by Davide Cote on June 13, 2018
In Susan Hilferty’s bustling studio workshop on West 24th Street in New York, you will find shelves overflowing with books and drafting tables covered in papers. This is Hilferty’s invaluable “image library”, where the designer finds pictures that spark her imagination. Anything will serve: newspaper clippings, magazine photos, or illustrations in books. For the intensive research and visualisation needed to create the astonishing costumes of Wicked, Hilferty searched far and wide, from the contemporary fashion design of John Galliano to the Edwardian couture that she “twisted” to create many of Wicked’s unique Tony Award-winning costumes.
“In many ways, I consider myself a historian, a sociologist, and an art historian – in addition to all the other things that I do with clothes. To me, what was so exciting about Wicked was trying to understand a world that had a connection to the turn of the century as we know it. But I also had to incorporate the idea that animals talk, that there is magic, and that there are Munchkins in this place called Oz. So the design process meant researching history and creating a parallel universe.
“My research focused on the period in which Baum wrote the books, from 1900 to about 1920. So in a way, it’s centered on the Wizard, who is our representative in Oz. The Wizard is somebody from 1900 who has gone up in a balloon and somehow drifted over to Oz. So I created a style I call “twisted Edwardian”. It’s Edwardian-era suits and dresses, but asymmetrical – the collar might be off centre, or the cut of the dress twists around crazily.
“For the student uniforms at Shiz University, I played with things that you recognise in school uniforms, but I put them together in different ways. Somebody has one type of shirt, or their tie is out, or they’re wearing a crazy sweater with one arm in a sleeve and the other bare; men in skirts. It was all to get a “Shiz look”. Basically, I came up with the idea of a Shiz school store, where you can mix and match different tops and bottoms to suit your personality, even though everything still has the same Shiz pattern of blue and white stripes. That’s really at the heart of the play: the struggle between individuality and uniformity. It’s also a fashion issue in general. People think they’re renegades, but they’re actually just following a trend. Back in the ’50s, leather jackets became a symbol of rebellion because bikers wore them. Now, of course, it’s a fashion thing.
“Elphaba is exactly the opposite. I see her as connected to things that are inside the earth. So the patterns and textures I wove into her dress include fossils, stalactites, or striations that you see when you crack a stone apart. I mixed different colours into her skirt, so everything is literally twisted. Now, by the time she gets to the Emerald City, she feels she belongs. I change her shoes so that she has a lighter pair. We take her glasses away, her hair comes down, and she’s wearing a lighter color. And suddenly she feels accepted and even, you could say, fashionable. Glinda tells her at the end of Act I not to be afraid and she answers, “I’m not.”
Susan Hilferty’s Wicked costumes in numbers