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‘Outlander’ Costume Designer Terry Dresbach Talks Bringing History to Life

Outlander” costume designer Terry Dresbach had the Herculean task of establishing the look of a world that’s almost as foreign to viewers as it is to time-traveling heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — 18th century Scotland. She tells Variety how she adapted the costumes of author Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel for the Starz series and found the iconic looks that help Claire and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) look like the heroes they are.

When it comes to building the many varied costumes of “Outlander,” how much do you have to create in-house versus what you can rent or buy elsewhere?

About 98.9 percent. The biggest shock upon arriving in Scotland and starting this show seven weeks before shooting was that we weren’t going to be able to do much in the way of rental and that we were going to have to build hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of costumes, not just the principal cast, but all of our extras. I don’t even know if I have a count of how many costumes we’ve built, but the majority of those extras are costumes that we made.

There isn’t a lot available in period clothes in general, but then everything in the world is shooting in the UK right now. So you get there and you see some great coat at the rental house and it’s off on “Pirates 4,” it’s on “Da Vinci’s Demons” … so it became very clear that we were going to have to make everything. So all the principal clothing — all the lead actors — we’ve made everything they wear. There’s no rentals on any of the cast, and there’s very few rentals on any of the extras as well. And that’s nothing compared to season two.

That’s a perfect segue, because you’re heading to Paris in season two, which is obviously a going to feature a very different style and attitude when it comes to the clothing. What has the preparation been like for the new season?

It’s very refreshing to talk to somebody who actually knows there is a difference between 18th century Scotland and 18th century Paris. [Laughs.] You would not believe how many people just go, “you can’t use the same costumes?” I’m like “no, you cannot.” Outside of a silhouette — which is the same because it’s European and wherever you were in Europe, it’s essentially the same silhouette — that’s all that’s similar, that’s it. Leave it all at home.

So we just finished building 900 extras’ costumes from scratch. It’s madness, it’s even crazier than last year, and we are starting all over from scratch with our principals again. So we are repeating the exact same process except that we have greater numbers, and a costume that would’ve taken a week to build takes two weeks; two weeks takes four weeks.

It’s funny because in Scotland, there’s not a lot of research to support what people were wearing other than some paintings by Victorians. That’s not true of 18th century Paris. It’s meticulously researched. There’s every single detail about what the button was made out of on the left cuff versus the right cuff. It gets pretty intense. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, there’s not a lot of room for error — you need to get it right. There’s plenty of people out there who can point out all the places where you got it wrong.

You really have a task ahead of you to create an entire city’s worth of costumes, seemingly. It’s longer than we had last year, but in terms of percentage it’s not really, as the costumes are so elaborate. It’s a dream. I think every costume designer wants to do the 18th century. The reality is you don’t get five years to prep it.

From reading Diana Gabaldon’s second novel, “Dragonfly in Amber,” it’s very apparent on the page that the clothing is much more revealing and adventurous — the clothes in Paris are more about fashion than utility, as opposed to Scotland where you’re focused on staying warm.

Everything about it [is different]. The fabrics are different. Even the cultural aspects — the difference between a costume in England versus France. Nothing’s changed. Clothes are art [to the French], and it’s an expression of art and this is one of the times in history where it was done so exquisitely. [That’s] the reason why fashion never lets go of the 18th century and why Dior’s last collection was once again a nod to the 18th century; Lagerfeld has built a career on 18th century; Vivienne Westwood, it keeps on going. It never ends, fashion’s fascination. Not only is it beautiful, but it is just the sexiest time ever. It celebrates the human form. It’s a beautiful vessel that holds the body.

How much do you draw from the costume descriptions in the books? Even with them, every reader must have their own ideas…

It’s interesting, because we always say that the book — because I’ve read the book a million times since it came out — is our blueprint, but it’s not our Bible. And actually what you see on screen is what I had in my head when I started reading the book in the late ’90s. Then you’re suddenly faced with actually putting it out there and it’s a challenge because you’re going “wait a minute, this is just something that I had in my head for 15 years. Is this right? How far can I go with that?”

So it’s very interesting as a costume designer to design something that you have such an intimate knowledge of as a reader, not as a designer, so you bring a completely different eye to it. It’s quite fascinating to know the material so intimately before picking up a pencil.

It seems as if it must be extremely beneficial to have that personal, emotional connection to the material, though.

It’s fascinating. I have that connection with the show. I’m married to the guy who’s essentially in charge of writing it. The production designer has been my friend for 20 years. John Dahl, who directed the first few episodes of the show, I’ve worked with for over 20 years, so there’s a lot of family and a lot of intimate connections that allow you to explore and go deeper and play and have faith and confidence and trust in the process that allows for creativity that you often don’t get.

The characters spend a lot of time on horseback and in all kinds of perilous situations, so how much does that factor into your design process? Does Claire have a few stunt skirts?

We have lots of stunt skirts. This woman rides horses, leaps off of cliffs… I don’t think she’s been lit on fire yet, but that might happen any time. What’s brilliant about the costumes [is], you come here and you have one concept of the 18th century and you throw it immediately out the window because just a couple of days here and you’re frozen and you’ve gotten wet and you go, “oh, well, they’ll die if I put them in that.”

You start seeing that all those heavy woolens really kept them warm and the actors are like “oh, thank God, I’m in wool again.” So interestingly enough, what is cumbersome actually is also protective. And then what we ended up doing, which is such a reflection of what would’ve actually happened, is we ended up building costumes according to need.

So when Caitriona was going off on horseback to travel from village to village to village, we were actually shooting that in the dead of winter. So she needed a coat. She needed something that was really going to keep her warm, so she got that coat with the white fur lining. That was built out of practical need. And then you try to make it look great. This is a very organic show. It’s quite fascinating — you’re shadowing what the book is about in the design and the shooting. It’s really interesting.

Obviously a lot of attention is paid to Claire’s elaborate gowns, but what did you most enjoy about dressing the male characters?

It’s funny, when I decided to do the show, it was like “ugh, now I’ve got to do a kilt,” and I’m in love with the kilt now. Every culture has a form of a kilt — there’s all sorts of garments that serve really practical purposes.

On the other side of doing the kilt, to see what they would’ve done in the 18th century, it’s like your car — you’ve got your stuff in the back seat, this is on the dashboard, and here’s a pocket — everything on that garment is practical. You can sleep in it. You can ride in it. You can cover yourself from the rain. You can hide in it. It’s this unbelievably all-purpose garment. But what happened for actors that was so absolutely fascinating was when we got there it was in the middle of January, it’s freezing cold, it’s 4:00 in the morning, the crew is in high-tech gear, and they’re soaking wet and freezing and our actors are warm because they are wearing authentic clothing. They’re wearing the real deal and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. So by keeping it as authentic as we possibly could, we created that sort of shadow world where we’re actually living and acting out the 18th century, the same way they would have. That’s been remarkable.

And then each one of our actors have adapted their own style with the kilt and have their own way of wearing it, which again, that’s what people did. So the first day on set when Sam came out and he was wearing his kilt down long, that from the back looked like a skirt, I went, “oh God, I’ve got to get to him, he can’t possibly do that — the fans and people around the world will just go ‘why is he wearing a dress? It’s the worst cliché.'” Then he walked across the room and this thing swirled behind him and it was the most romantic, swashbuckling moment. It was just fantabulous. Sam brought that to the table. So the way that the actors inhabit the clothes gives it a reality that’s really interesting and gives it a different perspective than just mine. How do you dress a hero? You dress him like we dressed Jamie Fraser and Sam Heughan. It’s like, “oh look, it’s a hero.”

You mentioned that there wasn’t a lot of physical evidence from the period to draw on in terms of artwork or artifacts, so what was your research process like?

Initially, it was incredibly frustrating and not unlike the realization about the rentals — the cold hard realization seven weeks out that you weren’t going to have a lot to go on here… Ron [Moore, Dresbach’s husband and “Outlander’s” executive producer] had pitched and I pitched the idea that we were going to make this really authentic. We weren’t going to make it modern. There weren’t going to be any runway clothes out there. And I was like, “damn, now where is Alexander McQueen fashion when I need it?”

So you cobble together. You get the little pieces you’ve got. You do what I’m now calling “forensic.” You take the painting and you work backwards. You go, “okay, there’s a painting that somebody did of themselves, but you can paint yourself in any color you want. Maybe that’s real. Maybe that’s not real. What supports this? What supports that?”

And then you live here. We live here. I’ve lived here for two and a half years now. That is probably first and foremost the primary thing that informs my design — the climate. I live every single day with the descendants of 18th century Highlanders. They all wear scarves every single day. No one goes out without a coat. We live in the same climate they did –it’s cold, it’s wet. My husband and I live in a 700-year-old house. Every single day we deal with the elements and the colors — it’s just the most spectacularly beautiful country. I always feel, now that I’m here, that you don’t hear enough about how beautiful Scotland is. It is unbelievably gorgeous. I felt that I had a duty to reflect the landscape and the environment in the clothing. So that also informed it.

And somehow at the end of it, when you cobble all those bits and pieces together, you end up with this thing and you look at it almost from the outside and go, “God, how did we get here?” But you did. And again, it’s organic. There’s a little bit of happenstance, a little bit of luck. Some research. I think the guiding principle is that you’re trying to create a world that people can believe and that has a truth to it. So even though sometimes you might make a choice — like the knit pieces that Claire wears, we don’t have evidence that they wore that kind of thing, but damn it feels real. And that’s incredibly important.

Right — as a viewer, there’s never been a time where I’ve doubted the authenticity of the costumes or their utility.

Once the audience does that — and I’m an audience member sometimes, I sit back and go, “where did she get that from?” — that audience member has stepped out of the story and you’ve stepped out of your role as a storyteller, because that’s what we all do; we’re all storytellers. My job is to serve that story up and not to have the audience sitting there thinking about my costumes for too long. They’ve got to move into all that action and all that story that’s happening on the screen, so you have to believe what I’m telling you. And I don’t need you taking 10 minutes out of the story trying to question where she got her shoes from.

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