Part II: Five questions with Susan Hilferty, costume designer for "Wicked"

Susan Hilferty's costumes for the musical WICKED are part of a carefully crafted world, one that she envisioned "had broken off in 1911 and gone off into space" where it became its own unique culture. The Tony award-winning costume designer spoke to us about how it also took a village to create the costumes, what it feels like to have her work in the museum, and more. You can find the first part of the interview here.

Hilferty will sign the deed of gift for an Elphaba costume and broom from the musical on December 17 in a special ceremony that also includes a performance by WICKED actresses Donna Vivino (Elphaba) and Tiffany Haas (Glinda). The Elphaba dress, hat, and broom are currently on display in American Stories.

 

On the left, the Elphaba costume on display in the museum. On the right, Marcie Dodd in “WICKED,” photography by Joan Marcus.
On the left, the Elphaba costume on display in the museum. On the right, Marcie Dodd in "WICKED," photographed by Joan Marcus.

 

The hat has a very important role to play in the narrative. Can you tell us about it? 
An interesting fact; if you look at the [William Wallace] Denslow illustrations of the [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz, everybody in Oz wears pointed hats. It’s part of their look, their local garb. What you call a traditional witches hat actually comes from local dress from European villages—even some villages in Wales still wear these pointed hats. I'm a junkie, I'm constantly studying different cultures, folk dress, village dress. I knew Denslow was trying to make a village or community out of the world where they have pointed-toe shoes and pointy hats. It wasn't a far stretch to have the witch with a pointy hat. If you look at the witch in those illustrations, it's completely different from our story.

It's actually introduced in the story when Glinda gets as a gift from her grandmother, a hat she thinks is really ugly. As a prank, she gives it to Elphaba to wear to the party that night and Elphaba, who's really shy, arrives and realizes right away that she's been tricked. Glinda feels badly and steps in and they become friends because Glinda apologizes for her prank. So the hat can't look like a witches hat; it has to look like something granny might send.

The hat used to actually collapse down to a flat hat that was then pulled out and extended to a pointed hat. But the timing never really worked so we abandoned that idea. I did hundreds of sketches of the hat. She wears it a lot on stage so we needed to design it so that we could still see her face. That's why I brought the large brim up in a sweep, a natural curve that you see in bones or worn away rock and then also it allowed us to see her face. She puts her head back, so there's a lot of physical requirements for the hat—it gets beaten up and passed around. [Editor's note: Costumes in WICKED work hard; this video explains costume maintenance.]

 

Susan Hilferty’s sketch for the Elphaba costume.
Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume

Do you ever visit museums for ideas? 
Oh all the time. I’m a museum and library junkie. I'm a member of many museums. I'm on my way in a couple weeks to go to London to see the V&A Museum. There's an exhibit there which is specifically a costume exhibit. But usually I would spend time at the museum of natural history because I'm looking for inspiration that comes from anywhere. So in the Elphaba dress, I looked at rocks and oil spills.

I'm also a birder because I love to see how color and textures are put together on birds. I’m very excited to come down to Washington to spend the day in the museums down there. I use museums and books all the time, constantly.

 

A black sicklebill, a large bird of paradise that reminded us a bit of Elphaba’s costume. Image via the Encyclopedia of Life
A black sicklebill, a large bird of paradise that reminded us a bit of Elphaba's costume. Image via the Encyclopedia of Life.

What are you working on now and what's coming up next for you? 
The world is always changing. Right now I just opened the revival of the musical Annie. I'm doing Rigoletto for the Metropolitan Opera, which we're setting in 1960 Las Vegas. I'm also doing a Chilean play about a night in Russia. I do big pieces and small pieces. I just finished doing three plays by a South African writer who also writes about the underdog in a very different way.

In the case the costume is in, it's just steps away from the ruby slippers, Kermit the frog, and other iconic American history artifacts. What's it like to have your work on display in the museum? 
It's actually very moving. It's moving because clearly there's pride connected to it. How exciting that something that I've designed has found its place. I find it exciting that theater and the arts are recognized in this way as part of our whole culture, because this represents theater and literature.

I recently lost a friend who was a great costume designer. I put together his memorial service, and what was the most moving was that the size of our community of people who work at putting something on the stage—it’s a very small community, but one that’s impassioned. To see this dress and knowing all of the people who have worked on it—all the drapers, stitchers, dyers, milliners, cobblers, and wig makers, etc, the list is really long—to see that all of their work represented—and all the actors who performed in the roles, the musicians in the pit, in many ways this represents all of us. So that’s the part I find most exciting. [Editor’s note: For an idea of who works behind the scenes at WICKED, check out this video about hair and makeup or this this video filmed backstage.]

Susan Hilferty doing a costume fitting with Laura Dysarczek. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Susan Hilferty doing a costume fitting with Laura Dysarczek. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What do you want people to notice or learn when they look at the dress? 
I describe myself as a storyteller, not just a clothing designer. I tell stories through clothes. What I hope is that they see beyond this—not just a beautiful dress that's created by really accomplished artisans, but that they also get into the story of a young woman who rose above her troubles and becomes a powerful voice for the underdogs of the world. That's really what the dress is about. It doesn't mean anything by itself, though it's beautiful. It's a creature who has held on to the idea of morality and speaks out for the underdog.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.

Posted at 1:34 pm EST in From the Collections,Women's History