Starz’s time-traveling romance drama “Outlander” is a series caught between two historical periods: one “present day” when England limps back to recovery after World War II and another as it fights to wrestle Scotland under its control during the 1700s. Parallels to current events aside, the show also creates a costuming challenge for connecting (and differentiating) the two worlds through the eyes of heroine Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe).
This all comes full-circle in Saturday’s episode, with Claire’s reluctant marriage to the brave and headstrong Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The episode has a lot riding on it, as fans of the books on which the series is based have heavily anticipated this moment — and, naturally, a lot of their attention will be directed toward the wedding attire. To get the lowdown on dressing the characters for this and other moments of the series, Variety talked with series costume designer Terry Dresbach. (warning: some spoilers follow).
OK, we have to talk about this wedding dress.
What a surprise!
I had about 5,000 dress pictures on my wall of every conceivable look that existed and I had really had gotten directions from Ron [Moore, the show’s creator and Dresbach’s husband] that this needed to be a fairy tale; a beautiful moment that cements and entire book series and an entire television series. It’s a series about a marriage and the foundation is this moment, but it’s two people who didn’t know each other and who didn’t plan to be married and are being forced into this. And yet, we had to make it so impossibly romantic that we could believe that our heroine and our hero could just fall in love so completely at that moment.
So, I wanted a dress that would be incredible in candlelight. And in the 18th century, metallic fabrics were made with actual metal woven into the fabrics. When you put them in a room filled with candles, they just glow. They’re quite remarkable. There are museum exhibits that actually show the dresses in candlelight so you can see the effect.
We also needed a dress that a modern audience could believe was a wedding dress from a period where they didn’t really have wedding dresses. People weren’t wearing white gowns. We needed something that could straddle that line.
Now on top of that, I have a character who is from another time period and I didn’t want something too frilly or to fluffy for her. And Caitriona is so extraordinary and so beautiful that I just wanted something to be kind of clean and simple and drop-dead ornate, so we were serving a lot of masters on this dress.
It would also have to be something that was readily available, because they didn’t plan to get married that day.
This is a dress that they found at a local whorehouse. When Ron told me that, I screamed at him for about four hours. Like really? You realize that whores wear clothes that advertise they’re whores, right? That’s the whole point.
Then he concocted the idea that the dress had been paid for by a wealthy man for services, so they had this dress stashed away in the back. That allowed us the liberty to make something spectacular and amazing.
Is that also why there’s so much cleavage involved in the dress?
The cleavage is involved in the dress because in the 18th century, there were those kinds of dresses. We’ll see next season when we go to the French court, there’s a lot of cleavage. Victoria’s Secret doesn’t fake the 18th century on their runways for no reason.
But that dress took us — we calculated it out at about, I think if one person had done it, it would have been about 3,000 hours worth of work. We did a technique of embroidery that was done hundreds of years and is no longer used. The embroidery is done with metal.
Speaking of the corsets, did you have to do a lot of research into the undergarments as well?
We had to no matter what. Any time you see our characters on screen, they’re 18th century top to bottom. When we get Caitriona — or any of our characters — dressed ever single day, she goes into a corset, she goes into a shift. She’s not wearing a T-shirt under there. So we have corsets and corsets and more corsets. But this was a very, very special one. We knew that because the way the scene was laid out, she was going to spend a lot of time in these garments and we wanted it to be a sensual and beautiful that the audience wants to reach out and touch them.
The embroidery you see on that corset is from a beautiful piece of material that I found on Portobello Road [in London]. It was sitting in an antique stall there and I had it under my desk. When we started doing it, I went oh! I’ve got the perfect thing.
I don’t mean this to sound as disrespectful as it sounds. But when it comes to dressing the characters and their undergarments, I’m assuming this goes for the men and their kilts as well?
You know what, I don’t ask. I generally make a rule of not asking the men what they wear under their clothes. It gets me into trouble. We lie their kilts out for them on the floors of their trailers and they wrap themselves up. What they put on underneath, I don’t know. I’d like to think they’re riding around horseback bareback, but I can’t imagine.
As far as the kilts go, tell me how you developed the colors for Jaime and the clan’s tartans.
There’s a huge debate — I talk to fans all the time who are still having a debate with me about the weaving of the 18th century. There’s a school of thought that the really bright-colored tartans that we see today were invented by the Victorians and there were those who say no, they were always there. That’s often the case where you have a lot of conflicting opinions on what was worn historically, so we made it a creative choice based on talking with Ron about the look of the show.
A lot of it was really driven by being here and living in Scotland. I’ve been living in Scotland for two years now. It’s remarkably beautiful and it demands to be seen. After less than two weeks of being here, I was like we have to see that in our clothes. If you really are paying attention, you can look at their clothes and you can look at the environment the people were in and it’s there all over the place.
And then there’s the issue that “present day” for your show is the World War II era. Are you using actual clothes from that time period or where you fashioning everything from scratch?
We made everything on the show. There’s a smattering of rentals on our extras, but we mostly made it all. We made our 18th century stuff and our 1940s stuff. And Caitriona was cast two weeks before we started shooting, so we had to make all of her 18th century wardrobe and all of her 1940s stuff there in two weeks, which was kind of interesting.
Ron always says these are two periods of war, but Britain after World War II was decimated. You still see and you still feel the ramifications. It was a place without color and a lot of joy and happiness. Buttons were rationed and you couldn’t have hems on the bottoms of your pants and you could only have so many pockets, so clothes became very streamlined and somber.
So that’s what we tried to reflect, particularly in Caitriona’s clothing. Her wedding suit is so 1940s with the padded shoulders and she’s wearing a little fedora — no cleavage! A complete contrast. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that both wedding outfits are silvery gray.
I have pictures of my mother from the 1940s and Caitriona, we used pictures of her grandmother getting married in her suit.
I love that you based her “modern day” wedding suit on her grandmother’s wedding suit.
It is quite lovely. Caitriona was so excited. Her grandmother was a World War II nurse, so we have pictures of her grandmother in her nurse’s uniform and we have pictures of her in her wedding suit. There’s a lovely connection there that we were able to utilize with Cat. She’s so amazing with the way she brings those things. You’ll get an email from her at 2 o’clock in the morning with “Look! I found a picture of my grandmother’s wedding suit!.”
A lot of that kind of stuff happens on this show. You don’t just sit down and do a sketch and the next thing you know it’s a costume. Things move in mysterious ways in “Outlander.” There’s a green plaid dress that Caitriona wears that’s inspired by a branch across the road that I had to move when I was driving my car. Ron and I live in a house built in 1632 in Scotland, out in the wilds. Every day, we’re living in it.
“Outlander” airs at 9 p.m. on Starz.