Costume designer Susan Hilferty discusses the inspirations for her Tony Award-winning costume designs with David Cote, ahead of the smash hit show’s return to Bristol
In Susan Hilferty’s bustling studio workshop on West 24th Street in New York, you’ll find shelves overflowing with books and drafting tables covered in papers. This is the designer’s invaluable “image library” where she 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, she searched far and wide, from the contemporary fashion design of John Galliano to the Edwardian couture that she “twisted” to create many of the 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 I do with clothes,” she says. “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, 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…” The Wizard
“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. He 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. 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.”
“Of the whole show, the costumes in the Emerald City were the easiest thing to do, because it was just no-holds-barred, delirious dressmaking. It was like an imaginary runway show, where I could be 20 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. 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 – it was really important for all of us designers to hold on to it, instead of simply telling a funny story. It’s one of the reasons the show moves people: they’re recognising 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 so I 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 sceptre, 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 symbolises lightness, air, bubbles.” Helen Woolf as Glinda
“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 to a lighter pair. We take her glasses away, her hair comes down, and she’s wearing a lighter colour. Suddenly she feels accepted and even, you could say, fashionable. Glinda tells her not to be afraid at the end of act one and she answers, “I’m not.”
From Wicked: The Grimmerie, published by Hyperion. The show runs at Bristol Hippodrome from 31 January to 3 March
• The production features 350 costumes, 140 wigs, 244 pairs of shoes, 110 hats, 125 pairs of gloves and 30 prosthetic masks.
• Elphaba’s ‘wicked witch’ dress uses 40 yards of fabric and the skirt alone takes three weeks to construct. There are nearly 50 layers of gathered ruffles in the skirt, which is made from 45 different fabrics.
• Glinda’s ‘bubble’ dress is made up of 45 petals, each of which takes three days to bead, and a day and a half to hand sequin. There are 20 types of sequins and almost 100,000 sequins used in this one costume.
• 2,000 metres of ribbon are used in the Emerald City costumes