Costume DesignStage & Theatre

Costume Design in Theatre – Wicked

The stage production Wicked first opened in 2004 and has now become the most popular musical of the last decade. This show features very distinctive looks, especially when it comes to the main character. This makes Wicked a fascinating case study when it comes to costume design in theatre.

Wicked witch

Wicked is a re-imaging of the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, which is itself based on the iconic eponymous children’s books written by L. Frank Baum. Wicked told the story from the perspective of The Wizard of Oz’s antagonist, The Wicked Witch of the West. Re-christened Elphaba, this is a green-skinned girl who has magical powers. In Wicked we follow Elphaba, as she learns that the land of Oz’ ruler, The Wizard, is really an oppressive tyrant and she goes on to build a resistance movement.

The original costume designer for Wicked was Susan Hilferty. Throughout her career, Hilferty has worked on over 300 opera, theatre, film and dance productions. In Wicked, however, she faced a unique challenge. Hilferty had to contend with the usual issues that come with doing theatre over film, such as ensuring actors can dance in costumes. However, she was also tasked with creating a template upon which all future productions of Wicked would be based. How does one go about this?

Creation process

Back in 2012, Hilferty shed light on her work in Wicked, when being interviewed by The Smithsonian, an American history museum. Explaining the creation process, she said that “The process of designing all of Wicked was about two years and every costume—all the visual ideas, the setting, the whole sense of the world—takes place all at the same time… [I needed to create] a world in which Wicked can take place the same way that Adrian who designed the costumes for The Wizard of Oz in 1938, looked back and found inspiration to create his world. I did the same in creating mine.”

Going on, she said: “Even though the story of Dorothy is parallel to our story, there’s really nothing from the movie that we used other than the fact that Elphaba’s green skin. So I went all the way back to the [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz books written around 1911 and the illustrations of [William Wallace] Denslow, who did the amazing illustrations in the first two [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz books. I was working through many, many images, trying to imagine a world as if a chunk of the earth had broken off in 1911 and gone off into space and then created a culture from what they knew from 1911.”

Light and dark

Hilferty then turned her attention to Wicked’s two main characters, Elphaba and Glinda – the ‘Good Witch’ from The Wizard of Oz. The designer knew that she had to establish these characters’ supposed associations with good and evil right from the start of Wicked, when they attend Shiz University as girls, to set this world up. Shedding light on this, she said: “I moved Elphaba to be all blue so she was always the darkest person at school and Glinda to be all white so she was always the lightest person in the school and everybody in the middle was a mix. But Elphaba and Glinda always stood out.”

Going on, she said: “When I was creating the archetypal world, which is when they become their classic characters—good and evil—I would use the sky, light, stars, and rainbows for Glinda. Elphaba, who is always firmly planted on the earth, I have her come from the earth. The dress isn’t black, it has many colours in it—the same way that mica or coal or jewels, when you think of mining into the earth, so that’s why the dress is designed to feel like it’s planted or coming out of the earth.” This is reflected in the costume’s asymmetry, as well as the fact that it looks as though it was carved from stone.

Couture costumes

Talking more about the process of designing costumes for Wicked, focusing Elphaba as an example, Hilferty noted: “Costumes like this are actually haute couture. They’re one-of-a-kind, made for a particular actress in a particular way and it requires incredible skill on the part of the many makers. First of all, I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like.” From there she continued, the process involves considered fabric selection and preparation, so it feels like natural clothing. Then, the pieces are stitched into an outfit, in layers, which often takes around an hour.

The costume Elphaba wears as the Wicked Witch involves a lot of intricate detailing, to achieve that ‘coming from the earth’ feel. To do this, Hilferty revealed, she ensured that the outfit including both regular an irregular beading, different stones and textures, as well as torn and hanging edges of fabric. Explaining further, she noted that “I was looking at the Edwardian silhouette as inspiration for a lot of the dresses. It isn’t specifically that. It’s just inspired by the Edwardian silhouette.”

Key example

With Wicked, Susan Hilferty had the task of designing costumes for an unknown production. This problem was compounded by the fact that the public’s perception of characters like Elphaba were governed by The Wizard of Oz and she had to fight these pre-conceived notions to help the viewers re-imagine these people. By creating intricate, incredibly thought-out costumes, Hilferty rose to this challenge, showing the incredible impact you can have as a costume designer on stage.

About Helen Beaumont

Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera. She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.

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