Outlander's Costume Designer on Recreating the Wild Opulence of 18th Century French Fashion


Outlander returns Saturday night, and now that the action has moved to 18th Century Paris, it’s looking lusher than ever.

Settings don’t get much more opulent than the French court, circa the 1740s, and that’s where Jamie and Claire Frasier are headed as season two opens. In the hopes of averting the Jacobite rebellion that ends so very badly at Culloden Moor, they’ve decided to infiltrate the very highest echelons of the cause in Paris, working their way toward Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.

Which means that, after recreating the sartorial world of 1740s Highland Scotland, costume designer Terry Dresbach got to do it all over again, this time with a setting that is the very byword for over-the-top fashion. And not merely for the sake of itself, either—in this world, fashion was politics and politics was fashion. I talked to Dresbach about how she did it; our interview has been slightly condensed and lightly edited.

We’re suddenly in a very different world from season one. The looks are different, the people are different, the colors are different, the fashions, everything is different. Now we’re in France, not the Highlands. Tell me how it was different working on this season.

Well, Season 1 we thought was hell, but it really wasn’t. It was purgatory.

We had seven weeks to do it, which was about 20 weeks too short, and I thought we were all gonna die. And then Season 2 came along. I knew that it was going to be what it was, and back when we were still shooting Season 1, I keep tugging on everybody’s coattail and saying, “Uh, we need to talk about Season 2.” And everybody’s like, “Go away, we’re in hell.” And I just tugged harder and kept yelling and finally they paid attention.

I started planning it about halfway through season one, realizing that if we had to make everything for Scotland, we were really in trouble for Paris. Scotland’s a looser framework. Paris, there’s nothing loose about it, and everything is well documented and very exact. It was a world that was all about very exact detail, and we were going to have to make it all. It was an enormous undertaking. We actually started sewing things maybe a year before we started filming. It was crazy. We made about 10,000 garments.

And it’s not like you’re not doing the Errol Flynn Robin Hood kind of costume design, where you say, “Yeah, that’s close enough, and it’ll look great on Technicolor.” You guys are fairly committed to accuracy.

I have no one to blame but myself, because way back before the show got greenlit, I was saying to Ron, we have to do it right. We’re not gonna make some period-esque thing where we’re buying runway clothes and tweaking them a little bit and calling them period—which now I have full respect for, because they obviously are more sane than I am. It was like, Oh, what have I gotten myself into? Because we did decide to make it as authentic as humanly possible. Then there’s the discovery of what is actually very obvious—there is no store that is selling 18th Century embroidered fabric, 18th Century buttons, or shoes, or corsets or petticoats or purses or hats or gloves or 18th Century anything. And you can’t rent it. So you’ve got to make it. And we made it.

You have hundreds of extras. When you’re talking about something like a court scene, there’s a lot of people and it’s very elaborate. Are you costuming them all the way down to their drawers? There’s no cheating even a little bit? There’s nobody with a thong under there?

I always say this to the producers and everybody: You know on those cop shows, the extras bring their own stuff? They can’t do that here. They come in and we corset them and we put stockings on them and we have to. There’s actually really no way to cheat that. If they’re gonna stand next to our cast, you can’t have the audience go, “Well, clearly that’s an extra because their costume looks completely different.” They have to pass. So there’s no cutting corners. One of our speaking cast members’ costumes will take a month to six weeks to make. And an extra’s costume will take a couple of weeks. You do cut corners—the quality of the fabric, that kind of thing. But they’ve still got to wear it all. Because if they don’t have the corset on, it all looks wrong. We tried to do it without corsets, but it was wrong. In for a penny, in for a pound, that’s what we like to say. Or about 3,000 pounds, more like it.

Your art is that you’re always designing with an eye to character. But when we’re dealing with a world like this, fashion was politics. How are you taking that into account when you’re designing for this season?

It’s interesting—in Season 1, I was reading a book on Marie Antoinette, which is much later than our story, by a generation. It’s called What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.

With clothing, it was extraordinary, the lengths they went to. She changed—I don’t even know—eight times, ten times a day, something like that. And when she took off a gown, they would strip all the details off of it and it would go away to the seamstresses and they would completely rework it. Which was our inspiration for how we did a lot of our stuff. But also, when you start reading about her and her life, her fashion took down an empire. And one of the early things they assaulted her on was she made fashionable the riding habit, and she was called a lesbian. They made it a way of attacking the monarchy, and this was even before the revolution.

Making pretty clothes is really actually quite irrelevant to what I do. My job is to make characters.

We decided to use some of those things. So we put Claire in a riding habit. We took our 1940s character, brought her back to 18th Century Paris, had her—from our character viewpoint—look around at what everybody was wearing and going, “I don’t want to wear all that crap. I want that.” And to look at a riding habit, which is very clean and simple because people were actually riding in them, and decide to make that her signature. So you’ll see that she has a lot of costumes that are based on a riding habit. Because it’s a very masculine garment. For a woman from the ‘40s, that was appealing to her, because she came from a world where women wore “men’s clothes.” And so her clothes are much more masculine and more suit-like than anybody else was wearing.

We really took those bits of fashion history and moved them into her wardrobe in particular.

Where there other sources you were reading when you were working on Season 2?

Oh no! There was no time for reading. I don’t know if I actually finished that book. I read in dribbles and drabbles and scribbled notes.

I don’t think there’s an 18th Century painting left that we haven’t looked at. As I am now doing publicity and putting together various image packages, it’s like: Oh yeah, that painting. Oh yeah, that one.

Where there particular paintings or artists that really informed what you were doing or that really spoke to you?

I used a lot of Alexander Roslin’s stuff, because he did really amazing paintings of clothing, so you could really get good closeups of what things looked like. We used Reynolds, we used Boucher, we used everybody.

You mentioned the riding habits—as we sit down to watch Season 2, can you tease any of the standout looks we should watch for?

Well, Claire’s costumes. I’ve been telling people that they need to watch her clothes carefully, because my job as a costume designer is to be part of the storytelling process, not just make pretty clothes. Making pretty clothes is really actually quite irrelevant to what I do. My job is to make characters. And in Season 1, we were very careful to retain that sense of a ‘40s woman with Claire, and we worked really hard—her clothing has pockets so that the way that she moves, her shoulders are a little bit broader than other peoples. We just found little ways that she could maintain that fish out of water, stranger in a strange land feeling. And then as we moved into season two, we needed to hold onto that. And we were trying to hold onto that in a world, in the 18th Century French court, where everything is just covered in decoration. I didn’t want to do that with her, because it wasn’t who she was.

It was so interesting to see that red dress in the first promo images because it’s of the period, but it’s also missing all those ornate botanical details.

When I got out of the business—which I did for 12 years—there was no social media, and now there is. So all the pictures that have been released, people pick over in excruciating detail. “Why does she have this?” “How does she have that?” “That’s not period correct,” and “That fabric is wrong!” And then the clothes come out for the other characters, and you see the confusion. Everybody’s going, “If all of them look correct and she doesn’t, what the hell’s going on?” And you just kinda want to go, It’s called character. It’s called story.

That’s the whole idea—when you actually watch the show, there’s a reason behind this. In my head, she gets to go to a dressmaker, and she has all this money now, and the dressmaker is trying to put all this crap all over the clothes, and she’s going, “I don’t want all that. I don’t want all that fuss. I don’t want all those bits and pieces. I don’t want the bows, I don’t want the ribbons, I don’t want the lace.” When you take all that crap off, you end up with a silhouette that is 18th Century and 20th Century. You can go to a runway show for Dior last season, whoever, and there’s the same silhouettes. It’s the silhouette of an evening gown. It began in the 18th Century or the 17th Century. We’re still using it. We just decorate it differently.

It really is fascinating how you can take that red dress and you can drop it into the 1940s. You can also drop it into 2014 and you could wear it to the Costume Gala at the Met and be just fine. Fashion is eternal.

I was looking in particular at one of the dresses in the trailer, the green and brown with the wonderful hat. I was curious about that look because it looked very 18th Century French but it also looked very “New Look” Dior to me.

It does. I turned to the 1940s for Claire and really got my inspiration there. I went to my favorite fabric store in San Francisco, which is called Britex Fabrics, and they always have amazing stuff. I said, go to the basement, and I know there’s some fabric down there that you couldn’t sell to anybody else, and I want to see what it is. And they did, and they came up with that, and it was like: Oh my God. I don’t know what the hell that is—is it curtains? Is that a couch or is it a dress? But it has a real almost ‘50s feel to it. And I bought it without a clue as to what the hell I was going to do with it and then just sat with it for a while.

And it’s magnificent! It really is. Because once again, what they were doing in the ‘40s and ‘50s was sort of a twist on what they were doing in the 18th Century, and a reinterpretation. So you can take that costume and you can put it in Versailles and it doesn’t quite fit, but then again it does. It’s a bit of a sleight of hand, and a bit of illusion.

It seems very logical to me, that if I were suddenly time-warped back to 1670, I wouldn’t be dressing like your normal Elizabethan.

You’d be trying to figure out how to make some spandex pants! Where are the sneakers? Where are my running shoes?

But that’s the heart of our story. And as somebody who read the books when they first came out, what did I love about it? It wasn’t just Jamie and Claire’s romance. It was this fascinating idea—why do we all watch The Walking Dead? I watch it because I just love to think about what I would do if I were in those circumstances. Outlander, to me, is what would I do in those circumstances. How does a modern woman function in that? Let alone put all that crap on?

What’s fascinating is to see all our actors now spend more time in period dress than they do in modern dress. Because we spend 12 hours a day on set. Add those hours up, it’s more than the weekend. And they now move like different people. They now have taken that into the core of who they are and they’re very comfortable with it. You can see this incredible transition from the very beginning to now, and how those clothes have been assimilated into their consciousness. It’s fascinating to watch.

I’m sure it changes how you think about even something as simple as how you’re going to sit in a chair and get back out of the chair.

When we were starting Season 2, we have a dinner party scene, and they had all the chairs close together. And I’m like, Not in these clothes you’re not. Scoot those chairs apart! Maybe you’re gonna have to have less people at the party or a much bigger table, because you need a good four feet between you and the person next to you. That scene where he leans over and whispers to her in her ear? He’s got to get over that costume to get to her ear.

There’s an incredible physical shift that everybody has to make. Spacial awareness becomes something completely different.

Tell me about the men’s costumes. Because 18h-Century male costume was very satin, very embroidered—very not Jamie, and very not Murtagh. So how did you go about dressing our male protagonists in this new world?

Nobody’s going to believe Jamie, who’s 6’4’’ with red hair, if I’ve suddenly got him in a puce-green frock coat covered in embroidered butterflies or something. It’s just going to look absurd. And at the end of the day, we’re telling about story, we’re telling about characters. You have to retain and hold onto those characters. So we had to go through the same process with Jamie that we did with Claire. Sam was absolutely petrified that I was going to engulf him in pink lace and so relieved when he saw where I was going.

I put him in a black suit. When Ron goes off and does all of his public appearances, I’m like—just get a good black suit and a nice white shirt and that’s really all you need. When do you ever see George Clooney in anything other than a black suit, a grey suit, or a navy suit? You just don’t. It’s classic menswear, and it’s timeless. They wore it in the ‘40s, they wore it in the ‘20s, it’s the heart of a tuxedo. And that’s what we put him in. It’s just the pants are a little shorter.

I read early on that every man of means had a black suit and a brown suit, but there are almost none in museums, because they wore them every day. They didn’t actually go about their daily business in the lavender suit. They wore the black one, so most of those got worn out, so there are very few surviving examples. So I thought well, let’s do that. And he looks fantastic.

You got to go pretty wild though with some of the characters, right? Like Charles Stuart?

You have to remember, Charles Stuart is Italian, so there’s a little bit of Versace in his soul. And yet he’s the heir to the Scottish throne, and he’s thought to be a bit of a dandy. So we just threw the book at him.

Part of the thing that works about Jamie and Claire and their simplicity is that you have to make them stand out in a world that’s not simple. So with Charlie, with the king, any of the other characters—St. Germain, he was interesting because we had to make him incredibly ornate, dangerous, and sexy—so that was fun.

We didn’t make anything up. We based everything on the real deal. We could embellish more because those incredibly over-the-top costumes are what people wore at the French court. Your average guy on the street wasn’t walking around in that. But in court they were. It’s crazy. This is why there was a revolution and why people got beheaded—because somebody had to make all that and they didn’t have sewing machines. It’s an over-the-top existence and you see this incredible imbalance.

How does a modern woman function in that? Let alone put all that crap on?

I was really curious about this year’s maternity “look,” because nothing is more fascinating to me than historical maternity wear, for some reason. Tell me about that and the process.

I want to find out when maternity wear started, and my suspicion is that it didn’t start until the ‘50s, as another item of clothing you could sell people. Because in the 18th Century, there wasn’t such a thing as maternity wear. You just loosened your corset. All the lacing on the costumes went to its widest point and then when you weren’t pregnant anymore, you laced it back up tight again.

The interesting thing for filming is that in this day and age we’re used to maternity wear, which has now come full circle from Lucille Ball 1950 muumuu tops to I’m gonna be proud of it and I’m gonna show it and I’m gonna wear spandex and we’re celebrating that round belly.

You could not see a pregnancy until probably like eight months, when the volume of the clothing didn’t hide the pregnancy. It wasn’t designed to hide pregnancy. It was just the physics of it. In our story, we needed to know that she was pregnant pretty early on, and there were many, many meetings about how we were going to show that. Because I was like, “It won’t show! I’m not making 18th Century spandex! There’s no way that anyone’s gonna know, nobody’s gonna look at her and go, she’s pregnant.” Because at four months, you can’t see it. That was an interesting journey.

We ended up testing I don’t even know how many different pregnancy bellies and going with one that was probably a little bit larger than would have been for how pregnant she was. But it was the only way we could actually show that she was pregnant.

All photos courtesy Starz.

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