Outlander Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

By Brianne Gillen - June 21 2016

The hit drama Outlander, currently in its second season on Starz, crosses several different genres. Based on the bestselling book series by Diana Gabaldon, the show follows the story of Claire, a WWII British nurse who unexpectedly finds herself transported back in time to 18th century Scotland, and must quickly learn to navigate her new surroundings as well as her new marriage to a Highlander named Jamie. While the story's catalyst comes from the fantasy element of time travel, the series is firmly rooted in its historical realism, making for quite a unique period piece.

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander's production team creates an incredibly rich viewing experience for its audience each week. Every carefully nuanced element, from the music to the production design, combines to tell a powerful story. One of the most exciting of these elements is, of course, Terry Dresbach's phenomenal costume design, which adds a tremendous amount of depth to the story. Every single costume, whether it's on a lead character or a background player, fits seamlessly into the narrative. It's easy to see why Dresbach was nominated by the Costume Designers' Guild this year for Excellence in Period Television. 

Dresbach recently took the time to share some wonderful insights into her design process with Tyranny of Style contributor Brianne Gillen. Read on to learn more about her thoughts on everything from character development to the challenges of Season 2's big shift to Paris, and even her team's efforts to build their own costume shop from scratch.

Mood Boards - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Tyranny of Style: What has it been like to design for the visual adaptation of the book series, bringing to life costumes you may have pictured in your head while reading? 

Terry Dresbach: “It is somewhat surreal. I read the books many, many times, before I met Ron and before there was even an idea of Outlander the series. When I read, I rarely have specific images in my head, but I know that impressions are there. Characters are formed, not wholly realized, but embodiments, like ghosts perhaps. So that definitely informs what I do.

Mood Boards - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Mood Boards - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

But when it came time to put it onto paper, my lack of knowing Scotland, and some of the deeper intricacies of Scottish culture weren’t in place. I didn’t fully understand what a genius garment a kilt was, or how integral the Scottish climate was to clothing then, as it is today. Once I got to Scotland, everything fell into place. It was clear, for example, that you would die without layers of wool. It was very “organic”. So we designed an 18th century silhouette, in wool. Then my impressions were given flesh and bone, and the characters were then fully formed.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

T/S: Can you tell us a bit about the methods and technology you and your team use to create the costumes? How has it been to incorporate contemporary equipment while maintaining historical accuracy?

TD: “This was an absolutely extraordinary experience. I landed in the wilds of Scotland, walked into an empty factory building and had to build a costume department out of thin air. We realized pretty early we couldn’t get much in the way of rentals, and the nearest rental houses are a plane ride away. And when we walked through the aisles they were picked pretty clean. Everyone and their mother are here shooting because of the tax breaks. Acquiring crew was going to be an enormous challenge, as everyone was working. Fabric stores were also a plane ride away so we were going to have to be very creative. We hired crew from local theaters and art schools. I think out of a crew of 50 - 60, only about 10 have worked in film or television. But we have sculptors, painters, embroiderers, and all sorts of artisans and crafts people on our crew. And so we used their skill sets and expertise to create things it would never have occurred to us to do, had we had access to traditional resources.

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

When we had a need, we had to figure out how to fill it. All Costume Designers do that. I just hadn’t had to do it on such an astonishing scale before. We needed to create 18th century Scotland, and then the French Court, which was no small challenge. We needed to dress an endless stream of characters with multiple changes, as well as our leads that had dozens of costumes.

We went to London to buy fabric and quickly realized we were never going to be able to purchase any kind of embroidered fabric that resembled anything from the 18th century. One of our team was a hobby embroiderer. We set her up with a machine, and she created some great pieces, but one home sewing machine was not going to provide what we needed. So we created an entire embroidery team of recent film school graduates, who had the technological expertise that could be applied to big commercial embroidery machines. We now have five machines, and our team digitizes 18th century designs and patterns that are then programmed into the machines so we can create anything we want. It saves us a fortune and allows us limitless possibility. Our embroiderers then go in and add handwork so it feels as authentic as possible. We created hundreds of embroidered pieces. We used the machines to make lace trims as well.

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Even with that, we needed more techniques. The embroidery department alone couldn’t produce enough of what we were going to need. A very talented textile artist had come to interview for a position on our ageing and dyeing team. I took one look at her work and created a fabric-painting department. There were a lot of painted silks in the 18th century so we designed and painted amazing fabrics, combining screen-printing and hand painting. We made truly beautiful fabrics that I could never have afforded to purchase, even if I had known where to find them. They are completely unique fabrics that will only be on our show, for our characters, our story.

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Our ageing and dyeing department printed, and stenciled thousands of yards of fabrics to use in the construction of costumes for over 1000 costumes. That allowed us to use very inexpensive fabrics, yet give the illusion of expense and intricate design. The extras have to be able to stand in a scene next to a principal, and look like they belong there. Our goal was to make them for next to nothing. So we explored local clothing manufacturers who made things like wedding dresses, who might understand the basics of 18th century costumes. We hired fashion pattern makers to translate our COSTUME patterns into FASHION pattern. That was a HUGE process.

While they were making the basic garments, our workroom was making millions of yards of trims, furbelows, and stomachers, accessories that would be applied when the costumes came back.

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

We had to make hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes. We scoured eBay and wedding shoe wholesalers, buying anything we could dye, stencil apply lace, buckles or jewels to. We created a hat factory, buying straw and felt bases, and then a makeshift millinery team decorated them with flowers, lace, ribbon and bows. We made it all, from the embellished fabric to the hats, gloves and shoes. It took us a year, running a separate operation for the upcoming season while we shot the first.

Behind The Scenes - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

The scale of what we had to do caught everyone, from the very top, to the very bottom unawares. It was staggering. I think this is the most interesting story of the show. We couldn’t back out, we had no options. We had no choice but to sink or swim, figure it out, every single aspect of the show. We could all draw on our experience, but it put that to the test! For me, THAT is the story of Outlander.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

T/S: Your costumes are such an important part of telling the Outlander story, and aid in character development. One of my favorite costume choices from all of season one was Jamie wearing his father's coat in the Lallybroch episode - that subtle visual cue spoke volumes about his character's story arc for the episode. Do you enjoy leaving breadcrumbs like that for the audience to pick up on?

TD:Those breadcrumbs define what costume design is. They are what separate us from fashion designers. We are storytellers. We create people not clothing. Our job is to tell the audience who a character is by the choices they make. We have about 5 minutes to clue the audience in as to who people are. We have to be psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists. You have to provide visual clues that allow viewers to sense on a very visceral level, who someone is. We can also create a subliminal storyline that follows the written/spoken story with visual clues. For me, it is the most fascinating part of the job. I love clothes, and fabric, the art of it, but I love that we create people from the ground up.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

T/S: Claire is such a strong character, who is continually finding herself in situations where she is an outsider and must adapt, and yet somehow finds a way to be comfortable - how do you choose to reflect this in her costumes?

TD: “Yes, that is an essential part of the job, working with the actors to find and establish the characters. After they are hired, we are often the first ones the actors work with. We come together, each of us with an embryo of a character. Together, we give it life, sort of give birth to a formed character. It is bringing a theoretical concept into three-dimensional form. You create physical space, movement, and reality. It is an amazing process.

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

With Cait [Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire], we have always worked together to maintain her essential core, which is the core of the story, a 1940s woman living in the 18th century and the culture clashes she experiences. For me this part is the most exciting part of costume design. To see something go from an idea in your head, not of a piece of clothing, but of the embodiment of a character, and eventually see it walk around, is absolutely mind blowing.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

T/S: A large part of the current season has found the main characters leaving Scotland behind for Paris. Can you speak a little bit about what the process was like for you, creating a completely different world for these episodes?

TD: “We are sort of learning, behind the scenes, that it is not just time travel going on in front of the camera, but we are all doing it as a crew. We go from century to century, from Scotland, to Paris and so on. We are in constant movement.

Ron [Ronald D. Moore, the series' creator/executive producer] gave us a directive in the very beginning, that the 18th century should be as foreign to Claire as if she had landed on another planet. I sort of carried that idea through for Paris. Think of Claire, Jamie and Murtagh as the Kirk, Spock and McCoy of Outlander, LOL.

Historic Research - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

But in Paris, for the first time in the story, Claire is not borrowing clothes. She has made a choice to stay in the 18th century. What would a 1940s woman design for herself in a dress salon in Paris? I felt that we needed to hold onto that ‘40s self, and you see in season 2 how we accomplished that. We looked to the great designers of the mid-20th century, Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, for our direction. Not to claim that Claire SAW their designs and recreated them, but was of the same generation and the same experience. From that place, we supposed that she created the same look. We were very literal in the beginning, so the audience would be very clear about what we were doing.

Historic Research - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Historic Research - Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Jamie and Murtagh had a similar path, to retain their “Scottish-ness", to remain as outsiders in the French Court. It became essential, once we chose that path, to be as accurate as possible with all of our French characters, or that choice would not have read.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

 

T/S: Season 1 had a very distinct color palette, with a difference between the 1940s scenes and the 18th century, and then this season Paris has been an explosion of color. Can you tell us about how color comes into play in your design choices?

TD: “In Season 1 we wanted to follow the colors and textures of nature, and particularly nature in Scotland. Everything is shot in candlelight, so the light picks up the center and the rest falls into the darkness. It was a constant battle to find light. We used texture to create dimension, highs and lows, so the light could play against it. But season 2 is all silks, a whole new world of pain. It is FLAT and reflective. What is it going to do under the light? How is it going to reflect light? Will the colors change? The answer is, yes. They are going to do all sorts of terrifying tricks and a turquoise blue turns into deep purple before your eye, because of various lighting filters the camera team uses. It is very difficult to predict what they will do.

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

This is TV, not a two and a half hour feature, and we have hundreds of costumes appearing each week, not counting thousands of extras. There was no possible way to test every single fabric, so we had to dial the colors back a bit. We used very rich colors, but not quite as brilliant as I had originally wanted.  I was very sad about that, but compromise is an essential part of the game.”

Outlander - Costume Design by Terry Dresbach

Tremendous thanks to Terry for sharing her thoughts with us. For even more insightful details about her process and individual costume pieces, be sure to check out her blog at www.TerryDresbach.com.

And you can watch her beautiful work on Outlander Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.