At the costume design department at Outlander, there is no room for error.
That’s because just about everything department head Terry Dresbach and her team of 75 design for the extremely popular Starz period drama is made to order and there is no time for do-overs.
“To me, the biggest story of season two is the craftsmanship. We discovered pretty early on, like we did in season one, that there are no stores that sell 18th Century fabrics or buttons or shoes or hats or pretty much anything 18th Century, so we had to make it all,” Dresbach said in early June as she led journalists on a tour of an exhibit called Artistry of Outlander at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Dresbach’s team members—most of whom have just finished their schooling—not only sew, but paint and embroider every garment for the series about a World War II-era British nurse who travels back in time. Unlike other projects, this means there are no duplicate items. And, on a show where even the extras are wearing corsets, everything must be planned well in advance. This resulted in creating 10,000 garments in season two.
In fact, it got so hectic this season that they actually built a mold of lead actress Caitriona Balfe’s body so that they could do fittings without her.
“For us, it’s all about the details,” Dresbach said. “Maybe you will see it on screen, maybe you won’t. But the actor knows it’s there, we know it’s there. And it’s done properly.”
These looks aren’t hard for designers to imagine, as Dresbach proved during the tour when she spun an intricately buttoned coat around to show that its back looked like a biker jacket.
“The great thing about the 18th Century is it’s a lot of rock and roll,” she said. “Even the dearly departed [musician], Prince, would wear some of these. It’s a big challenge with historical costume to show everybody just how sexy it is.”
This particular issue hasn’t been a hard sell with the show’s (mostly female) fan base, who enthusiastically Tweet and blog their reactions to the costumes—many often quibbling if they feel a design is anachronistic. Season one was set in rural Scotland, which Dresbach said made it easier to use her imagination, but season two was set in Paris.
“Everybody knows exactly what they wore in 18th century Paris; it took us a year to create this season before we shot it,” she said, adding that she decided in season one that she would not pull away from authenticity because “this is the sexiest period of fashion ever. You don’t need to sex it up. We really believe that the audience gets it and is smart. It’s a great way to enrich people’s lives with history.”
For an 18th Century jacket and skirt, she drew inspiration from fashion design god Christian Dior. He had mentally time traveled back to that era when he created his Bar Suit in the 1940s – which was in the same period that serves as the present day in Outlander.
“The Dior is not my design, but to me it defines what costume design really is,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the character and the story and what serves that [purpose]. It’s a dress designed by a very, very famous designer and it was right for the story.”
But does this make Dresbach worried about things beyond her control, like crew lunch?
“We’re always throwing bibs on them,” she said. “I learned many, many years ago never to eat a meal with an actor. If I eat a meal with an actor, they get so nervous that they always miss.”