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Playing dress-up

Costume designer Elsa Hiltner brings Chicago's characters to life

  • Costume designer Elsa Hiltner photographed at the Flatiron Arts Building (1579 N. Milwaukee) on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Hilary Higgins/RedEye)
Costume designer Elsa Hiltner photographed at the Flatiron Arts Building… (Hilary Higgins )
April 01, 2014|By Veronica Wilson | For RedEye

For Elsa Hiltner, a seam here or a ruffle there makes all the difference when her work is in the spotlight.

"I always wanted to be an artist and I was always really interested in people, so it's kind of like the perfect melding of both, because you make art and you make it to fit certain characters or certain people," said Hiltner, a Chicago costume designer whose work is regularly featured throughout the city.

Born in Milwaukee, Hiltner moved to Chicago after graduating from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., in 2006.

Upon her arrival, she played the recent-grad game and sent resumes to more than 100 theater companies. Jobs started trickling in, and before long they snowballed. Just like in a small town, everybody in theater seems to know everybody. People began recommending Hiltner to other companies or asking her to come back and work with them again.

Ronan Marra, the co-founder of Signal Ensemble Theatre, said Hiltner's collaborative tendencies are why she became part of the ensemble.

"One of my favorite things with her is that theater is and needs to be a collaborative art, and she's just a great collaborator," Marra said. "When I'm directing we make the decisions together."

Hiltner, 29, said that back-and-forth is what makes her job different from that of a fashion designer."If I wanted to just make cool clothes I could do that," she said, "but I like the conversation and dialogue."

The connection Alison Vesely feels when working with Hiltner earned her a regular position at Vesely's First Folio Theatre as well.

"She doesn't look at clothing as something she's placing on an actor, but it's helping to create character with the actor," Vesely said.

However, playing well with others isn't enough to make a good costume designer. Taking a project from script to stage is a long and complicated process, and Hiltner studies both the region and time period before bringing her creations to life.

"Sometimes it's more general than just the fashion history, it'll be more like the lifestyles of the people or world events that were happening that would have affected them," she said.

Vesely cited Hiltner's designs for "Driving Miss Daisy" as a particular example of her attention to history. The First Folio Theatre show earned Hiltner a 2008 Jeff Award nomination for best costume design.

"That one I think was probably the most challenging in that it spanned so many periods of time and was so very specific in terms of the look," Vesely said.

Hiltner has gone to great lengths to learn more about attire throughout various regions and eras. She and her husband, Carl Shook, made the trek to Syria in 2011 as he prepared to start a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history.

"In a place where there's a lot more theater happening about the Middle East, I thought it was important to start to get an understanding of how that fashion history works," she said. "It totally opened my eyes as to how broad and different everything was in between years and countries and ethnic groups."

The couple left Syria as the revolution began only a couple of months into their planned 11-month stay, when they realized the region was headed in a dangerous direction. The experience served Hiltner well upon returning to Chicago, as she was hired by Jamil Khoury at Silk Road Rising, a theater that tells stories from Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights. It's a company Hiltner had been eyeing for years.

"Any good costume designer of course is capable of studying dress of any costume, from any culture, any era, anywhere ... but this is different in that she has a personal connection and intellectual and artistic passion for the region," Khoury said.

Despite her numerous projects, Hiltner still finds herself full of creative energy.

To keep things fresh, she also creates costuming for events, like After Dark at the Art Institute, where Collaboraction Theatre Company creates performances based on new exhibits and Hiltner designs costumes that allow the actors become part of the art. Other side projects are as varied as creating dresses from Subway packaging for the company's annual franchise meeting and an Etsy shop called popARTicles, where she sells scarves and bow ties made from leftover fabric and her own textile creations.

"It keeps the design juices flowing, it keeps everything fresh and it gives me a different perspective on clothing," she said.

She'll keep using every creative experience to enhance each event, each play, each character and each scarf.

"There have been shows that I've seen that have had a huge impact on me personally or the ways that I've looked at personal events that have really moved me," she said. "I feel like those shows are probably few and far between and totally depends on the individual, but if I knew that I was involved in that feeling for somebody else that would be very rewarding to me."

Veronica Wilson is a RedEye special contributor.

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EDITOR'S NOTE

This profile is part of a yearlong series about Chicagoans with unique jobs in the arts. Know someone who deserves to be profiled? Email redeyechicago@tribune.com with the subject line "Arts jobs" or tweet us http://www.twitter.com/redeyechicago" target="_blank">@redeyechicago.

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