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Conversations with Edith Head: A Play Worth Seeing

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 Pictured: A photo of an old advertisement featuring Edith Head. (photo: M. Hall)

Many people consider Paris, New York, London or Milan as the fashion capitals of the world. But the fact is Los Angeles has been the home of many wonderful designers.  Many of these designers were part of the movie industry.  They were not just great dress makers, they were illusionists, bringing glamour and fantasy to the big screen. A good flaws. One of the best, was Edith Head.  Edith Head was a Hollywood costume designer for over 60 years.  For most of those years, she worked at Paramount Pictures.  She dressed stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey and Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.

Now a wonderful play about her life has opened in Hollywood., not far from Edith Head's last design home at Universal Studios.   Aptly named,  Conversations with Edith Head, the play is based on the book of the same title by Edith Head and LA author Paddy Calistro. The play, featuring a tour de force performance by actress Susan Claassen, is now playing at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood.  I had the pleasure of seeing the play over the weekend, and it's a wonderful piece. You leave feeling like you really met Edith Head. Actress Susan Claasssen bears a striking resemblance to the designer and the dialogue in the play is from the designer's writings and reminiscences.

 Pictured: Susan Claassen as Edith Head with a replica of Elizabeth Taylor's dress from a Place in the Sun (photo courtesy of Susan Claassen.)

It is Edith Head's authentic voice that theater goers hear. And it is her authentic story, warts and all. Edith may have won 8 Academy Awards, but she did not always win the respect of other designers. Some looked at her costume work as fluff and not work of real artistic merit. It may have been Edith's sensitivity to these feelings that lead her to claim sole credit for Audrey Hepburn's Little Black Dress in Sabrina, when it was widely rumored to be the work of Givenchy. But Claassen makes you feel Edith's vulnerabilities which may have lead to her need to take credit for the work of others. Although Edith threw verbal daggers at would be fashionistas on the TV show House Party way before Simon Cowell, Claassen still plays her as a likable and admirable character. Her work ethic and loyalty to those she dressed are highlights of the play. The audience learns that Edith worked hard and learned her craft at the studios during the 1920s. She started as a sketch artist at Paramount and worked her way up the ladder without favors or connections. The female stars she worked with frequently became her friends, and they had a confidence that she would present them to their best advantage on screen. One of the highlights of the play is the many stories of her working relationships with Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. She was also a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, and you get to see how much Hitchcock respected her work, although he was not regarded as one who had an eye for fashion.

One of the most interesting things about the play, is the opportunity for the audience to ask questions of Edith/ Miss Claassen during the performance. Clearly, Susan Claassen knows Edith Head's history as if she knew her. She is able to answer the questions without any rehearsal or prompting. The questions and answers bring the audience into the world of Edith Head and create a very intimate theater experience. With Los Angeles Fashion Week about the start, it's a fitting time to take a look at a great Los Angeles designer. The play will be showing at the El Portal Theater in Hollywood until Oct. 24th. If you have the opportunity to see it, even if you don't know anything about fashion, take it. It's a wonderful story with a great performance.