Over six years and four seasons, costume designer Terry Dresbach has turned Outlander, one of the hardest-to-define shows on television (a romance-epic that spans two centuries, multiple continents, and dozens of history book-altering events, for starters) into one of the most beautifully-costumed, as well.
Dresbach was a fan of the Diana Gabaldon-penned Outlander series years before her husband, executive producer Ronald D. Moore, optioned the rights to the TV show, and in 2012, she found herself tasked with helping translate the characters in her favorite books to the screen. Her costumes have taken time-traveling heroine Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) from World War II to the 18th-century Scottish Highlands and the French court of Louis XV, back to Scotland for the Jacobite Rising of 1745, to mid-20th century Boston, and finally, to pre-Revolutionary America for Season 4—Dresbach’s final with the show. She says she never planned go so far with the series, but ultimately, “I had to get them to America.”
Dresbach, who created Season 4’s wardrobe alongside co-costume designer Nina Ayres, brings a fan’s eye to every button, stitch, and print, and her work has garnered a devoted fan base within the show’s already-feverish fandom. On her Twitter, @OutlanderCostum, Dresbach breaks down individual costumes into their essential elements and explains her rationale for each decision. Her timeline is a treasure chest of information for Outlander and costume history addicts alike, and her more than 41,000 followers hang onto her every word. “I was talking to a woman the other day who’s watched the show 200 times,” Dresbach says. “When you’re talking to them, they have questions that deserve to be answered. There has to be a justification. [Fans] expect more because they’re engaged in the process in a different way.”
Earlier this fall, the SCAD Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of Dresbach’s work on Season 4, and BAZAAR.com got a chance to sit down with her to discuss her final season. Click through for a meticulous breakdown of each character’s wardrobe, and a sneak peek at what’s still to come from the rest of the season (Warning: There will be spoilers).
Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on Starz and the Starz App.
“They’re characters we are so familiar with. At this point, we know they’re not hiding, they’re not disguising themselves. They’re not in France pretending to be aristocrats. They are truly themselves in a world they’re creating. That was key to me in all of their costumes this season.”
“For Claire, in particular, I wanted to go back to the beginning. Her costumes here are very much like they were in Scotland. In Season 1, she wears that green plaid gown and she’s got that green plaid shawl. For Season 4, we had to make her a new shawl. It can’t be the same colors, but it has to feel like that shawl from Season 1.”
“You could change out the fabrics and you’d be back in Scotland. We did want to hit the new world, so we started bringing in patterns and flowers. I remember Cait at one point said to me, ‘This is feeling a little Holly Hobbie.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s the whole point!’ She said she didn’t feel like it was Claire. Then we found this fabric, which was a little more sophisticated, that we loved.”
“This was a scrap of linen I had sitting on my desk for two years that was white with fuchsia and lime green patches woven into it. It was hideous. I would look at it and go, ‘Why would you ever, ever do this? What could this possibly be?’ When we started thinking about how people used fabric, how they reused things, darned things, repaired things, and why patchwork was such an important factor in the 18th century, I looked at it and went, ‘This is patchwork.’ We dyed it with this murky brown color, and it’s remarkable. Instead of putting her in ‘patchwork,’ we put her in an impression of it. It evokes the feeling. It feels warm and grounding, and yet, it’s not identifiable. I love when something creates a feeling but you can’t necessarily lock in an identity.”
“With the ‘bat suit’ in Season 3 [a fan in-joke for the outfit Claire wears to return to Jamie], it was all about starting out with it as a full suit and watching it disintegrate, watching it go back down to being that white dress she drops into Scotland with it at the start of Season 1. There’d be a point on the boat where you’d see her coming alive, getting rid of all those prim and proper stiff layers [until it was just] that belted blouse and skirt. And Cait was really comfortable in that. She could move, it felt like Claire to her. We’re seeing a lot of that in Season 4.”
Left: Claire on the boat in Season 3; Right: Claire at Fraser’s Ridge in Season 4
“Ian arrives in Fraser’s Ridge with three pairs of breeches and then ends up with two, because Claire takes one. She takes his shirt too.”
“There’s a lot of layers, but the silhouette is [a] very 1940s, 1950s man-style shirt, belted. It’s Elizabeth Taylor in Giant. It’s Katharine Hepburn in just about anything. It’s Greta Garbo. We’re always keeping that triangle shape, the nipped-in waist and the powerful shoulders of a 1940s woman.”
“Clothing was treasured and it was worth a whole lot of money [back then]. This is the black linen suit Jamie wears at Versailles [in Season 2]. One of the things I read early on in my research was that every man in the 18th century who was middle class or wealthy would have had a black suit. But you can’t find them; they’re not in museums because people wore them out. This is the suit he would have held onto—the most practical garment he had. It makes sense that we keep seeing it moving through the show; he’s not prancing around the print shop wearing some embroidered silk. You can see the repair work we’ve done on it. [For the later part of Season 3], I was like, ‘Can we see some sailors carrying trunks onto the ship in the background of that scene?’ This [suit] came on the ship—and then it washed up on shore [after the shipwreck].”
“If you look really carefully [in Episode 4], you will see a large blanket on their bed in the lean-to, which we then cut up and made into scarves. They weren’t prepared for the winter, and they had to figure out how the hell to keep warm, so a blanket was up for grabs. And that’s when we start seeing the fur appear, because obviously they’re hunting. You’re not going to throw that fur out. You’re going to use it to be warm.”
“For Brianna, I’ve always dressed her in my clothes. It said to myself, ‘You don’t need to do anything other than just remember everything you wore.’ I had this jacket; I remember when I got it, I was salivating, I could feel it in my stomach: ‘I have to have that jacket.’ I went insane with her wardrobe. She has about 50 of the most unbelievable 1970s looks, and we see two outfits on the show. I was screaming at Ron, ‘No, you have to write more scenes in the ’70s! I have all these great clothes for her!'”
“I found the Guatemalan bag on Etsy and I almost had a heart attack. This is such a key signature piece, and I wanted that to travel back into the 18th century. She wears it all the way through the show, and the idea behind it is you carry pieces of yourself [wherever you go]. The Guatemalan bag was a moment in fashion, when fashion moved out of the mod, London influence. Things started getting more political. It was like anti-fashion, which of course was just as fashion as any other fashion.”
“When they go to the gathering in North Carolina, Roger gets up onstage and he’s wearing a kilt and singing to her, and you can watch her fall more in love with him. We had a whole thing on set about this, because I really wanted to have him in the sweater and the kilt instead of a shirt and a jacket, because I wanted him to be a modern man. So we combined it. And for the first time ever, we bought a kilt. [Laughs] We didn’t have to make it out of 5,000 yards of material [like for Season 1].”
“[In Book 3] Claire was written wearing the Jessica McClintock Gunne Sax [a mid-20th century clothing line inspired by the Medieval and Renaissance periods]. Well, why would she do that? She knew what she was in for. Why in her right mind would she put on some kind of cotton pseudo-peasant medieval gown? She wouldn’t—she knows that she would die. She would freeze to death or be thrown in prison again. I couldn’t do it on her, but I know that in the book, it’s a moment, like the red dress [in Season 2], and people are furious that they’re not seeing it. [So] Brianna does it. She doesn’t know better, she just goes to her closet and goes, ‘This looks like it’s period,’ whatever that means when you’re 19 and an idiot. ‘This could be Renaissance, isn’t the 18th century the Renaissance? This looks like something people wore in the past’—the past meaning a few hundred thousand years of history. So she wears the dress with her Frye boots, her Guatemalan bag, and a cape because hooded capes were huge in 1970. It was around the same time that this period-wear had become fashionable. Brianna had one in her closet. [In the book] she wears boys clothes, but I had to fight tooth and nail on that one, because [she would’ve been] murdered, thrown in prison! A girl walking down the street in the 18th century wearing men’s clothes? No! This can almost pass.”
“Bree gets to Lallybroch pretty quick and they go, ‘What the hell do you have on?” and they dress her up in Claire’s clothes. So the green plaid dress Claire wears [in Season 1], Brianna wears, but it’s been re-made. And the green coat with the white fur hood, it comes out of a trunk and Bree wears it. I was talking to Ron about it and I said, ‘You know that green plaid dress?’ And he went, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I go, ‘You edit the show! You’ve probably seen that dress more than I have! A million times!’ I told him, ‘We re-made the dress.’ He goes to me, ‘That’s really great storytelling.’ I almost pushed him off his chair.”
“Jocasta is the old world. She could be in Scotland. She could be in Paris. She could be in London. She could be in Edinburgh. She represents the wealthy plantation owners who never saw themselves as Americans, but as transplanted Europeans who just happen to live somewhere else. It’s colonialism. I don’t think we ever used a fabric this traditional when we were in Europe [on the show]. It’s a silk wool brocade, it’s very British and very solid. It’s the dress of a matriarch. This is not a woman to be taken lightly. “
“With Claire and Brianna and Geillis, we tried to find ways they would hold onto their identity through their clothing—our research showed that’s what any people do. It was no different for the slaves. You could draw direct lines in the research to what they did in Africa and then what they [did in the States]. It was a fine line they had to dance, because one of the key points about genocide is it’s cultural genocide too—[the oppressors] remove anything that connects [the oppressed group] to the old place because that might represent too much independence. It was important for us to honor and respect each person’s story and each costume story. We brought in the indigos and the little bits of batik, just a little bit of pattern, and how the clothes are worn.”
“Murtagh we kept as Scottish as we possibly could. You’re leaving Europe, you’re forging your way through the wilderness, you don’t have to pay attention to the restraints and the restrictions in the same way you did [in the past]. There had to be a certain freedom of shrugging off all those traditions.”
“This is the outfit he had made to go out into the frontier; a wealthy man is going to make his costume to go out. But he’s also a soldier. He’s nobody’s pushover. [For the suit] this is another fabric I had lying around for a long time. It’s a waxed linen but it looks and feels like denim. He’s very European in all of this, but the idea that he’s wearing a denim suit felt like a precursor to American denim. [And] we bought a lot of vintage fur coats. That’s a vintage beaver coat that we cut up and lined.”
“Marsali is a young woman who comes to America and goes, ‘Wow, look at all this.’ She’s not trying to hold herself back in the past. She’s going forward. I also desperately needed a seamstress. In Season 3, I said, ‘Guys, you got to make me a seamstress. I need someone who can sew.’ Otherwise, [the characters] can only have one costume each. There’s a scene [later in the season] where Fergus and Marsali are going to visit Jamie and Claire at the Ridge. I went, ‘Can they come in wagon? And they need to be loading things.’ A bunch of everybody’s fabrics are in a bundle being loaded onto that wagon, and then later on you will see them made into costumes. Fergus is wearing a French coat called a capote that the French fur traders brought to North America when they brought the fur trade over. There’s a scene in my head, where Fergus is in the market in Wilmington and he sees a Frenchman walk by, and he sees his coat and goes, ‘Well, I’m French.’ With Fergus, we’ve always retained his French-ness.”
“I researched [the Native American] outfits for a year, because I knew we had to do it right. It’s unbelievable how similar my research was for them as it was for Scotland. There was a heart-stopping moment with both when I realized that there’s not a lot of information. What I learned on [all four seasons of] Outlander is that you’re constructing a puzzle, and the pieces you’re missing are as important as the ones that are there, because the ones that are missing, you have to fill in yourself. Then you go to intuition, you go to your heart, you go to your knowledge of people, to anthropology, sociology. What would you do in those circumstances? Why would you choose those colors? What are your physical circumstances? What do you use from the environment around you? Then you have to trust yourself and take a leap.
“Details were really tough. [There’s] no visual representation. A lot of our information came from finding text written by 18th-century white men about what people were wearing, which is dicey as hell. But finding enough of them and a few little sketches here and there, a few paintings, and going, ‘Okay. I’m starting to feel something coming through.” I learned this from my mom, who always says, ‘At a certain point, you’re finding a truth. You’re finding what feels true to people when they look at it.’ When we started fitting our indigenous actors, I could breathe a sigh of relief, because they came in and went, ‘This is right.’ You’re representing a culture. You’re not of that culture. It’s really important that you get it right.”
“Another thing was trying to find anything that represented any particular one tribe. Tribes were destroyed and all shoved together. Like anyone else,you had the people who lived on the East Coast of America, and then other people lived up by the Canadian border. There were people who were weaving fabrics somewhere out of the vegetation of their area and that’s why the colors were different. By the time of our story, the Europeans had already been there for almost 100 years, so they’d been doing their dirty work for some time.”
“This cloth (see right arrow) was called stroud cloth. There was an entire industry in the U.K. that made cheap trade junk. You can see these little rings (left arrow) on everything; [the Brits] sold them. As they moved across America, they traded crap for valuable goods like fur.”
“There’s always a story for us that’s never in the script. For Adawehi, the healing woman who Claire develops a really close relationship with, this to me was her great grandmother’s blanket. The idea was that this was a generational piece. This is her grandmother’s, so it has a story and an importance and value to her. Same thing with her sheath [for her knife].”
“[Claire and Jamie] are everything. They are the heart of it all. We were having conversations about, ‘Do we want to turn their heads toward each other?’ No. We want to turn their heads facing forward. They’re together, not by circumstance but by choice. I wanted to celebrate that here.”
“[For Roger and Bree] I want their hands to be almost touching because there’s still that point where they’re not quite sure. She’s this college kid being all rebellious and forward, and he’s from Scotland, which is a little more conservative. There’s this tentativeness between them at this point that I love.”
🚨 Spoiler Alert!
“This is Brianna at Fraser’s Ridge. There’s a picture of Yves Saint Laurent and a couple of models in 1970. One of the models is wearing this exact outfit. It’s a completely 1970s silhouette. Once again, if you’re from 1970 and you time travel back to the 18th century, how comfortable are you putting on a corset and giant skirts, and sledging around and trying to move? She can’t wear this when she’s walking around a giant population. But out in the wilderness, in Fraser’s Ridge, she’s going to turn to these guys and go, ‘Oh! Look, can I wear what he has on.’ This is going to be her comfort zone, but it’s full on rock ‘n’ roll, too. It’s just a badass costume.
“This is patchwork made by my team. It’s that whole recycling idea, that when you’d worn it to death and you cut it down into a dress for your daughter, and then for the baby, finally, you’re down to tiny scraps you’re now using to patch things. These are scraps of fabric from our department. I [told the team], ‘Look, play pretend here. You’re sitting a cabin in the woods. You’re snowed in. You’re not going to get out of there for three months. There’s no phone. There’s no Internet. There’s no TV. There’s no nothing. This is your entertainment.’ And they listened to the book [Drums of Autumn, on which Season 4 is based] while they made it.”
🚨 Spoiler Alert!
“Ian is like a million other young men who look around at the other young men in their area and go, ‘I want to be like my friends.’ His friends are all Native Americans. He’s vanishing for days with his friends, and comes back wearing pieces from them.
“This is quill work [on the bag]. These are porcupine quills and we made all of these. We couldn’t buy it anywhere, so I turned to my embroidery team and said, ‘Guess what you’re doing?’ Suddenly, they’re sitting there with piles of porcupine quills all around them. The only way you can dye them is with Rit dye. Every time I would go to America, I’d come back [to set in Scotland] with a suitcase full of dye and porcupine quills. If anybody ever opened it up, they’d be like, ‘Who is this woman?’ You can see how intricate it is. You’re literally weaving it: You take the pointed end and you punch it into the leather. Then you flatten it and bend it in.”
“[With the exhibit] it finally feels like we have an opportunity to show the depth and the detail and the richness in a way that we never have before. Because as Ron is always pointing out to me, the whole point of the show is just not the costumes!”
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