Interview With Outlander Costume Designer Terry Dresbach

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We have been honored to do an interview with Terry Dresbach, costume designer for Outlander. Regular readers know that she often comments on our podcasts, reviews, and recaps of Outlander. And while we have definitely enjoyed her and her team’s work, we’ve had a few quibbles about elements of historical accuracy! So we were excited to ask her all of our burning questions, and we gotta say, she certainly cleared up a lot. She was also kind enough to provide us with some high-resolution images of costumes from Outlander season 2, which we are sharing here.

Outlander season 2 costumes

Madame Nesle de la Tourelle’s court dress from season 2, episode 2. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: What got you started in costume design?

Terry Dresbach: I had planned to be a costume designer in high school. Designed a lot at Berkeley High School, and planned to go to NYU. Not a lot of places to study costume design. BHS was very connected to theater world, and being the Bay Area, working in Los Angeles in film and TV was just not part of the discussion. In the end, I decided I just didn’t see the rest of my life in the THEAHTAHHH. Went to art school and studied fine art.

Cut to over 10 years later, I was a starving artist making my “living” doing band posters, when a film came to the Bay Area. I got a job driving the film to and from the airport. Paid $300 a week. I was rich! I started hanging around the production. There I found my creative universe, and essentially, just ran away with the circus. Ignoring the askance looks of Berkeley, and “LOS ANGELES?” — I packed up and moved to LA.

I planned to be a production designer, which is a hard road for a woman. Jobs in the Costume Department kept falling in my lap, and one thing led to another. I took my first designer job in 1988. Started on tiny little indie films, back when that still existed, and worked my way up the ladder.

 

Frock Flicks: Most of your work has been in contemporary productions, with the exception of Carnivale. How different has your work on Outlander been from those contemporary productions? How different was Carnivale?

Terry Dresbach: Hollywood pigeonholes people, because it is risk averse. What was it Jenny Beavan said when she got one of her many well deserved awards recently? She thanked George Miller for hiring the woman who did all the period pieces? I loved that. The ones who get stuck doing nothing but period pieces, desperate to stretch and do something different. All of us who get pigeonholed doing contemporary, or fantasy, or whatever, desperate to do period pieces.

It is really utter horseshit. We are costume designers, our job is to design everything, there is no specialty area. The great costume designers, the Edith Heads, the Walter Plunketts, they designed all periods. Maybe not sci-fi, but only because it was relegated to B-movie status back then.

Carnivale was my first period piece. It took someone like Ron Moore to think outside the box, to talk to me, hear my creative views, hear who I was and what I wanted to do on Carnivale. He hired me on the spot, something that never happens. It was the perfect job for me. Social realism meets a magical carnival during the Depression. Marx and magic?? A Berkeley girl’s dream.

I would have done anything to do that show. I waited for almost a year for the production to get up and running and get an interview, taking everything I could to keep a roof over my head (Buffy) [editor’s note: Buffy the Vampire Slayer], while I waited. But the reality was nothing like the fantasy. It was very early days for period pieces for TV. I think the only thing that had been done at that point was Rome, and the stories that came out of that were legendary.

My guess is that most of you, the historical costuming community, and the rest of the world, would assume that the people who make the budgets, decide how much time you get, how much staff you need, know something about film/TV production. Well, they don’t. It is rare for a studio exec to have actual production experience, let alone know anything about the mysterious world that women are allowed to inhabit, the Costume Dept.

On Carnivale, we got the same budget as Six Feet Under, which was a contemporary show. No one could understand that there was a difference in cost, time, crew, to do a period show than a contemporary one.

We dressed 5,000 extras on Carnivale. It was absolutely the worst experience I’ve ever had in the business. It was utterly heartbreaking, because I was so in love with it. I actually went blind in one eye, one day, from stress, and I am not a fragile girl, but that show was a complete mofo. I did get an Emmy and an amazing husband (Ron Moore) out of it. But to this day I am unable to watch it, it is such a bad memory. It drove me screaming out of the business after a 20-year career.

Outlander.

Didn’t want to do it. Knew that the business hadn’t changed, that a giant period show like this need a minimum of four months prep. They couldn’t find anyone else to do it, probably because of the same reasons I didn’t want to. It was going to be a brutal experience. Finally, Ron asked me to just get it up and running, then they would find a replacement, and I agreed to help out. That was almost four years ago.

We had seven weeks to prep Season One, two weeks to make Caitriona’s costumes. In the first two weeks of filming, we needed to see almost every costume she wore in the first half of S1. When we started prep, we had electricity, that was it. No sewing machines, no phones, no furniture, nothing.

Carnivale redux. But I had done Carnivale, I knew the pitfalls. We/I, moved heaven and earth to pull off a miracle. It was predictably an awful experience.

Our first discovery was that there were virtually no rentals to be had, and we were going to have to make most of it. I don’t know how we did it. Actually I do. Costuming a cast of thousands is nothing like making a perfect period gown. It is dressing an army, with no time and never enough money or staff. It comes down to management and logistics.

How do you dress an army that all wear different costumes? You have to create a costume factory. One that is capable of making everything that anyone is going to wear, from the extras to the cast. Thousands and thousands of pieces.

People really have absolutely no clue what goes into it.

Outlander season 2 costumes

Louis XV’s court suit from season 2, episode 2. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: My understanding is that you were instrumental in the decision to adapt the books for TV (introducing Ron to the books, meeting with Diana). Can you tell us about your role in that process?

Terry Dresbach: I read the books when they first came out, long before I met Ron. I read them many times. After I met Ron, he picked up a dog-eared copy, and said “Why are there so many of these books?” I told him about it, and said he really needed to make it into a movie. That was about it, until one evening at dinner with Ron and Maril, Ron’s producing partner, it came to light that Maril was also a fan. That was the end of that, and Ron pretty much had no choice from that point on. We double-teamed him. There was going to be a TV show.

But someone else had the rights at that point, and they were trying to figure out how to make it into a movie. Ron and I kind of gave up. But Maril persevered, like a dog with a bone. She is the reason it finally got made. They went and met with Diana. I didn’t meet her until later. She has been truly wonderful, incredibly supportive. I think the world of her.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve mentioned, in interviews and on your blog, that there was pressure to modernize the costumes. What was the vision that others (the studios?) had for the costumes?

Terry Dresbach: A modern, fashion-oriented, version of history. Hollywood has historically assumed that a modern audience finds history boring. They may be correct in that assumption. I think that the success of shows that adapt historical costumes into contemporary fashion, speaks to that.

But I (and Ron) don’t believe in dumbing things down to meet the lowest expectation. History is fascinating, historical costume is fascinating, and the audience is smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for, given a chance. I would not have done a modernized view of the 18th-century, or any other for that matter. I was not going to put everyone in leather to make it sexy, have women running around in corsets as outerwear, or use runway fashions, so that the audience could go out and dress like the characters.

Not only do I have zero interest in that, but, I knew that the 18th century was one of the sexiest periods of fashion in history. Contemporary fashion designers have been revisiting it for DECADES. Why the hell would we need to make it sexy, when it already was??

The suits of Hollywood do not know the difference between one period or another, and I think they live in mortal fear of Queen Elizabeth, LOL.

I fought hard to go with historical accuracy, and with Ron’s support, everyone agreed.

 

Frock Flicks: How and why did you arrive at your own decision to argue for emphasizing the real history in costumes?

Terry Dresbach: It was never a question as far as I was concerned. Without the agreement that we were going for historical accuracy, I would not have accepted the job. I don’t generally like modernized history, with the exception of Anna Karenina [editor’s note: the 2012 version, we assume], which I thought was perfectly brilliant.

In hindsight, I am much more forgiving with the choice that others have made to bend the rules.

Television schedules are unforgiving. We make a giant period movie every episode. It would have been SO MUCH EASIER to go to the mall. I know it sounds like so much hyperbole, but we mop up the blood at the end of every work day. It is an exhausting, unforgiving, brutal task we have taken on.

That we get heat for not taking period costuming seriously, is breathtaking to me. We kill ourselves to get it as right as possible.

I would LOVE to hand it over to one of the nit-pickers for just one episode. Thank God my team doesn’t read what is on the internet, they would be heartbroken.

 

Frock Flicks: Did you go through the books and take copious notes on anything costume-related?

Terry Dresbach: No. In the beginning I thought it would be cool to make the costumes according to the book descriptions. As a fan of the books, I have a pretty good sense of the fan base. I knew that would make them happy. I didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters.

Books and screens are different mediums. I read the book many times, and other than the red dress, never really questioned the choices. Because reading allows for the reader to insert their own imagination and adjust things to their preferences. Translating those descriptions is an entirely different ballgame. Writers are rarely costume designers, they don’t have to be, it’s not their job.

 

Frock Flicks: 18th-century Scottish clothing is something of a black hole when it comes to published research. What sources did you manage to find?

Terry Dresbach: Not much. Which is why I am so puzzled when people shred us for misrepresenting 18th-century Scottish dress. Where the hell are they getting their research from?? We looked everywhere. Museums, libraries, online, etc. Researching cultural attributes of a country that has experienced cultural genocide is a bit tricky.

You can go by the romanticized version put out by the Victorians. You can use the portraits done by the aristocracy, who can tell the painters to paint them however they like. They didn’t usually have portraits done of the poor. There is no photographic evidence. There are a few actual pieces that survive, worn by the wealthy, and a few that have been pulled out of bogs

Ultimately, we had to make certain assumptions, having screwed ourselves by insisting on doing this the right way. Scotland was a modern enlightened country in the 18th century, an ally of France. Most of Europe followed fashions set by France, adapting them for their cultures and climates. We tried to do that for Scotland. We interpreted the silhouette in heavy wool. People still live in wool in Scotland. Keeps you warm and dry.

You also need to remember that we were doing our research in those seven weeks at the same time we were installing machinery, desks, phones, and starting to make costumes. It all happened at the same time. I wish we had months to sit around studying the minutiae, before cutting a piece of fabric. That is not how costume design works.

But I am very satisfied with what we have pulled off. We actually do get a lot of very positive feedback from historical costume experts, museum people, especially in Scotland, which is extra rewarding.

Outlander season 2 costume

Embroidered man’s waistcoat. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: How do you manage the push/pull of making the costumes look historically accurate versus accurate to the book?

Terry Dresbach: I don’t try. It is an impossible task. There have been three costumes that I decided to do that were fan favorites. They are the ones that I have been asked about hundreds of times: The white shift in the beginning, the red dress, and the gown the kings mistress wears.

They also happen to be the descriptions that are the most difficult to translate and the ones you KNOW you are going to get raked over the coals for. The non-book-readers are not going to know why they are there, the historical people, like you guys, are going to scream bloody murder, and the fans are going to be pissed over any variance from the literal word. It is the definition of a no-win.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t sew. How does that inform/challenge/assist you as a designer?

Terry Dresbach: Has no real bearing. I always point out when asked, that architects probably cannot, nor are expected to be able to actually build the buildings they design.

Yet everyone expects costume DESIGNERS to sew. That seems a little “womens workish” to me. I understand construction, I know how garments are put together, and that is all I need in order to convey what I need and want to the people who actually construct the garments. That is THEIR specialty, their area of expertise and I respect their knowledge and capability. They respect mine. My inability to sew has been a non-issue, but remains a fascinating point for others.

 

Frock Flicks: We’d love to know more about your costume shop. Could you talk us through the process of making one hypothetical costume? Do you design solo? What’s the cutters’ and stitchers’ and everyone else’s roles? When do actors/actresses get involved – is it just for fittings?

Terry Dresbach: Oh, that is such a huge question. I’ll try to make it somewhat succinct if that is possible.

Let’s say we get a scene in a script for a new character. First, we have to break down what happens to him/her. Are they getting shot, stabbed, swimming, involved in a mud fight, or riding a horse. In other words, how many are we going to have to make of that one costume? It could be as many as six copies, depending on what happens.

I, or an assistant designer will design the costume. I usually do the principal characters. But on show this size, with hundreds of incredibly complicated costumes, that is just not possible. My very talented and capable assistant designers will do a lot of the “day players” and some of the supporting cast.

We talk thorough all the costumes as a whole in any scene. If you are doing a dinner party, all the costumes have to work together. You need a seating chart. Then you create a mock table on paper, and arrange colors around the table, so there is harmony and the viewer is not distracted by things clashing. That takes forever. You have to find everyone’s fabrics, trims, details, decide how not to replicate feeling or looks, so that you are creating individual characters, that create a whole. Our tables are covered with piles of fabric, lace, buttons, trims. We use hundreds of thousands of yards of lace, trim, probably 100,000 buttons in S2. Don’t even get me started on the exhaustive search for new embroidery variations or furbelow configurations on hundreds and hundreds of gowns. The charts, the graphs, oy. It is painstaking, it is painful, and we do it endlessly.

As for principals, I often do their designs on the weekends, when I have fewer distractions. They become the cornerstone on which we build all the other characters.

Once the costumes are all sketched out, all the fabrics, trims, buttons, etc., have been decided on, and ordered, any fabric dyeing, or labor intensive treatments like embroidery or painting have been completed, the sketches go to our cutters who then translate the sketch to pattern. From pattern, they cut the garment (hopefully the fabric has arrived), it then gets dispensed to the makers. We have about 30 makers. It takes about a month to make a Paris costume from beginning to end, because we are making many costumes at once and because the detailing is so elaborate and often hand-done. We can slam some things out faster in an emergency, but try to avoid that at all costs. That just creates more bleeding.

After the costume is finished, it goes to our aging and dyeing team who make the costume look like it belongs to a real person, adding whatever layers of life the costume and character require.

 

Frock Flicks: What’s with all the cartridge pleating? Why aren’t many gowns/skirts knife pleated as they would have been in the period?

Terry Dresbach: That is probably me, to some extent. I am obsessed with cartridge pleating. But we do knife pleating as well.

 

Frock Flicks: What’s with all the back-lacing? Is it easier to fit? Does it make dressing the actresses easier? Is it just random and now you’re stuck with it?

Terry Dresbach: We are not stuck with it. It is just one of those things. In early days we saw back-lacing in our research and did not have the time to do the kind of research that you guys can do, to determine that was not very common. We used it, unaware what a horror it was for some.

You guys can be very happy to know that I have banned it. I am grateful you pointed it out. You guys can stop beating us over the head with that note. We got it.

Outlander Season 2 Costumes

Embroidered man’s waistcoat from season 2. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: Geillis always looked slightly off in season 1. To what degree was that about her being from the 20th century? Or her witchiness? Or both? Or something else?

Terry Dresbach: This IS a show about time travel. It is not a documentary about historical costuming. We are telling the story of individual characters. Our job as costume designers is to tell stories about people. Clothing is used as a vehicle to that end.

This is the part I do not get about historical costume people. Fashion/costumes are never absolutes. There are as many interpretations of clothing as there are people. There has to be room for individuals and how they interpret themselves through their clothing.

Geillis is a perfect example of that. I am not going to spoil anything for those who have not read the book, but of all people, why would Geillis not drop breadcrumbs all over the place that tell us there is something up with her? That who she is, is going to impact how she dresses, just like everyone else in the world. That just seems so obvious. We all make choices as individuals, every day, as to how we express ourselves through clothing, even if that choice means following along with what everyone else wears.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve noted that fashion under Louis XV is different than the pastel froof we associate with Louis XVI. What sort of vision did you have for the look of Paris?

Terry Dresbach: The palette was darker, the colors deeper, almost heavier. After working with a show that is shot very dark, and a lot of it in candlelight, I had two options. Going lighter, which was a later style, or going brighter, which was the direction we went. I wanted rich brilliant colors to emerge from the darkness. You can see the mood boards I created over on my blog that illustrate that [editor’s note: here’s the link].

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve mentioned that you couldn’t rent any costumes for season 2, even for extras. Can you tell us more about that situation? Is there another massive 18th-century production going on that we don’t know about? Or were all the available options not right for 1740s, or for the look you wanted, or too expensive?

Terry Dresbach: It is a multifaceted issue, and all of the above problems are at play. When we started in S1, the latest version of Pirates was prepping. When we walked into the rental house, there were rails and rails of 18th-century costumes, all tagged for that show. I think Versailles was also shooting or prepping at that time.

Everyone, ourselves included, has this vision of vast warehouses filled to the brim with the perfect period clothing for all possible endeavors. Kilts Galore! Reality is something different. Hollywood stopped making big period pieces a long time ago, and television never did them, except for westerns. Places like Western Costume sold off vast quantities of their period stock because it was never used. So the rental houses are pretty bare bones.

You go to the racks that say “18th century,” and it is a whole century of fashion, mainly the period of Marie Antoinette. You pull out 20 gowns that are mid 18th, delete the garish colors, the grossly inaccurate, the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ types, and you end up with five gowns. Maybe you do better with men’s frockcoats and end up with 50. You fly around Europe trying to collect all the costumes you need? Waste of time and money to end up with less than you need. We need hundreds and hundreds of costumes that we are going to rent for years and years. You rent those and spend a FORTUNE over the years to do a TV series.

We have made a few thousand costumes for the same price as renting them for one year, and they are ours, designed for our aesthetic, and we can do what we want with them. We can change the trim, the embellishments as needed. We pay for the cost of making them one time instead of paying that same amount every six months for the next eight years. At this point, we have our own costume house.

I would love to talk to the other designers out there doing period pieces. We are all in the same boat. Pretty sure we are all mass-producing costumes.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve mentioned that you had fabrics made for season 2, and we’ve seen a lot of images on your Twitter feed showing the beautiful embroidery work that’s been done in-house. Have you used any other techniques to make fabrics?

Terry Dresbach: We do a ton of embroidery. We have six pro machines. We also do a lot of painted fabrics. We have done a lot of block printing, even stenciling for extras costumes. We do mass dyeing. We have an enormous dye room. If there is a technique that we come across to create believable fabrics, we will employ it. At the end of S2, we used some of our slower times to create yards and yards of quilted fabric to add to our stock. We have tried our hand at painting tartan, just to see what that was like. It was spectacular.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve mentioned that you lost a lot of your costume team sometime between season 1 and 2. Can you talk about what happened?

Terry Dresbach: You always have some ebb and flow. We have never shut down. Our department works straight through, when the rest of the show is on break. We have to, in order to deliver what is needed. We did not lose a lot of people between seasons, we have been lucky enough to keep the majority of our team.

But we have lost a lot of cutters. It is a tough job to fill. Everybody and their mother is shooting in the UK, and there are more cutting jobs available than there are cutters. So the top cutters can pick and choose and are fought over fiercely. We are not in London, we are out in the wilds of Scotland. People have homes and families, usually in London, lives that the business asks them to walk away from for years on end. When there is a job half an hour from your kids school that pays top dollar, why relocate?

In the middle of S2 prep while we were in the middle of making all of the women’s costumes, our women’s cutting team gave notice. They had family issues and a job offer at home. They took it. It left us in an untenable position. The entire production was put at risk as we had no way to finish the lead actresses costumes in time for shooting. I lived in nauseousness for weeks. We had a revolving door of temporary cutters finish all everything. You want consistency above all else.

So when you guys wonder why we don’t have the perfect robe a la francaise, that is why. We were lucky we could shoot. It absolutely broke my heart as I watched all my dreams for S2 go down the drain.

This is the kind of thing that is very common in our business. We all are usually one step ahead of one kind of disaster or another. It is just the way things are. Supply and demand, weather, lack of prep, money, crew, a million things that can go wrong and always do.

But I am insanely proud of what we accomplished. The response to the S2 costumes has been overwhelming. The reviews of the costumes have been extraordinary, and our disaster remains in my heart and not on the screen.

Outlander Season 2 Costumes

Claire’s red dress from season 2, episode 2. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: You’ve decided that Claire would modernize the 1740s fashions she has made while in Paris. Can you talk us through that decision from a character perspective? How does dressing Claire differently from the other upper-class Parisians work from a story perspective?

Terry Dresbach: Again, this is a show about time travel. Claire is not from the 18th century. Cait and I worked to maintain Claire’s physicality as a woman from the ’40s in Scotland. It was easier there. We put pockets in her clothes, her costumes were made of wool which lent itself to a feel of suiting. We kept her clothing very simple and tailored.

But as we faced Paris it was a very different proposition. As you know all to well, we are talking about a highly embellished, ultra frilly, highly feminine period of dress. It just wasn’t Claire.

In the book, she feels very restricted by various items of clothing and discards them. Putting her in the clothing of the French court felt like it was totally against character. So I turned to her period of origin, the 1940s as we had before. I would not do this with any other characters other than Claire and Geillis, who are from other time periods. I can color outside the lines with them. I cannot with Jenny or Louise. Not only do they HAVE to stay within the lines, it only works for Claire and Geillis to go outside, if everyone else stays inside. Otherwise it is a mess.

When I started looking at Post WWII fashion one of the first things that jumped out of me was Christian Dior’s Bar suit. Anyone who has any knowledge of fashion knows this piece, as did I. But viewing it again, after doing an 18th-century show. I could see that it was so clearly a riff on an 18th- and 19th-century riding suit. Further research supported that. It was such an obvious choice for Claire.

She would NOT have seen that particular suit, but she might have had a similar reaction as Dior did, when she saw the real thing in the 18th century, that he did in the 20th. It was a suit after all, something she was comfortable in, it was familiar to her. It seemed like it would be something of a lifeboat for her in a sea of frills. I proposed it to Cait who loved the idea, and that was our blueprint going forward. I looked to Dior, Balmain, Balenciaga, Charles James, and illustrators like Rene Gruau for inspiration.

The audience, their expectations, or fashion knowledge, never played into my choice in any way. I design for the character and the story.

 

Frock Flicks: Talk to us about “The Red Dress.” The description in the book seems somewhat different from what’s on screen (i.e., there are mentions of corsetry and sheer frills somewhere around Claire’s neckline). How did you arrive at your particular design, with the deep V cut out of the neckline and the very minimal styling?

Terry Dresbach: Once again, we were going down a 20th-century path with Claire, so that really helped with a very challenging costume from the book. This was something we decided to do because of fan interest. We wanted to honor that. It was a book moment that mattered. BUT the book description never made sense to me. It was the one costume that I had read over the years, and went, huh? A corset alone made the exposure of breast and skin as described impossible. I did not understand sheer panels being inset at all and had never seen anything like that. Diana may have, I don’t know. Red is always tricky. I would never choose to do an enormous red dress on screen. It overpowers everything. Embellish it too much, and you end up with a saloon girl.

So I looked to the 20th century again and found a gorgeous array of beautiful and very simple red dresses that allowed the color to provide the ornamentation. I took the basic silhouette of an 18th-century gown, stripped it of all the frills and bows, any lace, and most importantly, removed the corset. That allowed me to create the scandal needed, something we did with Geillis, who is never corseted. Putting myself in Claire’s shoes, I opened up the center front of the bodice (back-lacing required). That revealed as much bosom as possible, which would serve the story points that Jamie is scandalized by how low cut the gown is (in a time when low cut was common place), and would be enough of a sensation to draw the attention of the King.

That was the job, and I fulfilled it quite well, I think.

Some of the book fans are upset because I deviated from a literal translation of the description, and you guys are appalled [editor’s note: appalled is a pretty strong word! We disliked it, sure], but the rest of the world is pretty damned excited about it. I can accept that.

 

Frock Flicks: As of season 2, episode 2, there doesn’t seem to be any robes à la française (aka, sack-back gowns, the classic and most popular dress of the mid-18th century, with long back pleats that make the dress float in back). Why not?

Terry Dresbach: See above. We are lucky that Claire and the other female cast have costumes at all. We averted disaster, but not without a price. We lost a few designs including a couple ofrobes à la française. We had to take shortcuts and make modifications to what we were in the middle of.

We are very fortunate that the percentage of our audience who knows those things are missing is very, very small.

 

Frock Flicks: Yet, one character at the French court is in a robe à la piemontaise, where the back pleats are cut separate from the dress. Why was that style chosen, despite it being about 30-40 years too early? Is it just easier to make/wear than the the classic française?

Terry Dresbach: Yes. At that point in our situation it was probably easier.

 

Frock Flicks: How did you approach designing for Louis XV?

Terry Dresbach: Louis is quite young in our story. We used him as a vehicle to show just how over the top and outrageous fashion was at that period. A steady march towards that guillotine. He was so much fun to do. You need occasional fun to keep everyone going.

Outlander Season 2 Costumes

Louise de Rohan’s court dress from season 2, episode 2. Click for a much bigger version!

Frock Flicks: Talk to us about designing for Mary Hawkins. What character traits were essential for you to convey on screen?

Terry Dresbach: She is our ingénue, our sweet and innocent virgin. A flower, unlike Louise in every way. I loved doing Louise. She was our stereotype, our representative for the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of 18th-century French fashion. She is sexy and saucy, a true coquette.

 

Frock Flicks: Claire often wears her hair down when it’s up to her. Is that a reflection of her 20th-century origins?

Terry Dresbach: I don’t do hair, and never remember her wearing it down in S2 in public.

She did on occasion in Scotland when living rough, on the road. But our fantastic hair and makeup team is a stickler for such things. I bow to their knowledge of what is appropriate where.

 

Frock Flicks: So far, we haven’t seen many of the French upper class wearing hair powder as they would have done in the period. Is that a character/story decision? Or are powdered hair/wigs just too weird for modern audiences?

Terry Dresbach: Again, that is not my domain, but I thought the majority of our men were wigged.

 

Frock Flicks: You’ve been incredibly available and communicative with the fans of the show, more so than any other costume designer that we’re aware of. I can guess that’s been both a positive and negative experience. On the whole, are you glad you made that choice?

Terry Dresbach: Depends on what day it is. But 90% of it has been incredibly positive. What an incredible fan base we have. They are wildly supportive and enthusiastic. No one who knows me believes that I am active on social media. I am surprised myself. But what a rich opportunity to share what we do, with people from all around the world. Fans want to know what we do, to understand how it all works, all the logistics all the details, the triumphs, the failures, the challenges. That is incredibly exciting.

If this business is ever going to change and, in particular, change for the women who work in it, we need to show more than just the red-carpet version of things. If people want to see behind the scenes, then it has to be more than “who is the biggest prankster on set?” And if fans want to stomp their feet and yell about decisions and choices that are made behind the scenes, they need to understand how it all works.

99% of the people who tear things apart have absolutely no idea about the realities involved in making a TV show. It is a two-way street. But the vast majority are just warm, and lovely. It is interesting that our fan base is mainly women, and they have become like family for us. I think we would be welcome in their homes and at dinner tables around the world. They are a very nurturing bunch.

I personally have found the entire interaction incredibly rewarding. It has added an unexpected element that has probably kept me on the show.

 

We thank Terry for her time for this interview! You can read Terry Dresbach’s blog here!

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Three historical costumers who decided the world needed a podcast and blog dedicated to historical costume movies and everything right and wrong with them.

50 Responses

  1. eadon216

    Awesome interview. Thank you so much for being frank with the fans, Terry. I am loving the look of S2 so far! Thank you for fighting to keep the look as historically accurate as possible. You set a wonderful example that I hope Hollywood will begin to follow!

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      Thank you! And thank you to Frock Flicks, what a fun interview this was. It is so great to get to speak in detail with people who do know about historical dress.
      One note I want to add, that was understandably not part of the interview.

      I want to take a minute to acknowledge and thank the powers that be, on Outlander.
      This is a very unusual show in the fact that we have such full and robust support from everyone all the way up the ladder. That is very rare. I have never experienced anything like it.
      Our production, Ron and Maril, Matt,Toni, Ira, Anne, Sony, Starz, have been incredible to work with. Not only do we have a really great budget and structure, but they give us the kind of creative freedom that allows us to get it done and to get it done right.
      The most important support you can get in this business, comes in the form of trust. You can get second guessed to death by people who no nothing about costumes. Everyone trusts us, and lets us get on with it.
      It is an amazing and new experience, one I am incredibly grateful for, and one I have waited thirty years to have.
      Just needed to say that.

      Reply
      • Donna Antaramian

        Terry – you are very lucky to have this support, especially from upper management and by upper management I mean from Sony/Starz. It is very rare today to have those powers to be to let the people they hire to do their job and do it right. I worked in IT and we were driven by upper management’s directive of timeframes and budget – this made for long hours, sloppy work and very bad morale. Congratulations on that front.
        As someone who has been sewing since she was 5, some 50+ years, I am so envious of those that got to work under your genius. Both seasons have been a feast for the eyes. I thank you for sharing your Outlander Costume journey with us. I have learnt so much from you.

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          Yes, I am incredibly lucky. This job is so huge, it just wouldn’t be possible if I was being micro-managed. The support we get from above is amazing and very rare.

          Reply
  2. Diana

    As an amateur sewist and a long time fan of the Outlander series, I am continuously enthralled with the costumes and how they’ve been interpreted, I literally GASPED when I saw the red dress. I am in awe of Ms. Dresback and cannot thank her enough for the beautiful works of art she has created, from the peasants to the royalty, all in some way or another encompassing the attributes of the characters themselves. Brava!

    Reply
  3. lorischmitt

    I LOVED this interview. Insight into so many things! I love the way the costumes have been handled, and one would never know that you and your team were hurried and lacking in help. I loved the Red Dress as presented. I think that it did what it was supposed to do, and be different from the time period. Loved that you could see her au naturel, and not corsetted. I am a huge fan of the 1940’s costumes, and I am in love with her blue coat. You should consider selling them or a pattern. People would buy it up. Is there any chance of allowing people a tour of your costume facilities? Thanks for all that you and the cast and crew do. Love Outlander

    Reply
  4. Lois E

    Awesome interview Frock Flicks and Terry. Your explanation of telling part of the story through the costume designs. I so agree with you when it comes to period clothing and that fashion and costumes not absolutes. Enjoyed the read!

    Reply
  5. Andrew

    “So when you guys wonder why we don’t have the perfect robe a la francaise, that is why. We were lucky we could shoot. It absolutely broke my heart as I watched all my dreams for S2 go down the drain.”

    This certainly sheds a lot of light.

    I will say that I respect and appreciate the passion that Ms. Dresbach clearly has for her profession and for this show. She is a costume designer first, and an historian second (or third, or maybe not at all). We may disagree with some of her design decisions as viewers, and her interpretations of some aspects of history, but we have to remember that her job encompasses far more than making sure the pleats on the back of a dress are the correct width. And at the end of the day, she has an immense talent for making clothes are that are very aesthetically pleasing and suit the actors who wear them well, while also paying service to the plot and characters. And frankly, that’s more than can be said for a lot of costume designers who have worked on historical productions, as the posts on this site can attest.

    Reply
  6. Broughps

    Fantastic interview. Love the background on the decisions on why certain looks were chosen.

    Reply
  7. Adina

    Wait, you didn’t ask about how the swans were done?
    You made me so curious in the podcast, is there an answer?

    Reply
  8. L.R.

    Loved this interview, thank you! I really appreciate not only the “behind the scenes” look at how the costumes form, but also Terry’s frank discussion of women in the industry and costuming as “women’s work.” Keep it up :)

    Reply
  9. Susan Pola

    Your interview with Ms Dresbach was one of the best costume and budget reality articles ever. Merci beaucoup, Team Frock Flicks and Ms Dresbach.

    I also want to say I loved the red dress. It felt very Claire to me. But my favourite Claire dress is the teal brocade robe a la francais that she wears (see Twitter post as I don’t know how to imbedded a picture here).

    I also felt that Ms Dresbach was able to convey how lost Claire as someone not a Fashionista would be thrust into a world where how you dress is so very important.

    Again, thanks a million

    Reply
  10. Jerelyn Hodges

    I have learned so much from Terry, I never had any idea of the process a costume designer went through. I wish I were 36 years younger and I would have probably gone on a different career path. It was a wonderful insightful interview thank you so much.

    Reply
  11. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I would love to thank Mrs. Dresbach for all the hard work to get the costumes made and onto the screne. I shrieked and fangirled over the Riding Bar Dress. That is my new pattern for the Salty Ball, a pirate event held to benefit Testicular Cancer research. I adored the red shoes and the fabric of the Sang Du Chris gown. Though I have also seen another red dress with a completely different bodice and sleeves shown at a dinner party type scene. I am more intrigued with THAT gown and it’s design. What can you tell us about that one?

    Reply
  12. debraemarvin

    Excellent interview. I’m sure I speak for the majority of fans when I say we could never imagine such a wonderful production company for this series and the gift of this incredible woman making magic in such challenging situations.

    When a survey (of sorts) asked where fans would want to be on set, being able to watch Terry and the wardrobe dept do their thing came out on top. Her knowledge and honest insights are fascinating.

    Reply
  13. funnybunnyhelena

    Thank you for doing interview!
    Now I feel guilty for being whiny about lack of francaises and similar things. I now get it. It wasn’t meant to be so, but had to be rescued somehow.

    I am impressed. So short time, lack of people, produce/sew like mad.

    Reply
  14. Janette

    Congratulations Terry on being able to achieve your dream career, and for standing up for historical accuracy in Hollywood. No mean feat that. With so many TV series making it up as they go along and trashing history it makes a very welcome change.
    When I was a student I also dreamed of being a costume designer. Told the teachers in the careers office and they sneered and told me to be sensible and look at nursing or secretarial work. Needless to say I walked out having decided that the career concept was over rated. Nice to read of someone who achieved that dream.
    I was also amused when following the link to the concept art by the header photo of the barn. I have a photo of the same barn, taken from a different angle.
    Thank you for doing the interview. It was very interesting. I will enjoy series two all the more now knowing what went into creating it.

    Reply
  15. mmcquown

    I almost cried reading parts of Terry’s interview. 30-odd years ago, when my wife and I stared out to create a 17th-century reenactment group, we had a fair idea of what the clothes should look like, but what we didn’t have, and never really found anywhere, were the trims. Or the shoes, or the hats (we eventually did discover a local hat manufacturer, but not much else. For example, there were many mentions of a ‘montero’ cap for the soldiers. At the time, nobody over here, nor in the UK had a clue. This was all BI (Before the Internet) Today, you can get a montero from a guy in the UK for about $42. And muskets? Swords, pistols, armour — then not so much. Now, there are even sources for Eastern European gear. But trim, still not so much. We also realised that patterns were going to come out differently from different seamstresses, and that ANY garment from the period was handmade, therefore, not exactly like another. (PS, that odd little cap the Milady wears in the Richard Lester film is apparently a version of a montero). So, yeah, I can well understand Terry’s angst, and heartily applaud how much she has done with what she had to work with.

    Reply
  16. Ellira

    Thanks for this interview Ms Dresbach! While I occasionally squint at some of the choices you’ve made, you do such a great job overall that I KNOW there’s reasoning behind them, and it’s great to hear what they are (although sad to hear your plans were derailed). Outlander is absolutely my favourite show at the moment and a huge part of that is the incredible visuals created by you and your costuming department. Really appreciate your work, and I hope you have an easier time of it next season!

    Reply
  17. AshleyOlivia

    This interview was fantastic! Thank you to Frock Flicks and Terry Dresbach!

    I actually started watching Outlander because of the costumes. When the press started, I got a synopsis of book 1 from a friend and decided it wasn’t for me because I’m very sensitive to violence on screen. Then I read an interview Terry did with Jezebel about the costumes and changed my mind. I’m so glad I did, and I’m so appreciative that Terry is so generous with her time and expertise and talks to fans about the ins and outs of costume design. It makes watching the show that much more fascinating!

    (Also, we may quibble about back-lacing and no robes à la française, but I think most people agree this show gets the majority of things right. Not everything can be 100% historically accurate on a tv show, for the reasons that Terry points out. Also, if everything was perfect, whatever would we talk about? ;-) The discussion and speculation about the thinking behind certain costumes is half the fun!)

    Reply
  18. Christine Maclean

    Great interview with Terry. I worked in the art department for years I understand the heartache Terry speaks of “not enough time or money” One of the reasons that had me watching Outlander was the detail of the production design. I have never seen that kind of detail on a TV show. The costumes and sets blew me away… I was a little envious… this would have been a dream project for me as well. Congrats to Terry and the rest of the crew, it may not be historically perfect but you get a feel and essence of the time and space. The best is how fabulous it it looks on the actors.

    Reply
  19. Shrewsburylasses

    I’m a little confused about the reasoning behind not renting the costumes. TD said it was better to create everything from scratch so they could use it again, rather than renting from multiple costume houses in Europe. But why would they use the Paris costumes again? AFAIK they aren’t going to be in that city (or time period) again for the rest of the series, or am I missing something?

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      Yes, we alter and distress all the costumes. If we own a costume we can change it however we want to.
      The most important point is that the many costumes houses in Europe, don’t have the quantities that you need to do TV. Might be able to pull off a movie.

      When you go to a costume house, if you haven’t been, is not always what one anticipates.
      There is either a long rail that says 16th century, or 18th century, or if you are lucky enough to be doing the 40s, or the 50s, there are many, many rails.
      Then your team goes through the 18th century rail, and start pulling.
      Hopefully there are no other shows, movies, shooting at that time for your particular period.

      So the couple of people you have to do this, start sorting.

      – find your years.Because a century is a long time, and you want at least TRY :) not to use costumes from 1780 in a story about 1740
      You find, say, 60 dresses or suits. (if you are really lucky, it is more likely to be 20)

      – Now, sort out the costumes that work with your show. Consider color, tone, class, all the elements that one considers on any show.

      – Get rid of the horrors, because there have been a lot of really scary, garish costumes made over the years. Lose the ones that are falling apart.

      By the time you have done all that weeding, maybe you have 20 costumes.
      Now you sort through all the accessories, hats, shoes, fichus, reticules, stocks, corsets, petticoats, match up waistcoats with suits (that is a challenge), etc.

      Let’s be really generous, and say that you have cobbled together 100 costumes. You pay x amount of dollars to rent them for 6 months.

      If you are doing a movie, and you have one party scene, you might be able to squeak by.

      But here is the rub.We make a one hour movie every episode. Or, call it six movies each season..
      We dress about 5000 bodies during a season. Once you add in all of those accessories, you need thousands and thousands of items.

      For the same price as renting a costume, I can make one. Now I own it.
      If you alter, or age or do anything to a rental costume, you pay 10X it’s value. So a costume you rent for $400.. now costs you $4000. You want to be sure not to have that happen.
      But if I OWN that costume, I can change the trim, I can age it, we can stab the person wearing it, and we never pay anything more than cost of making it.

      I can easily take a gown we made for the Paris section, and alter it to work in a later scene or season. People kept their clothing for years and years. There was no Target and a gown or a suit was highly valued or cared for, modified to suit changing styles. We can do the same.

      You also have to calculate in the cost of air travel and hotel for members of your team to the various rental houses.
      It all adds up.

      Hope that sheds some light on our process.

      Reply
      • Kendra

        Thanks, that’s what I was thinking but you of course are able to articulate it much better, given that you’re living it!

        Reply
      • AshleyOlivia

        Very enlightening response! Though I’m assuming part of what Shrewsburrylasses was getting at was that the Paris wardrobe isn’t going to be appropriate anymore for where they are headed in Voyager… definitely not for the location of Drums of Autumn (trying to keep this spoiler-free). What a nightmare for the costuming department to have to completely restock the wardrobes each season. The change of locale was great in the books, but it adds a new level of difficulty to the adaptation.

        Maybe at the end of it all there can be an Outlander museum just for the costumes ;-) I would go!!!

        Reply
        • Broughps

          Actually there are places in Voyager that the costumes could be used again. Think Lord John Grey party. Plus you have Jocasta’s events in the other books.

          Reply
          • AshleyOlivia

            Yes, but would it make sense for them to be wearing fashion-forward clothing appropriate for Versailles in the backwoods of *****? (Keeping it spoiler-free!) Not to mention there would be continuity issues as to how the clothes got there… However, I’m mostly thinking of the differences in climate.

            I don’t know, we’ll just have to wait and see what Terry comes up with!

            Reply
          • Broughps

            Like Terry said they can distress stuff, take stuff off and add stuff on. Obviously they wouldn’t be wearing those kinds of clothes in the back woods but remember LJG is the governor of Jamaica at one point. Jocasta had the upper echelon of society to her parties. Some redoing and maybe some dying and voila a new dress.

            Reply
        • terrydresbach

          You are hitting it on the nose here. The blessing and the curse of Outlander is that nothing is ever final. You need a few thousand costumes for Paris? We will only be there one time. On ships, only once. It never gets dull, but it is a logistical nightmare.
          That is where you have to get clever, and design costumes that can be modified as the story moves forward. This is a place where I have a tremendous advantage knowing the books so well. I know where we have to go.

          Reply
      • Shrewsburylasses

        Thank you for the detailed reply. The search and rental process is so much more complicated than I imagined. And thank you for taking the time to share all of this interesting information with us about your process; I’ve enjoyed reading it very much!

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          You are most welcome!
          I long for the days of Edith Head, when a designer just designed, and the rest was provided for through the studio system. Today, designing is really about 40% of the job. The rest of the time gets eaten up by administration, logistics, budget and process.
          We are administrators as well as creative heads of departments. Costume Designers have very full plates.

          Reply
  20. Susan Pola

    This was most interesting. As to the reuse of them, America in colonial times wasn’t a Fashion back of beyond. Think of the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia delegations in John Adams, 1776 and the George Washington miniseries.

    Reply
  21. Willow and Thatch

    Thank you Terry – not only for the incredible insight into the challenges and rewards of your work, but for your persistence. Your efforts bring real joy to fans of costume dramas, and intellectual curiosity, relaxation, inspiration, and reason to tune in. You create such art under extreme pressure and with shifting limitations! For the well-being of all, I do hope though that in the future the industry can respond better to your needs, and understand the significance of your team. I’ll be sharing this interview with the Willow and Thatch: Love of Period Films audience. Thanks again! to you and to Frock Flicks.

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      Thank you so much for your incredibly kind words. This kind of understanding and response really matters. It means that our efforts count with viewers and that makes it worthwhile to continue to invest the incredible hours, time and energy necessary.
      I think viewers/fans really do not understand how much impact they have. Positive feedback means everything. It inspires and excites us. When all we have is negative feedback about EVERYTHING we do, it can be very disheartening to an already exhausted team. It can feel like, “we are bleeding all over the floor, FOR THIS?”
      Not saying that legitimate criticism is not actually valued. We will avoid back lacings, and I think the red dress probably is too short. We can all learn, and it would be dull indeed if all we received was adulation. But the conclusion that we are all uncaring hacks, who know nothing about what we are doing, is what really gets to us.

      I have decided instead, to go under the assumption that people just do not understand what actually goes into what we do. And if people want to see behind the curtain, than perhaps a better understanding will be beneficial to all, so let’s talk about how it all really works.
      The discussion is quite thrilling. I look at what we have accomplished here at FF, the dialogue, the interaction, it is quite wonderful.
      I want to encourage viewers to feel free to interact as much as possible. I am on twitter almost every day to answer questions (@draiochta14), or come to my blog to see detailed descriptions of costumes and the thought process behind them.
      I’ll have to come check out Willow and Thatch!!! Again, thank you so much!!

      Reply
  22. Susan Pola

    Thank you for your blog. I find it most informative on your design process. I especially liked the last two posts on Claire and Jamie.
    I think some of the public don’t take into consideration the actors’ viewpoints. Sam’s not wishing to wear lots of lace and say lime green. I shudder to think. Again thanks.

    Reply
  23. Lynn S

    I have a feeling that, union/SAG-equivalent issues aside, if you ever have a room full of people walk out again you can post a call for help on here and get some very talented seamstresses, cutters, etc. to help you. :) Just a thought…

    Reply

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