Q&A With UCSC Alumna Tiffany White Stanton

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Unfamiliar that costume design was a possible career choice, Tiffany White Stanton was sure she would become a psychologist or attend law school to become a politician. White earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Santa Cruz in 2003 and credits the university for introducing her to costume design when she enrolled in an introductory theater course.

After college, White earned a degree in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles. White worked as a costume production assistant for all seven seasons of AMC’s “Mad Men” –– a television show based in 1960s New York City. Before working on “Mad Men,” the first job she landed in costume design was for a children’s theater company in Santa Cruz. She said working with children confirmed that she wanted to design solely for television and films. White has worked as a shopper for Disneyland’s entertainment division as well. A few of her inspirational costume heroes include Irene Sharaff, Edith Head, Janie Bryant, Milena Canonero and Kasia Walicka-Maimone.

White will choose the winners of UCSC’s “Dress Like It’s 1965” event on Jan. 15.

Are there any current or recent projects you have been working on?

Tiffany White: I just finished an ABC pilot in December called “Family Reunion,” though I don’t know if it’s picked up or not yet. I’m currently looking for another job right now. I just interviewed with a movie today, which is why I wasn’t available until now. I have an interview next week for a movie. Things are moving along, but I’m not working right this second. I just did a film in the fall that hopefully will be coming out soon called “Caught.”

So from what you’re saying, you don’t tend to solely focus on only television shows, or only movies?

TW: Yeah, whatever comes along, but I like the scripts or I like the people who are directing it, or the producers, or how they wrote the concept of the script. It just depends, but I’m not necessarily nailed down to TV or film. I like both.

When you read scripts for shows or films, do you envision the costume design?

TW: When I read a script I don’t necessarily see them in a space, but I do usually see them in a costume. I imagine some things, just like when you’re reading a book or something, you imagine things. That’s where my head space is. I’ll be reading a script and be like, “Oh, I feel like he’d be in a red sweater in this scene.” I don’t necessarily know where that comes from, it’s just a feeling, and I write it down in my script. Or whatever the feeling is, “I think he’s going to look like a gangster.” Or if I have any inspiration while I’m reading, I just jot it in my script and move on. Later I go back and start doing research based on that to see if I can find things that feel like that feeling and match that image in my head.

Is this feeling you speak of usually spot on, or does it change from what you first envisioned as the script comes to life when you have a tangible person to dress?

TW: It does change. It’s always different. There are times that the person who they cast is exactly who I was thinking about in my head. Then it’s a direct match and it’s very easy for me to put that together. Sometimes it’s like when you’re reading a book and you see the movie, “Oh, that’s not what I thought that character was going to be like at all.” And sometimes that happens for casting, it’s just different than what you imagined. Maybe you imagined the person to have red hair, or maybe you imagined them to be fuller-bodied or whatever. Sometimes they cast people who aren’t exactly what I was thinking when I read it, so sometimes I have to go back and go, “Oh no, red is going to look terrible on him, he could never wear red because his face is too pink.” But a lot of times, a lot of the things I write down in my initial script do end up going into production because it’s like a motherly instinct, and I go on my instincts a lot. If that’s my first instinct and there’s no reason to change it, then I usually go with it because I feel it’s inspired from something.

What has been a television show or film that has been the most enjoyable for you throughout your career?

TW: It’s really hard to pin down one moment in specific. My time on “Mad Men” was amazing because I’d been there for so long but it’s like a family, for better or worse. You fight with your cousins and your sisters and stuff like that but at the end of the day, you couldn’t love them any more. “Mad Men” is so special to me because of that, we just knew everybody so well and we could all finish each other’s sentences and that sort of thing. There’s so much intimacy that happened and so much trust that happens because everybody is so close, which is an awesome feeling.

Having worked on “Mad Men” and taking into account that the show is set in the 1960s, when UCSC first opened, can you describe your experience with the research you had to do of the fashion and styles of that period?

TW: The research part is so important. It’s vital to every single thing we do, and we spend a lot of time doing it. It was interesting –– bringing it back to UCSC –– when they asked me to do the “10 Tips,” they sent me some photos from UCSC’s library of photos from 1965 and I was like, “Damn it, why didn’t I ever think of asking UCSC in the past for research photos?” In general, to have photos of people in 1965 is essential because we’re always looking for real people. You know, because it’s so easy to get the magazines and the films and all of the actors and of course, the musicians –– who are amazing and inspiring –– but it’s nice to see everyday people doing everyday things. There are a lot of photos from kids in school or kids walking in the forest. It was such an awesome experience. I wish I had the catalog earlier.

That would have been pretty useful, huh?

TW: That would have been awesome. Though when I went to UCSC, and I’m sure it’s still probably a little bit like this, but I’m not entirely sure, UCSC prided itself on being a counterculture school for the most part. Or at least, a safe haven for people who do have counterculture ideas and ideologies, which is awesome. When I was looking at the photos from 1965, I was expecting to see a little bit more counterculture, which mostly took place later in the 1960s but I was expecting to see a little bit of it. And in most of the photos, the kids are still conservative. They look like the kids did at Ohio State. It’s really fascinating. Were the counterculture kids not photographed? Perhaps. I wonder if UCSC when it started didn’t have that sense yet.

It could have been either or, right?

TW: I know things were definitely happening in Northern California at that time. It didn’t get totally crazy yet but things were still starting to simmer and starting to stir up there. It was really fascinating looking at those photos. I was expecting to see a few more long-hairs in there.

Could you talk more about your research process, for other shows besides “Mad Men”?

TW: When I read the script, there will often be words that describe who the person is. Sometimes there will be straight adjectives when it’s introducing a character, like, “Marcy, age 31, dressed well.” When I start looking at the script, it’s like, were they employed? Where did they live? What time of year is it? What kind of person are they? Are they well-educated? If it says they’re a lawyer, we can assume most likely they have a little bit of money, are ambitious and know how to work hard and have education –– that sort of thing. You can start thinking about how those people are dressed based off of what their occupation is. Then you sort of branch off from there. They live in a small town, they have a wife, they have a kid, and you start figuring out, what does a lawyer in San Marino wear with a wife and kid? I usually start on [the Internet] and get ideas of what kind of person this is. I start looking up a ton of things based off of what I think that person would be doing.

Once I swoof the Internet, I’ll start going to magazines, books and articles. I’ll go through that and I’ll amass a huge amount of images, and then I’ll start putting together an inspiration board. I usually just use Photoshop prop photos together. I’ll start realizing through that process, “Oh, this photo doesn’t feel like the rest of the photos so I’ll cut that one out,” or maybe, “This shirt or suit doesn’t feel like this guy anymore,” and I’ll cut that out. At the end I have an inspiration board of what I think that person wears, and I try to use my psychology background — delving into a character’s mind is my favorite thing. I think, “Ok, where do these people shop? Where do they hang out? What kind of clothes are they going to have in their closet? Do they like to go to Bikram yoga? Do they like to get wings with their buddies every Friday night?” That tells me what clothes the character has, and how the character would mix and match things. Once I do the inspiration board, I sit down with the director and say, “This is what I was thinking before,” and we solidify from there. Sometimes the director says it’s brilliant, and other times they’ll say, “This one doesn’t feel right to me because of this thing.” It’s a further conversation of paring down what I show to him or her.

Are there any costume designers who inspire you or whose work you look up to? Do you have a muse?

TW: I always love the work of Colleen Atwood, who is a current costume designer. She did “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Chicago” and she’s won a gagillion Oscars. I also love Adrian, a costume designer from the 1940s — everything he built was fantastic. I love the costume designer for all of the Wes Anderson films –– I love that very stylized look. I love Ellen Mirojnick, who is the costume designer for the HBO series “Behind the Candelabra.” Of course, there’s Janie Bryant, who is a costume designer I’ve worked with on “Mad Men.” She is my mentor, and a dear, dear friend and colleague. She’s brilliant.

You graduated from UCSC in 2003 with a degree in psychology. Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in costume design?

TW: No, I didn’t. I didn’t even know it was a job. I always credit UCSC for introducing me to costume design, because I was a psychology major — I thought for sure I was going to be a psychologist or I was also thinking about going to law school and becoming a politician. Very, very different trains of thought. I did have to take a humanities class though, so I took a theater class. It was a general theater class, with an overview of everything having to do with theater. We learned about production designers and we got to the section on costume designers and I was like, “Woah, hold the phone, what is happening? People make money doing this? This is insane and I have to do this.” I always had a passion for clothes — especially vintage clothes — but I really didn’t want to be a fashion designer because I don’t want the business of it. I would do a fashion line but I don’t want to be at a fashion haus, at least not in my current state.

I just didn’t think there was a real job out there like that, so when I read about it, I was like, “I’ve got to learn more.” I took the specialized costume design course they offered here — I remember drawing naked models for hours and I’m a terrible artist but I did my best. That’s where I really learned about it. Then I went to India, with my now-husband, and I swooned over Bollywood. A 13-year-old girl who lived next to me took Bollywood classes and she invited me to go with her. I started going with her each week just so I could watch and practice and try to do the Bollywood moves because I loved it so much. That’s when it really solidified for me that I wanted to do costume design. I had this experience in a village outside of Calcutta, and I was thinking, “I don’t know if I can do costume design because it’s not helping the world enough.” I don’t want to be worried about shoes when there are bigger problems in the world, so that was my conflict. When we were in this tiny village, a family asked us to stay for dinner. A truck rolled into town and [the villagers] set up a movie. They had a projection screen in the back of the truck, and they shined it onto a wall in the village and the entire town watched. They would eat, dance and laugh together. It was this very communal, awesome experience where people who work very, very hard and work long hours come to be entertained.

I recognized that being entertained had such value and I was so moved by it. I was like, “That’s what I want to do, I want to entertain people, because it brings people together and it forces conversations and discussions. It makes people laugh and cry.” It’s so important to be a part of that. Even though it sounds terrible to say, “Hollywood is changing the world.” I do believe we do change the world in some ways as much as anybody else changes the world doing what they love to do.

Are you going to keep up with “#ucsc50” and tune into students’ 1965 outfits during “Dress Like It’s 1965” Day?

TW: Yes, I’m all tapped in. I’m pumped, I really hope people get into it. I’m jealous — maybe I’ll dress up. I have my own stock of stuff, and maybe I’ll put something on the UCSC feed and try to be a part of it. It’s a really fun idea and it’s a way to make people laugh and have an awesome time and be silly.

Any advice to students who change their intended field of study during college?

TW: UCSC created such an amazing environment where I felt I could explore something else like costume design. A lot of other schools would be like, “That’s frivolous and that’s stupid,” but UCSC is amazing and the environment accepts everyone and all walks of life. I would just say, use that time up at UCSC to your advantage and take the weird classes you think aren’t that important or maybe wouldn’t interest you. It could change your life, forever.

Can you describe your personal style in three words?

TW:  I always say I’m classic, whimsical and bold. I like the classic stuff — classic silhouettes, classic femininity and classic masculinity, but then I usually add some sort of bold aspect to it. Maybe it’s wearing all black but with a red lip, or something like that. I like something that sticks out and I usually try to add some sort of whimsy to it so it doesn’t feel stiff, because a lot of bold things feel stiff. I like to loosen it up a little bit. So classic, whimsical and bold –– that’s me.