The mastermind behind Wicked’s award-winning costumes

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Susan Hilferty The costumes of the citizens of Emerald City

Left: Susan Hilferty. Right: The costumes of the people of the Emerald City

For me, one of the most spectacular parts of Wicked the Musical are the gorgeous costumes. The show really does define the idea of a West End spectacle. From the moment you take your seats to when the cast takes their bow, the audience is immersed in the wonderful world of Oz – and the designers have done an incredible job.

It’s no wonder then that Wicked has earned numerous nominations and won awards for the design of the various productions in the US (Broadway and touring version), London’s West End and Australia’s show in Mlebourne. The mastermind behind this is costume designer Susan Hilferty.

During her career, Hilferty has worked on more than 300 productions around the world, ranging from theatre and opera, to film and dance works.

Susan explained “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.” Hilferty’s extensive research focused on 1900 to the 1920s, the period of time in which L Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I particularly like her vision for the uniforms worn by the students of Shiz University.

“I played with things that you recognize in school uniforms, but I put them together in different ways. 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.”

At the other end of the scale, however, are the outfits of the residents of Emerald City – more akin to a high fashion runway show. These “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”. However, Hilfery’s creations had a deeper moral message running through them. “If you look closely, many of the costumes have fur and feathers. It’s despicable, like having somebody’s scalps on your sleeves.” This emphasises the underlying theme of the show: that the animals were losing their rights, but it was allowed to happen by the citizens of Oz as The Wizard maintained their wealth and kept them entertained. Politics are at the heart of the story of Wicked, and the dedication of the creative team is clearly displayed in the lengths they have gone to ensure every aspect of the production upholds this.

The wardrobes of Glinda and Elphaba were designed to portray the essence of their characters.

The original parts on Broadway were played by Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba

The original parts on Broadway were played by Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba

Glinda epitomises “good” and so Susan got her inspiration by asking little girls what they thought “goodness” looked like. Their incredibly sweet answers included “like a princess, like a bride”. Hilferty looked back to images of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and Princess Diana’s wedding day to realise the final designs.

Elphaba on the other hand was “the exact opposite”, with her character “connected to things inside the earth”. The design of her dress included patterns and textures seen on fossils, stalactites and rock strata. For her time at Shiz University, she wears heavy boots that instantly ground her, literally – and wears spectacles, still the curse of any youngster trying to ‘fit in’. But as she travels to the Emerald City and feels less and less like an outsider – finding a place where she ‘belongs’, she now has a lighter pair of shoes and no longer wears the glasses. Elphaba now wears her hair down and her costume is a lighter colour – you see her external transformation before your own eyes, mirroring the changes she has undergone in her emotions and personality.

This is the job of a designer; to ensure that the thread of a show’s story is embodied in the every aspect of the production.