For this cover of Triton, how would we ever capture the many facets of “fashion” that make up the university? From the laboratory to theatrical stage, the world’s poles to ocean depths, and not to mention the art and style of our alumni—the UC San Diego community is a talented bunch. Just weeks before the onset of the coronavirus, we first thought a talented student designer could sketch out a motley sort of dreamcoat, but then we figured—why not go all the way, cut and sew and actually make this thing?
Professor Judy Dolan introduced us to two of her MFA costume design students, Daniella Toscano and Natalie Barshow, who together had the skills, patience, and daring to collaborate on such a one-of-a-kind garment.
We met at the UC San Diego costume shop, a shared space with La Jolla Playhouse, then buzzing with seamstresses and design students working with needle and thread, fitting fabric to dress forms. At a table piled with swatches and sketches, we planned out the elements for our garment, which was swiftly becoming more complex as our stories came to life. Zac Monday was crocheting us a dramatic sleeve. We wanted Bobby Hundreds’ “Adam Bomb” graphic included somehow, and could we maybe work in part of a wetsuit?
“The project contained so many puzzle pieces, it was helpful for me to think of it as a collage, an art piece,” says Toscano. “Mostly we try to capture the mood of a period, but it was really quite fun to see what we could create here with such varied and disparate pieces.”
Days later, the students had an initial sketch. What was once envisioned as four panels of a short coat had become a full-length dress, complete with an ornate and flowing skirt for our theater program, wetsuit pants and fur-lined arctic hood for oceanographic research, a lab coat with the UC San Diego crest, of course, and half of a Hundreds’ hoodie for the streetwear style. As for how this would all come together—literally and figuratively—we relied on Jannifer Mah ’98, the shop manager, to lend her team of seamstresses and their decades of experience advising and training design students. They often work right alongside the students, interpreting their designs, sharing their expertise, and offering a hands-on education.
“It’s so valuable to have these women to learn from, to make mistakes with, and to figure out how best to communicate what I’m asking for as a designer,” says Barshow. “The shop itself is a world-class education and an invaluable experience.” It’s also one of the main reasons she chose UC San Diego in the first place. “The fact that we have a fully staffed and supported shop helps us really learn how to be designers in the real world. It is such a valuable resource.”
Dress begun, now came the cover. Our original concept was to photograph the coat on one of the shop’s classic-looking dress forms—that was before meeting alumna Saura Naderi ’07 at her robotic dress photoshoot outside Geisel Library. She was a natural and surely wouldn’t balk at wearing such nontraditional apparel.
At a stand-in fitting with our managing editor as model, all agreed a few details were missing. Luckily, the costume shop was at our disposal. Toscano grabbed a bustle to add a bit more 19th-century drama, and Barshow found a gold ribbon to add some detail around the waist. The shop has a wealth of fabric, accessories, jewelry, and raw materials from past productions, all clearly labeled by time period, size, and color.
When the day came, Naderi contributed her own pieces to make the ensemble even more UC San Diego: small gears from the robotic hat usually worn with her robot dress (originally created at the costume shop as well) and her class ring from the Jacobs School of Engineering.
We entered this project as amateur theater-goers with little idea of what went into theatrical costume design. We wrapped the production with a greater appreciation for the time, insight, skill, and collaboration that occurs in the UC San Diego costume shop, getting a glimpse of the magic that occurs well before the curtains ever rise on stage.
“The most exciting thing about costume design is that you get to work with people who see the world differently, and who have different ideas than your own. It was our collaboration that brought this piece together,” says Barshow. “Unlike other theater projects I’ve worked on previously, there was no script, no character in mind for this piece, so to see it come together as a stand-alone piece of art was very satisfying.”