Broadway Buzz

Susan Hilferty Looks Back 20 Years to Dissect Wicked’s Most Iconic Costumes

by Hayley Levitt on April 11, 2024

Costume designer Susan Hilferty could measure Wicked’s life in the Broadway production’s she’s worked on since building the wardrobe of Oz—15. She could also measure it in the Tony nominations that followed her 2004 win for her Wicked artistry—four. Or, she could let the changing hues on her head tell their own story—“I was a brunette and now I have silver hair.”

In a special Wicked-themed episode of The Broadway Show, Hilferty joined Managing Editor Beth Stevens for a retrospective of her now-iconic work. And from the lobby of the Gershwin Theatre, Hilferty can still see shadows of her past self anxiously pacing that same space in October 2003. “I remember when we were gathered in this very lobby back 20 years ago, fretting about whether or not it would get an audience—whether or not it was going to survive,” she recalls. “I don’t think it was clear to anybody it would have the kind of legs that it has…The show is still as powerful as it was when it first opened 20 years ago.”

Before Wicked, Hilferty’s Broadway career comprised predominantly plays. Her earliest Broadway projects were collaborations with South African playwright Athol Fugard (A Lesson From Aloes in 1980 and Blood Knot in 1985), followed by a mix of contemporary work by playwrights like Tina Howe, Christopher Durang and Claudia Shear—and classics from the likes of William Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). Only two items on her Broadway resume before Wicked came along were musicals, and both were revivals: the 1995 production of How to Succeed in Business… and 2002’s Into the Woods.

“I always say that Wicked came to me at exactly the right moment in my career,” Hilferty reflects. “The kinds of designs that I created for Wicked— five years before, I wouldn’t have necessarily had the power or strength to have imagined those…It gave me the opportunity at exactly the right moment to move into a kind of storytelling that I love to do.”

Whether or not audiences fully appreciate the power of storytelling through clothing, when costume pieces become as instantly identifiable as Hilferty’s, it’s obvious that the garments are doing their job. And with a closer look, the how behind each design becomes clear.

Elphaba’s “Wicked Witch” dress—as Hilferty affectionately calls it—may give off a simple black silhouette, but monochrome it is not. “You can see how many different colors we included in the making of the skirt,” says Hilferty pointing out the different colors layered into Elphaba’s signature look. “If you look through the lines of the fabric in here, this is all pieced.” Beyond aesthetics, character is what motivates these small design details. “The idea was really always having a comparison between Elphaba and Glinda. Elphaba’s from the earth, and Glinda’s from the sky. When I look at this, it reminds me of me looking at coal, looking at mica, looking at things that come from the earth. It was always important for me that Elphaba was firmly planted on the ground.”

“Elphaba’s from the earth, and Glinda’s from the sky.” –Susan Hilferty
Still, this earth-bound image is only effective if it’s juxtaposed by an airy Glinda—and making a weighty ball gown look like it can fly is a battle with physics. “It should feel like it’s light and effortless,” says Hilferty, examining the famous blue dress that Glinda dons as she glides in on her bubble. “Because it’s got so many sequins on it, it’s actually quite heavy.” That’s 68,000 hand-sewn sequins for the record. “And if you lift it up and just see how many layers there are, it goes on and on. So it takes a lot of structure to make it feel like it’s just got a lot of air going on inside.”

Hilferty directs the fashion-savvy audience members to look out for the Dior influences in the gown (“That was important for me that everybody know that Glinda shops from the Dior of Oz”), but the dress’s singular architecture ends up serving both fashion and function. “This dress is actually her safety harness,” Hilferty explains. “The inner structure, instead of being the delicate Dior corset, is actually strong enough to hold a safety harness. So she’s always protected in case anything happens.”

And then there’s the roguish Fiyero—a young man in a fairytale land whose look has to somehow immediately map to familiar images of wealth and privilege. For this assignment, Hilferty started with a single concept: “The research for me ended up being princes. Not only princes in Europe, but also what we see as the princes of Hollywood—what our idea of a prince is.” Prince leads to polo, which then begets riding clothes, and before you know it, you have Wicked’s most zealously discussed piece of clothing: Fiyero’s pants. “Many people don’t know what a polo outfit is, but they go, ‘Oh, there’s something about it that has power,’” Hilferty says. “I don’t know what polo really looks like in Oz because we don’t know what kind of animals they’re actually riding. But I knew that by holding onto polo, it comes with a physical effortlessness. So when he arrives, you’re just conscious of his physicality.”

“I believe that every show that I design, I’m creating a culture and a world,” says Hilferty. “The role of the designers is to find the clues in the text that not everybody sees.” Elphaba and Glinda’s friendship rendered as a meeting of equal forces from the earth and sky may go largely unrecognized to this day. But after 20 years of sold-out performances, Hilferty knows she’s done her part in telling their story. “They have conflict, they disagree, they learn about themselves, and then in the end they change for good,” she says, still relishing the journey of the women she helped craft over two decades ago. “I love that part.”