did them because they (the studios) wanted me to do it. When you're under contract to a studio, you do what they tell you to do. After those experiences, I had a greater respect for actors.
Q: What would you like your legacy to be? Is there a single film, even a single costume, that you'd most want to remembered for?
A: For the whole body of work and the recognition it achieved. I worked hard to get the profession recognized. Remember, for the first 21 years of the Academy Awards, there was no category for costume design.
Q: I gather that, unlike some in the industry, you take awards very seriously.
A: They're my pride and joy. There's nothing like eight Oscars for putting the fear of God into an actress who thinks she knows everything about dress design.
Q: Is there a thought you'd like to leave us with? Anything you'd tell young people who aspire to careers in film or design?
A: You can be anything you want in the world, as long as you dress for it.