• Fashion

Dressing The Romance of Outlander – The Genius of Terry Dresbach

It’s easy to see why Outlander, nominated for three Golden Globes, is a fan favorite, with its romantic Scottish backdrop, a time traveling heroine caught in the 18th century, and strapping men in kilts.

Created and executive produced by Ronald D. Moore and based on the best selling series of books by Diana Gabaldon the story follows Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a nurse and feminist in the 1940s who is on a second honeymoon with her husband (Tobias Menzies) in Scotland. A quirk of fate plummets her back in time to the Jacobite rising where loyalists are waging a rebellion against the English. There’s lots of action, drama and love, as Claire falls for brawny Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and her 1940s husband takes the form of a psychopathic villain in 1745 Scotland.

It fell on the capable shoulders of costume designer Terry Dresbach -who’d worked on such shows as Carnivale and The Shield – to clothe the actors of the series, in a way that met and exceeded readers imagination. This is no small challenge.

Clare in the 1940s – her wardrobe reflecting the freedom women were achieving.

Starz and Terry Dresbach

Clothing reflects the times in which the characters live and both shapes and expresses their behavior and emotions – and Outlander straddles two very different eras. Terry explains that the clothing in the 1940s reveals the mindset of a nation that has survived the bombing of London in WWII, the emancipation of women as they filled the gap in the workforce of men gone to war, the scarcity of fabric, and the padding of the time – almost like armor for what had been endured. As a counter, she’s had to create practical 18th century garb, shot in candlelight, replicating fabric, in many cases, that is hard to access, and having to creatively solve the void, not to mention dealing with Scottish weather that in the summer can hover at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit. “When I first got the job, I created a portfolio for the characters and the hundreds of extras, from my kitchen in Los Angeles. Once we got to Scotland I had to toss it all because the climate requires heavier clothing to prevent hypothermia for the actors – there’s a lot of outside shooting.”

The Scottish weather required warmer materials and a rethink of the wardrobe.

Starz and Terry Dresbach

Authenticity is key in Dresbach’s work. “Often there is no place to source what we need, so we make it.” Given that hundreds of extras have to be clothed too, and that they can’t really bring anything from their own wardrobe, her task is immense. "We make 12 – 15 costumes for each of our leads, often in multiples of 6. We estimated that we made close to 5,000 items for Season One.”

Sketches of Sam Heughan's outfits that had to be replicated 12 – 15 times.

Starz and Terry Dresbach

The new season – which premieres next April – has doubled Terry’s challenge. In the 18th century changing numerous times a day was a way to demonstrate that you had the wealth to wear lush gowns. Each gown is made of brilliant silks, richly embroidered to catch the candlelight.

Woman sewing appliqué onto grey silk jacket.

Starz and Terry Dresbach

“It’s a fashion show. I’d check with Ron, ‘Are you sure you want me to go that far? It’s going to be over the top?’ He’d always say, ‘Take it as big as you possibly can.’ And it is big and bold. I’ve designed a color palette that was quite brilliant. One of the things we learned about shooting in dark, candlelit rooms, is people can become floating heads very quickly. I wanted colors that come out of the darkness.” The solution? “I created clothes that are brilliant and rich and actually look edible when you see them.” Since you can’t buy 18th century fabric we have to make it.

“We employ a team that just does embroidery, we hand-paint fabric, and, we make buttons, trims, even lace. Bare in mind – we made 900 18th century extra’s costumes.”

Terry Tresbach

Her team consists of two assistant designers who each have an assistant themselves, and then a design group of 30 people. The day I visited the set in Scotland, one group was busily embroidering the beautiful silk fabric with intricate petals, while another group was hand soldering Red Coats and tarnishing buttons to depict musket fire for heavy fighting in an upcoming scene.

The labor is intensive as they prep for the next week’s filming while completing the current week’s show. “Sometimes we’ll be in a production meeting and hear a character is going to be stabbed. My job is to understand that that will mean bleeding – and what that will do to the garment. How many replicas are needed, not only for the lead character, but for the stunt double too.” There simply may not be enough time to create the multiple facsimiles before filming. They cannot go to a costume shop to rent them, so the team has to create them.” It’s no wonder that Terry admits, “I’ve been known to lobby the character gets hit over the head rather than be stabbed, because a stabbing means more costumes that we might not have time to create.”

Do you prefer Tobias Menzies as Black Jack Randall or Frank Randall?

And which are your favorite outfits for each character?

For more Outlander style, CLICK HERE!

Margaret Gardiner