by Christine Yackel on October 20, 2015
Tony Award-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty experienced live theater for the first time during her junior year abroad in London, where she attended a range of performances—from an elaborate production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the National Theatre, to the original rough-and-ready Rocky Horror Show at the 63-seat Theatre Upstairs. “My semester abroad was life changing,” says Hilferty, chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and winner of a 2001 Obie Award for sustained excellence in costume design. “I had been in plays as a child, but I’d never actually seen a production onstage. It turned me on to theater design because I immediately understood how the visuals are an integral part of storytelling. I see myself as a storyteller who happens to use clothes as my medium.”
Hilferty grew up in a large family in Arlington, Massachusetts, where her greatest source of joy was the library. “We didn’t have a television,” she says. “Reading was my entertainment.” When it came time for college, she looked for a school within a 300-mile radius of home with a first-rate liberal arts program and a reputable art school. She also wanted a school with a good theater program because of her childhood interest in acting. “Syracuse University fit the bill in all respects,” says Hilferty, who majored in painting at the College of Visual and Performing Arts with a minor in fashion design. “The great thing about being a student at Syracuse was I received a strong liberal arts education combined with outstanding art and painting classes. I worry that today’s students want to bypass the liberal arts and go straight to learning technique. I find those who are the most successful in a career in the arts are the ones who find a balance between the two.”
After graduation, Hilferty headed to New York City, where she worked in theater for a few years before earning a master of fine arts degree in theater design from the Yale School of Drama. In her 30-plus years as a designer, she has created costumes for more than 300 national and international productions spanning Broadway, opera, dance, film, experimental and regional theater, and the circus.
Hilferty is best known for the eccentric designs she fashioned for the hit Broadway musical Wicked, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Costume Design in 2004. For the inhabitants of Oz, she invented a wonderfully wacky world of more than 200 costumes based on Edwardian-era clothing with an asymmetrical twist—off-center collars, one-sleeved sweaters, and lots of extravagant feathers and fur. The bodice of the Wicked Witch costume used as many as 20 different fabrics cut into small pieces that were then quilted back together, and the ruffles on the skirt required 40 yards of fabric to complete. The costume is so intricate it took one person two weeks to sew the entire dress together.
In addition to supervising 60 stage and film design graduate students and teaching two six-hour costume design studio classes each week, Hilferty manages to maintain a robust professional life. Her recent credits include costumes for Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera and Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot and The Train Driverat the Signature Theatre in New York City. Her designs also can be seen touring the United States in Wicked, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Fully Charged, and Taylor Swift’s world tour (www.susanhilferty.com). “My life is pretty crowded these days,” Hilferty says. “I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and there are many things I have to give up. I tell anyone interested in theater design as a career that artistic expression, not financial gain, must be your goal. You have to love it. ”