A Wicked Good Storyteller

by Sheryl Flatow on July 24, 2008

Susan Hilferty employs the artistry of costume design to illuminate the unknown yet somehow familiar world of Wicked.

Susan Hilferty, the Tony Award–winning costume designer for the blockbuster musical Wicked, describes herself as a storyteller. “I make the world real,” she says.

The best costume designers assist in reflecting and revealing character and emotions, creating a sense of time and place, and enhancing and illuminating the script. Hilferty is one of the best, and her 200 costumes for Wicked, together with Eugene Lee’s ingenious set and Kenneth Posner’s striking lighting, bring to life the world envisioned by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book) and director Joe Mantello.

Based on Gregory Maguire’s acclaimed novel, Wicked upends expectations as it reveals the heretofore-untold story of the two legendary witches in the Land of Oz. The musical tells the tale of an intelligent, passionate, misunderstood young girl with emerald-green skin named Elphaba, and how she becomes the notorious Wicked Witch of the West. Intricately entwined with her journey is that of her college roommate, the beautiful, blonde, popular and profoundly self-absorbed Glinda. Their instant animosity evolves into an unlikely friendship in a perilous Oz filled with political corruption and intolerance – a place strikingly familiar on this side of the rainbow.

Except, as another legendary character once said, we’re not in Kansas anymore – or anywhere on earth, for that matter. So it was up to Hilferty to create what she calls a “parallel universe,” with costumes that are at once familiar but unlike anything we know. “This is a show in which I was able to invent everything, including the animals,” says Hilferty. “If you’re going to invent a world, you have to create rules for the world. I chose to look back to the time that the book was written, and then reflect our own time. So I rooted the design in the Edwardian era, but I let Oz go off on a different tangent. Animals talk. We recognize things, but it’s still a very strange place.”

Hilferty drew inspiration from three sources: the original illustrations by W.W. Denslow for L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Maguire’s novel and the show’s score and libretto. She speaks often of “riffs” when discussing the costumes for the denizens of Oz and Emerald City. For the chase scene that opens the show, she played with the idea of a 1930s mob, all in trench coats. “But everything is deconstructed. None of the sleeves are alike, sometimes there are three sleeves, or a coat is made of all collars,” she says. “They’re all deformed and misshaped.” The dazzling costumes in Emerald City began with the idea of dressy clothes. “A lot of times, I designed the costume twice. First I’d design it as if it was an Edwardian costume, and then I’d twist it on an axis. There are all these spirals and big shoulders and more bustles than you can imagine. But the bustle might be on the side or the shoulder. I don’t think there’s anything that has an even hem.”

The costumes for Glinda and Elphaba reflect who they are and who they become. When we first meet Glinda, she’s all high-fashion style and little substance. Elphaba, by contrast, has one outfit: a bland jumper, turtleneck sweater and oversized blazer, topped off by a cap and glasses. “The costume makes her look like a scholar, but she is also hiding her greenness,” says Hilferty. “She’s as covered as she can be. She wears boots, because I wanted her to be weighted. I knew that when she became her most iconic, she should be connected to the earth. There’s a sense of solidity to her. Glinda ultimately needed to reflect the sky: light, air, stars, clouds. All the surfaces of her clothes are iridescent. Her tiara has starbursts. Her skirt looks like a cloud. She sparkles. The dress represents her evolution. She becomes good, and in the end, she earns the clothes she’s wearing.”

Glinda’s “good witch” white dress may be the most memorable, but Hilferty is partial to Elphaba’s “bad witch” black dress. “I’m not a sparkly girl myself, and I actually think Elphaba’s dress is more beautiful. It accentuates her outer and inner beauty in a non self-conscious way. It also reflects power. The bodice is cut like a corselet and is made of small strips of velvets and laces that are quilted together. There are about 15 or 20 different fabrics in the skirt alone.”

Perhaps the character whose evolution is most noticeably mirrored in her clothes is Madame Morrible. At the outset, she appears benign, and she’s first seen wearing a rust dress that makes her seem a bit like a nutty professor. But as her ambition grows, her look changes radically. “You see her being revealed for her wickedness,” says Hilferty. “For Morrible, I looked at pictures of Queen Elizabeth I, whose clothes made her look like something from another planet. Her hair was pushed way back on her forehead. That’s how Morrible appears at the end. Her forehead is tight and hard. The front of her bodice has so much beading on it that it’s like a plate of armor. She has high collars that cut off her head, so that her face seems to be pushed forward on a plate.”

The costumes for Wicked look nothing like Adrian’s designs for M-G-M’s “The Wizard of Oz,” and that is very deliberate. But there is one costume in the show that is a kind of gesture to the movie.

“It’s my own little joke,” says Hilferty. “Everything’s in color, but the wizard is in black and white.”