In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Outlander has some of the best—if not the best—costume design on television, and it’s all thanks to Terry Dresbach. The costume designer has worked on projects like Rounders and Very Bad Things, but she’s recently come into her own on the Starz show, where she’s immersed herself in everything from weaving 18th-century Scottish tartans to blending a 1940s aesthetic with peak Versailles-era French court clothes. With Outlander’s season finale approaching this Saturday and a number of the show’s outfits now on display at Los Angeles’ Paley Center, The A.V. Club talked with Dresbach about digital embroidery, the show’s wonderful scarves, and working in the male-dominated field of television production.
The A.V. Club: How did you get into the business, and how did you end up working on Outlander?
Terry Dresbach: Well, I married the showrunner [Ronald D. Moore]. I joked the other day that it was a very convoluted and complicated way to get onto Outlander, but it works.
Really, I got into the business by accident. I was a painter and went to art school for sculpture, and you can’t really survive doing that. Well, you can, but I couldn’t. A film came to town in San Francisco, and I ran away with the circus. I wanted to be a production designer, but as a woman, it’s a hard row to hoe. It’s a very male-oriented area of the business, and costume design is sort of the women’s ghetto. A place you can definitely get in. They don’t have any problem with you being a woman. So there I was.
Outlander came about after I’d read it for many years. I read it not too long after it came out, actually. There was a dog-eared copy on our bookcase, and when we were moving, Ron was like, “What is this tattered book?” “Oh, that’s Outlander. You should make a movie.” He was like, “Uh-huh, you say that about everything you read.” And then we had a fateful dinner with Maril [Davis]. Maril is Ron’s producing partner. I don’t even remember how it came up in conversation, but both of us discovered that we’d read the book, and it was this weird, “Oh, you craft, too?” kind of moment. Maril and I were like, “Oh, my god! You read it?” And then we both turned to Ron and went, “Okay, that’s it, you’re dead, you have to make it now.” So there you go.
I didn’t want to do the show. I tried to get out of doing it. I tried many, many times, and in many ways. Finally, they just couldn’t find anybody. They were really struggling, and I just knew how huge it was going to be and that you never get enough prep time in television, ever, or movies. This show is so enormous. I just knew it would be the end of life as I knew it. I agreed to come get it started, and that I would be in Scotland for three months, and I’m going on four years now, I think. There’s just no escape.
AVC: When you read the books, did you have a vision for how it would look on screen?
TD: No, because when I read, it’s not a detailed painting. It’s an impression. I did not envision the costumes, and interestingly enough, when I went back and reread the books for the show, I was shocked at how many costume references I had completely missed. I was like, “Oh, really? She wears that there?” I just don’t read that way.
What I do read, and what I think you see on screen, is character. After reading the books 10 times, I know them. I know who those people are. So what you end up seeing on screen is my visual interpretation of people I know really well. And that’s how it goes in terms of color and texture and feeling and temperament. Costume design isn’t so much about clothes as it is about character.
AVC: You’re playing into landscape, too. In season one, you’re reflecting Scotland, and in the first half of season two, it’s Paris.
TD: I did a lot of design work before I went to Scotland when I was still in L.A. and did a lot of research. But it wasn’t until I got to Scotland that it was like, “That’s just total horseshit, and we should just throw it right out the window.” Scotland is Scotland, and it is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but it’s also unforgiving. You work every day alongside the descendants of the people in our story, and they’re still draped in layers of wool. Everybody’s got scarves around their necks in June. It never becomes the Bahamas there. So that really informed us.
What’s interesting is that the show is about time travel for us, too. We are constantly in this evolving circle where the more authentically we dress our actors, the better we are able to cope with Scotland and the requirements of it. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s so funny. If we want to keep them dry and warm, we wrap them in wool. Well, that’s what they did in Scotland. You don’t look to modern technology. You look to what has always happened there and still does to this day.
AVC: How much research do you do? Did you figure out tartan colors and things while you were still in L.A.?
TD: We are constantly researching. This morning, I’m researching. We research every character. We look to find images or paintings, things that reflect where we’re going with any particular character. So there will be a set of images and ideas that go with each one.
Colors—we base those on Scotland. We really take our cues from the landscape. We did a lot of research in the beginning about what plant dyes were available in that part of Scotland and came up with our palette from there. Dyes were expensive. It wasn’t like people in the countryside were prancing around in hot pink.
AVC: Bold red and green tartans didn’t exist in Outlander’s time period?
TD: No, those colors were really invented by the Victorians. People were pretty sure the colors of fabrics were determined by the dyes of those areas. The very, very wealthy could afford to buy red dye, because it was not cheap. And here’s the real trick: You could paint yourself in a portrait in any color you damn well pleased. You know what I mean? We don’t have photographic reference. So people could paint themselves dressed as the king if they wanted, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they wore that in real life.
AVC: How much of the clothing are you fabricating from scratch?
TD: Everything. We make everything. Well, we rent police uniforms for the ’50s and ’40s and ’60s, or airplane pilots or stewardesses. But everything else we make. If it’s 18th century, we made it.
AVC: Are you making your own fabrics or purchasing them?
TD: We usually purchase. For Paris, we purchased billions of meters of silk, and then we took it from there. We embroider it, we paint it, we treat it, we do all sorts of things to it. So in a sense, yes, we are making our own fabrics, but we start with a foundation of existing fabric. The tartans we wove. We designed that pattern and had it woven.
AVC: Is all of Claire’s knitwear custom?
TD: Yeah, Claire’s knitwears were cobbled together. We found some items from local knitters and found a few on Etsy.
That was really a last-minute thought. She just looked cold. She looked like she’d freeze to death in a stone castle. I live in a 700-year-old stone house in Scotland, and it’s really, really cold. It never really gets warm. So just imagine, people must have died all the time of exposure. We had a piece of wool sitting in a basket, and I was like, “What if we put that around her?” And so Claire’s knitwear was born. But it was an afterthought, not a big design plan.
AVC: It’s become such a huge thing. People love her scarves.
TD: People all over the place ask, “When are you going to start knitting again? Where’s the knitwear?” It’s so funny, because it was literally like, “Let’s put something on her. That looks good. Let’s do that.” It was not a giant idea that we had. It was a little frightening in the beginning. It was like, “No wait, that was just a momentary thought. Let’s not get carried away.” But it turned out to be a very lovely thing, and I love that people are knitting them all over the world. It’s very sweet.
AVC: To your point about being cold, that’s something that Outlander does really well. All the clothes look practical. You don’t have someone traipsing through muddy fields in heels.
TD: Well, you can’t ignore it, or you wouldn’t be able to shoot, because all of the actors would be in the hospital. We usually don’t shoot in climates that are that unforgiving, so you can cheat, you can fake, you can find ways around weather. You cannot do that in Scotland. You just can’t. So unless we want Caitriona [Balfe, who plays Claire], who’s in every single scene, to end up being unable to shoot for a week at an incredible cost, we’ve got to keep that girl warm and dry.
It’s fascinating. The first week of shooting, I was very, very worried, because we were shooting in this huge downpour. It was all the highlanders. I checked in with them and was like, “Are you guys okay?” And they went, “Look.” One of them—I think it was Sam [Heughan, who plays Jamie]—put his hand on my arm, and his hand was hot. Because he was wrapped in so many layers of wool he was warmer and dryer than our shooting crew who was wrapped in Gore-Tex and high-tech fabric. The brilliant thing about wool is that when it gets wet, it just gets tighter and denser and harder for water to permeate, because of the lanolin in the wool. It becomes a weatherproof fabric, and if you get enough layers of it, which is what they did then, it’s like, “Ooh, that’s why they wore that!”
AVC: As long as you don’t mind the smell of wet wool.
TD: Once everybody has wet wool, you don’t really notice it anymore.
AVC: What were the challenges of season two versus season one?
TD: Interestingly enough, they were both breathtakingly vomit-inducing. Season one, we had seven weeks to prep, and when we got there, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to rent clothes. So it was seven weeks of sheer hell trying to figure out how we were going to make all of those costumes. Claire wore, I think, 75 percent of all of her costumes for season one in the first week of shooting. So we had to make all that in seven weeks.
When we got to Scotland, we didn’t have sewing machines, we didn’t have telephones. We didn’t have cables. We had an empty, bare space. So we had to create a costume house and a few thousand costumes in seven weeks. It was insane.
Season two was very similar, because the thing about Outlander—the beauty of Outlander and the curse of it—is that it never stays in the same place. So season two, everybody was like, “Wait a minute, you can’t use the costumes from season one?” “No, we’re not in Scotland. We are in Paris. It’s the epicenter of fashion in the 18th century. They don’t wear the same clothes, and the climate’s just different.” The good thing was that I was able to convince everybody to start prepping season two much earlier, so we started prepping about a year ahead because of the scale. We made 10,000 garments for season two. A garment can be anything from a hat to a petticoat, but 10,000 garments. The scale of that is extraordinary. Plus all the gowns. Plus all the embroidered pieces, the men’s coats—everything you saw, we made it. And it was almost as daunting as season one. It was a different kind of daunting, because we knew what we wanted to do, but the scale was the same thing, having to create this massive amount of incredibly detailed clothing.
With Scotland, you can sort of fudge around, because there isn’t a lot of material about what they wore in Scotland, and there’s a lot about what the people wore in Paris. We set this bar of being historically accurate, which is easier to do in Scotland than it is in Paris, where everybody knows exactly what is accurate.
AVC: Are there points where you say, “This is going to be what I want it to be. It doesn’t need to be as accurate as other pieces?” Did you fudge Paris pieces, for instance, to give Claire a little more cleavage than a woman might have had then?
TD: No. We decided way back before we ever rolled a camera, before the show was even green-lit, we didn’t… I had this little manifesto that had pictures and everything for Ron and everybody. The 18th century just keeps being put down the runway. Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, Dior—they just keep revisiting the 18th century, because it is truly one of the sexiest periods ever. I just don’t think the audience needs to see something modern in order to understand beautiful or sexy. There are some really phenomenal clothes throughout history that are just gorgeous. It’s amazingly sexy stuff.
Now, with Claire, we colored outside the lines, not because we were trying to make her sexier, but because we wanted her to have a feeling and a sense of the 1940s around her always. But that’s a clear character decision, as opposed to a “we don’t think you’re sexy enough” decision.
AVC: The white coat and black skirt Claire wore in Paris are straight off the runway.
TD: Yeah, that’s a complete knockoff of Dior’s very famous “bar suit,” which was one of the biggest pieces of fashion history ever.
You know, Claire in season one, all her clothes are given to her. At a certain point, she starts having things made, and we see a few pieces, but in season two, she’s in a dressmaker’s salon, she has money, and she can make whatever she wants. Her character being who she was, it just felt like she was going to design things that looked comfortable and reflected her. There are always those women who do what they want to do, and they’re not fashion slaves. Claire has always seemed to me to be her own woman, and so she was going to be smart about what she wore. She will always be a modern woman out of time, so the world around her might be painstakingly accurate, but you never know what she might pop up in.
AVC: How is the Outlander budget compared to other projects you’ve worked on?
TD: We’ve been very fortunate. You could not do this show without the kind of support that we get from Sony and Starz, and Ron and everybody. People listen, and on a lot of shows, people don’t listen. With something of this scope and scale, you just have to trust the people who are actually making the product, and it’s nice to be trusted. So we have enough.
Interestingly enough, season two didn’t cost that much more than season one. In this business, it’s either time or money. In season one, we didn’t have any time, and things cost more when you’re slamming them together. When you have lots of time, things cost less, because you have the time necessary to do it. So oddly, it cost about the same to make 10 times as many costumes—and much more elaborate and detailed costumes—because we had the time to do it. I always say, “You can make an entire show overnight if you can hire 250 seamstresses,” which you can’t. You can do anything. It’s just going to cost you a whole lot more.
AVC: Especially if you’re trying to make everything Paris-level couture.
TD: You can do anything with enough people and enough money. Or you can do it over a longer period of time with less money and fewer people and slow it down and end up in the same place. Maybe everybody will still have hair and teeth and brains.
AVC: Social lives.
TD: It’s just crazy. When you’re doing that kind of work, when you’re dealing with periods of time, the stress levels are just off the charts. Who wants to work like that? So we were very lucky.
AVC: How big is your department?
TD: We started out with a department of eight, and we now have a department of 70. As everybody from top to bottom has started to understand, we’re all caught off guard all the time by scale, just how big the show is. It’s always everybody kind of going, “Oh, wow, no wonder.” And because everybody—the film studio, every television studio—is shooting in the U.K. now because of tax credits, all the crew is already working. We’re always in a panic, because that is the one thing that is very difficult to fake. There just isn’t a lot of crew available. We snagged everybody we could with experience, so we have maybe 10 people who have done this before. And then the rest of the department is pulled together from people in theater and a lot of kids right out of art school. You find a lot of talented people out of art school. All our embroidery for season two, that was art students who are savvy and smart enough to know how to do a lot of digital work, and they learned how to become embroiderers. It was quite crazy.
AVC: Is it digital? What’s available in sewing machine technology now?
TD: You can take an 18th-century embroidery design and reproduce it digitally. Then you enter it into the computers that run the professional embroidery machines. The machine embroiders what you have transferred into it. But you’ve got to have people who have the technological understanding of how to do that, and that’s because of art school. I couldn’t do that, but they know how to do digital art. That’s the modern world.
AVC: You have the show right now at the Paley Center and you’ve had costumes in the windows of New York City stores. What happens to the rest of the costumes? What’s going on with the 9,000 other pieces?
TD: I’m holding onto them. Until Outlander is no more, they’re under my jurisdiction. You never know on a time travel show when you might end up somewhere again. There’s no reason for them to go anywhere but my costume house. Right now, they’re all in L.A., but they will ship back to Scotland, and who knows?
AVC: Maybe they’ll end up in some other production 20 years from now.
TD: Could be. I have a funny feeling they’ll either be in archives or auctioned or something along those lines. I doubt they’ll just be going into costume stock. They don’t do that anymore. It used to be, in the old days, that after you finished a show, your stuff just got folded into the stock of whatever costume house there was or whatever studio house it was. But it doesn’t really happen that way much.
Battlestar Galactica has been off the air for 10 years, and every time you turn around, there’s another auction of Battlestar costumes. It’s like, “Where the hell are they getting all this from?” All the shows do these auctions for the fans, which is kind of great, because when I started in this business, I remember going into costume houses and finding a dress worn by Vivian Leigh that had fallen off its hanger and was on the floor under the rack with her name sewn on the inside. These costumes—they don’t have the money to maintain them, and they’re just falling apart, but they’re really iconic costumes. The idea that fans would potentially get ahold of them is great. They treasure them and take care of them.
I’ve been to George Lucas’ costume archive, and he’s got a room full of these amazing glass humidity-controlled cases with Indiana Jones’ costume and Luke Skywalker’s costume in them. It’s a remarkable thing, but every show isn’t going to do that for their incredible costumes.
AVC: What haven’t you been able to do yet on the show that you’d like to do? Is there an era coming up that you’re excited for?
TD: I always wanted to do 18th-century Paris my whole career. And now I have, and I never ever want to do it again.
AVC: Be careful what you wish for.
TD: It really is like, “I’m so glad to get out of there.” All of us were like, “Yay, Scotland!” No, it was a singular, fantastic, amazing opportunity, and it’s really extraordinary.
There are lots of things that are coming up that I’m excited about, but I can’t really spoil it for all those people who haven’t read the books. Damnit, if people would read the books, I would never have to worry about spoiling anything. But that’s the beauty of Outlander; there’s always something new coming your way, a new challenge. We’re trying new techniques and playing around with various things. Because we have to create so many things out of thin air, it’s an opportunity to really explore technologies and methodologies from one period, and then you start going, “Well, what can we do over here?” It gets pretty exciting.