by David Cote on October 26, 2008
Besides the set and the lights and sound, much of the “ heavy lifting ” of the narrative for Wicked is done by the costumes. More than 200 costumes, each individually tailored for the particular actor, sprang from the fertile mind of Susan Hilferty , not to mention double that number in shoes and hats, each with a unique, eccentric design. With a resumé that boasts work on more than 200 stage productions that span Broadway, opera, and experimental theater, Hilferty had a unique assignment with Wicked : to create from whole cloth a believable world of Winkies, Munchkins, and those iconic witches. Being the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Hilferty puts on her academic cap to work out the puzzle of Oz.
Susan Hilferty (Costume Designer ): 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 center, or the cut of the dress twists around crazily.
For the student uniforms at Shiz University, I played with things that you recognize 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. That’s why, for me, it’s interesting to have Elphaba be in her school uniform when she goes to the party during “Dancing Through Life.” She’s got the hat, she’s got her big old boots on, and somehow she doesn’t have the “fashion gene.” And the other students are really about, “Oh, we know how to put it all together, and you missed it.” But there’s nothing so horrific about her when she enters the Ozdust Ballroom, other than not following the fashion rules.
Of the whole show, the costumes in the Emerald City were the easiest thing to do, because it’s just no-holds-barred, delirious dressmaking. It’s like an imaginary runway show, and I could be twenty different designers in the Emerald City. One element I wanted to work in—besides all the different shades of green, the extravagant hats, and more of the twisted Edwardian formal wear—was the use of animals. If you look closely, many of the costumes have fur and feathers. Thematically, I thought it was important to show how people in the Emerald City, who have money and live the high life, have animal remnants in their couture. It’s despicable, like having somebody’s scalps on your sleeves. Obviously, that fits into the political issues of the play. Animals’ rights are being taken away, but the people of Oz let it happen because the Wizard keeps them wealthy and entertained. Politics are at the heart of this play. I know that Wicked deals with it on a very simple level. But it was really important for all of us designers to hold on to it, instead of simply telling a funny story. I think it’s one of the reasons the show moves people: They’re recognizing a struggle between good and bad.
Glinda is the epitome of good, so I did research by asking little girls what goodness looks like. They said like a princess, like a bride. I collected and studied pictures of Queen Elizabeth II from her coronation, Lady Diana’s wedding dress, and all of the dresses that are emblematic of perfect femininity. When you look at any of the English coronation images, it’s hysterical, because it’s all about impressing in a certain way. Even Queen Elizabeth, in the 1950s, wore a crown and a long robe and held her scepter, and I wanted to tap into that. Glinda is also connected to the sky, sun, and stars. That influenced her tiara and wand. The sparkles on her dress are all about that, too. She symbolizes lightness, air, bubbles. Kristin is someone you know loves costumes, because she comes from a beauty pageant background. She can wear any kind of heel, and she knows makeup and hair. But she wanted to be transformed to be Glinda. We did a lot of fittings. I had to find just the right proportion in her Glinda dress, because she is tiny, tiny, tiny. She can get swallowed up in a second. It’s like one ruffle too many and you’re over the top.
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 colors into her skirt, so everything is literally twisted. And there was no issue with Idina about whether a costume was or wasn’t flattering. Idina is unbelievably gorgeous, but she’s not at all obsessed with her looks. When I designed her clothes for Shiz, I gave her heavy boots, so right away she’s connected to the earth, and then a cap that she pulls down low. Plus, she keeps her hands in her pockets. Idina completely embraced the idea of a young girl trying to hide herself. 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.”
Madame Morrible’s costumes get more and more elaborate throughout the show. The character is played here by Carole Shelley.
Susan Hilferty fits actress Laura Dysarczyk.