Costume designer Susan Hilferty loves to collect vintage clothing. As someone who has designed more than 340 shows worldwide, in almost every time period, vintage clothing is perfect research material. “The oldest piece I have is from 1860,” she notes, before pausing, and clarifying. “Actually I think I have a man's tailcoat from the 1840s.” One highlight in her collection is a dress designed by Vionnet, from the 1930s: a navy blue frock with floral embroidery. And that dress is currently being worn every night by Tedra Millan in Broadway’s Tony-nominated revival of Present Laughter by Noël Coward.
“Because it comes from my collection, it's probably my favorite [in the show],” she says chuckling. “But I love them all.” As she should, she’s nominated for a Tony award this year for her work on Present Laughter (Hilferty already has a Tony for Wicked). The Vionnet dress was the only thing that Hilferty did not design in the show, but because the play is set in 1939, it was important for there to be “a real dress that all the other clothes have to match,” she notes, as a way to make sure the designs are truly authentic.
Hilferty estimates that she has designed about ten productions set in the ‘30s. “When people talk about the ‘30s, they're usually talking about how beautiful and glamorous the ‘30s are,” she explains. But in Present Laughter, about stage actor Garry Essendine and the different women in his life, Hilferty wanted to make the costumes “really personal, rather than a display of the ‘30s.” Even though Cobie Smulders wears glamorous evening gowns, Kristine Nielsen dons practical work suits—in the play, like real life, regular people don’t dress like the pages of fashion magazines.
“When I’m working as a costume designer, I’m investigating each of these characters,” Hilferty explains. Nielsen’s character, who is a secretary, “to me she’s wearing a uniform the way people do. It’s not an official uniform, it’s probably the clothes that she’s been wearing since she’s been living with her old aunt. I imagine what her commute is like getting to work.” So that is why Nielson’s business wear may be plainer and less fashionable than that of Kate Burton’s Liz, who’s newly back from Paris. “She’s got money and she was an actress and she's traveling by airline, so that affects everything about her,” says Hilferty.
But the pièce de résistance of the costuming in Present Laughter are the dressing gowns worn by Kevin Kline. The play takes place in his character Gary’s apartment and the stage direction has him frequently sporting a dressing gown. For the ubiquitous robes, Hilferty wanted to create something that would make Kline look distinguished, but also comfortable. The key was “finding something that felt like it was Garry at home, in a private moment,” instead of “doing the most beautiful dressing gown ever seen,” says Hilferty. And when you have an actor like Kline (who Hilferty describes as “delicious to dress”), you don’t want to create something that will overshadow his performance. So Kline’s gowns are delicately patterned silk, which makes it easy, and entertaining, for the actor to put on. “He makes a meal out of just putting it on,” gushes Hilferty of Kline’s performance. “He strokes it on, and he admires himself in it!”
Watching the actors feel at home in their costumes is the primary joy of Hilferty’s job. “That’s the delicious part of being a designer for theatre as compared to a fashion designer,” she enthuses. “The deliciousness comes in the combination of the clothes with the actors, they do not stand by themselves.”
Flip through Hilferty’s sketches of the looks—and her thoughts behind each piece—in Present Laughter: