Interview: Terry Dresbach

An Interview with Terry Dresbach
Costume Designer for the Hit TV Series, Outlander

Costume design in a period setting is challenging to say the least and very few shows, or movies for that matter, can manage to do it a convincing way.

Outlander however, doesn’t have that problem and in our minds, as we said in our feature a few weeks ago, the show is possibly the most accurate representation of 18th century Scottish dress ever committed to screen, and we stand by that assessment.

Following up on that piece, last week, we had the honour and privilege to sit down and speak to Terry Dresbach, Outlander‘s lead costume designer about the challenges of making convincing dress on a show as rich and as detailed as Outlander.

Before going any further however, we’d just like to take a moment in order to publicly thank Terry for taking the time out of her schedule to speak with us, we really do appreciate it.

How did you initially approach the costume design for the show? 

It was interesting because with a lot of costume designers, all they want to do is the 18th century because the costumes of the 18th century are so spectacular. You think you have an idea of what that is and you end up with a preconceived notion of what it’s all going to be.

I read the books when they first came out, and I’ve read them at least a dozen times over the years, so I had an idea in my head of what the costumes were going to look like so before I even agreed to do the show my husband* had asked me to put together some ideas of what I thought the costumes should look like.

Then I moved to Scotland and all of it went in the trash because I was here for about 20mins before thinking that everyone would die if they wore this stuff I’d come up with. It wasn’t even remotely appropriate for this country.

* Terry’s husband is Ronald D. Moore, the producer of Outlander

What materials did you use for your research and inspiration when putting the costumes together?

When you try to research Scottish dress there’s very little material out there. There’s a few elaborately painted portraits and there’s only a few surviving garments. Essentially after the Jacobite rebellion, an incredible amount of Scottish culture was wiped out. It was cultural genocide in which anything associate with the Highlands was eliminated.

So there isn’t a tremendous amount of material out there and you end up having to cobble together what it’s going to look like based on the fact Scotland was an advanced society and it dressed according to European standards just like every other country.

Then based on the environment and experience of living here you find that you can’t have people dancing around freezing castles in little silk gowns. I live in a 700 year old house here and it takes a good two weeks for it to warm up and we have windows and heaters and it’s still freezing.

So the Scottish environment somewhat influenced the you in the design process as well? 

Yeah. It’s all conjecture until you get here. It’s all shapes and pretty pictures. It’s not the same as being here.

For example, Claire’s knitwear,. We don’t have any actual research that shows anyone with that particular kind of thing around their neck but one day of wandering around the locations and you realise they’d freeze. We knew that they knit so we could make a logical jump and say that something like this would have existed.

And then, you learn the pure genius of the kilt. When you’re shooting out in the middle the night and the crew are freezing and wet and the Highlanders are warm and dry because they’re wearing period authentic garments made of wool. The entire genius of the Scottish wool industry becomes as clear as day.

Experience is everything when doing this show and I think the experience of being in Scotland ended up being my primary source of inspiration.

How long does it usually take to put a full costume together from the moment it’s conceived right up to the point it’s a finished costume, ready for use in front of the camera?

It depends. The wedding dress took a year. It took months and months and months thinking about it in the shower, thinking about it while I was falling asleep, thinking about it when driving into work… And then the additional months of doing the painstaking embroidery and things like that but other costumes can come together very quickly and it takes about a week or two to physically make the costume depending on how elaborate it is.

And the attention to detail is the same on every costume regardless how of long it’s seen on screen?

Yeah, you have to. You’re selling characters and you’re selling a story.

One of my favourite costumes of the entire season is Hugh Monroe and he’s on camera, what, 15mins? I don’t even know if it was that long but he has the most brilliant and incredible costume and sometimes it’s the smallest costumes, sometimes it’s the extras standing in line for rent collection that sells the culture and sells the feeling and tone of the show.

The other thing is that sometimes those bit parts give you more freedom that the main actors. There’s less thought and less outside interference because people don’t pay attention to a bit player in the same way they do with a lead actor so you have a lot of freedom to really create a lot of character work on those smaller pieces and I think those extras I think really make the show authentic and believable.

How much of a character’s personality goes into the costume that you create for them?

It’s interesting because we as costume designers, are usually the first person to see an actor on a production. Once they get hired the first thing they do is come to us and together we create a character.

When someone like Sam (Heughan) walks into the room you know there’s a reason why he’s cast. He’s cast because there’s something about him that resonated with the producers and he has certain qualities we can use. He has the physicality, he has the humour.

So when that same person walks into the room with me, my job is to know what their character needs to be and to know how to highlight that. Costumes are just a way for us to show the world who we are.

Sam’s character is a hero. We want him to be strong and heroic so he can give off a sense that he can take care of himself and you. Then you get someone like Caitriona’s (Balfe) character who is a strong modern woman, who gets propelled back in time and I need to be able to convey that she is strong and capable so in order to do that I have to know who every character is and put myself into their brain, and ask myself what choices I would make everyday.

It’s my job to understand the psychology of the character. I have to know who human beings are so I can reflect it in the character’s clothing.

Do you think being a fan of the books was an advantage for you when you came on to the show?

Absolutely. If I’d come into this blind it would have been really, really difficult.

It was a huge advantage because when you’re waiting for actors or you’re waiting for scripts I can still move forward because I know who these people and I know these characters inside and out. When my husband asked me to the show I had been out of the business for a ten years but ultimately it was the fact that I loved the material and I knew the characters so well that made me want to come back and do this.

What was the most challenging aspect of making costumes for the show? 

Well, initially that was a week of going “Oh shit”. I didn’t want to reinvent history because there’s a lot of that on television where the assumption is that the audience would be bored if it was accurate. I had went in with the goal of it being as accurate as possible and once I did the research I realised that may not be possible so the real challenge was having to make something up and have it still feel authentic.

The other challenge was that we couldn’t rent anything and had to make 95% of what you’d see on screen. We only had seven weeks to prep the season so we just made hundreds of costumes in the first year. It was unbelievable so the real challenge was the vast, vast quantity of costumes that we had to create from scratch. It was crazy.

How do you take a lovely new costume that’s just been made and make it look like it has been lived in and like it’s an authentic part of the world?

I think that’s incredibly important to a film but you have to know when to do it and when to not because it’s easy to over age things. At some point, every costume had to have been new so if Claire walks into a room wearing a new dress it should look like it’s new but our Highlanders, their stuff should look like it has been beaten to shit.

We have an amazing ageing and dying department. They have a huge crazy room they use and they’ll burn costumes, paint them, sand them, bake them… They do some incredible work to take these costumes and make them look like sweaty and dirty. You have to sell that idea, if you don’t you lose the audience because they don’t believe it any more.

If you’re living and sleeping in your clothes and you only have one set of clothing then it’s not going to be new. It’s a complicated process that takes another team another 3 or 4 days just to age it properly.

Incidentally, there’s some things that will age as they continue to get worn with all the dirt and water and sweat. Our actors are all doing the things they would be doing in the 18th century so when you see Sam (Heughan) with a pitchfork tossing hay into a wagon, he’s actually doing that so all things like that will keep on adding to the layers of authenticity.

by Edward Laing