From Fiction to Flim: Outlander’s Costume Designer Terri Dresbach


How could anyone forget the scene in  Gone With The Wind when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) creates a beautiful emerald-green dress made from hanging drapes? Despite the war, Scarlett frantically searched and found fabric to sew herself a fashionable dress. This inspiration was the by-product of “Necessity.” According to awards winning costume designer, Terry Dresbach, while working within the time constraints of a weekly TV show and building a workshop from scratch, she claims this is why people lost their heads in 18th century France… people were sick to death of doing all this stuff and not getting paid for it.  She understands the pressure of her work and for those of her teams. From designing her own fabrics to embroidery machines, there is a lot of work to making thousands of costumes. Yet, all of this time consuming work is not the exciting part or even the heart of what she does.  Her costume designs are not just a piece of clothing but “the embodiment of a character.” Dresbach defines the difference between a fashion designer and a costume designer as this: costume designers are storytellers.  They create people from the ground up.  So, where does that leave the author’s book?  Dresbach says the book is the blueprint but not the bible.

As a fan of Outlander, I have seen her  beautiful creations for two wonderful seasons; however, I would not have been motivated enough to learn about Dresbach and her team’s painstaking work if it had not been for Christina Wehner and Andrea Lindgren’s invitation to contribute in their sponsored Blogfest: Characters in Costume: Fiction and Film.  I would like to thank her for this invitation and for the opportunity to contribute to this intriguing and enjoyable topic. I encourage everyone to read an array of blogs written for and contributed to this blogfest. This is the link ….

Outlander is a television series that can be described as a romantic adventure, sometimes fantasy, that spans over two centuries.  It is also produced with historical accuracy. It is based on a series of  bestselling novels written by author Diana Gabaldon. Although Gabaldon is a brilliant storyteller, she also has the mind of a scientist. When is comes to anything that surrounds her story, like any great novelist, she does her research.

Many of Gabaldon’s characters and events are taken from historical record. By implementing history in the story, readers wholeheartedly absorb the elements of time travel, magic, and even at times, the supernatural.

Dresbach has an intimidating challenge before her.  The show begins with a British Army Nurse, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) in a British hospital, during combat, in war-torn France (1945). Then, a year later in the Scottish Highlands, we find Claire and her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) on a second honeymoon before he starts his new job as a history professor at Oxford.  Next, we find Claire traveling back in time in 1743, three years before the second Jacobite Rising (1746).  It is here she meets and falls  in love with  outlaw and tragic hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).  Finally, the season  ends with the couple sailing for Paris France to start a new life.  All of this in just the first season.

To design and make thousands of costumes that are historically accurate and covers several eras of time in different locations like England, Scotland, France, and Boston within a relatively short amount of time can make Santa’s workshop look easy in comparison.  There are books and a numerous magazine articles (onlinks that I used as a source) on Dresbach’s workshop and the making of Outlander.

When comparing a fictional character’s dress to their film counterpart, Dresbach’s interpretation is very close but definitely different. To better understand the connection between history and fiction and her artistic work and interpretation, it is necessary to look at a few examples of her designs.  Dresbach uses subtle visual cues in her storytelling. For instance, the everyday task of getting dressed, or in the symbolism and functionally of a uniform  and even knowing the mindset of a character by their choice of garment.

To give you an example of how historically accurate Dresbach’s costumes are, here is a “deleted” scene, really an edited scene, from the Season I.  Here you find newlyweds waking up in their first home.  Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is dressing himself in his Highlander kilt as Claire(Caitriona Balfe) tries to encourage him back to bed. The Kilt is the national symbol of Scotland.  When a man wears a kilt, he is referred to as a “Man and a Half.” A full kilt is two yards wide and six to eight yards long. This garment isn’t just considered functional and life saving, it also represents a man’s sense of honor.  This is one of the reasons the British outlawed the wearing of kilts or tartans from 1746 to 1782. Seriously, when have you seen a man put on such a cherished garment? In the movies or on television? None? So, Sam Heughan dresses himself in this very complex garment. Watch as Heughan carefully and with pride fold each pleat (sett: one inch exposed pleat) in this  very  complicated process of putting on a belted full kilt.

Another example of Dresbach clear attention to historical  and character costume design can be seen in the first morning dressing of the beloved, time traveller from the 20th century, Claire in 18th century noble women’s dress. Gabaldon describes this in Book I, Outlander, chapter 5, page 65:

Mistress FitzGibbons …laid out a pile of garments on the bed.  There was a  long yellowish linen chemise, with a thin edging of lace, a petticoat of fine cotton, two overshirts in shades of brown, and a pale lemon-yellow bodice.  Brown-striped stockings of wool and a pair of yellow slippers completed the ensemble. … Turning out the pocket like a gunnysack, she produced a handful of ribbons and bits of jewelry.

In this description from the book, Gabaldon does not mention the bum roll or the putting on of layers.  Not to worry Dresbach doesn’t miss a tick. You can witness for yourself how Dresbach dresses Claire in the the Leoch castle.  Here is the scene from the Season I.  Claire is being dressed for the first time in 18th century clothing.  This is how the writers and directors decided to interpret that section of the book; and how Dresbach dressed her. In the book, Claire is given yellow slippers. That is not a color you would want to wear in a drafty, dirty castle.  I like how the writers added Mrs FitzGibbons’s interpretation of Claire’s scanty discarded modern undergarments:  If this scene doesn’t convince anyone of how a costume designer is every bit as important to a character and story, nothing ever will.  Again, this scene was edited and not completely deleted in the show.

To further explain the historical  detail that Dresbach uses in her work, here are two photos of baddie Captain Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies beautifully played dual roles, 20th century husband, Frank Randall and 18th century, evil Black Jack Randall). The first photo is as a Captain Jack Randall in Season I and the other is of him later in Season II, as a demoted officer. Look carefully at the two uniforms.  They are different…brass buttons and all.  Without being told, we know that he has been demoted.  Would most fans of the show notice?  Probably not, but again Desbach is creating character and storytelling through her designs.

Such attention to detail, helps builds suspense. A perfect example of this can be seen on the Jamie and Claire’s wedding night.  Poor virgin Jamie, has to untie some 60 loops on Claire’s bodice/corset before he can even see what is in store for him, for  that night and for life.  While Jamie painstakingly unties, you have time to see and understand the desire and clumsiness of a first timer.  It is the most honest and sexiest honeymoon scene, I have ever seen on film.  I cannot imagine such a scene being possible without Dresbach’s costume designs.  How long does it take Jamie to untie each of those loops? A while, which to him  probably felt like forever. Costume design is as important to the story and character as are the actors, writers, director, and crew.

I would like to add one more personal opinion about the concept that Outlander as a “bodice ripping” Fembolt fest.  First of all, most men could not rip open a bodice with their bare hands; unless, it was untied first or cut. I mean a historical bodice not a Fredericks of Hollywood or Victoria Secret bustier.  If a man even tried to rip the bodice, it would take a very long time.  There is whale bone or animal bone sewed along the sides to keep you in and for it not to lose its shape. Plus, it is an expensive piece of clothing to replace.  Now, a person could cut it away the bodice like Black Jack did to Claire before he attempted to rape her; but,  violently forcing a person to have sex  is not sexy. It is criminal.  Romance writers need to double-check their book covers to make sure they are not sending the wrong message out there about the difference between rape and romance. In  Gabaldon’s books there is rape and one spanking.  Also in the books, there is nothing sexy about it just like in reality. This is a societal problem; and, I repeat a criminal act.   I felt I needed to add this.

Here are some visual aids about real corset or bodices:

The last example of Dresbach’s design I would like to point out is the Claire’s clothes in Versailles France during the reign of Louis XIV.  As Dresbach explained this is a directive of executive producer, husband Ron D. Moore,  18th century should be as foreign to 20th century Claire as if she landed on another planet.  In the first season, Claire’s clothes were borrowed.  In the second season, she had them designed.  When I first saw the designs, I did not understand why her dresses were so historically skewed.  I wondered why Claire’s clothes were decidedly different than that of the fashion of the day.  I wish they would have wrote in a scene at the dressmaker’s salon where you see and hear Claire’s input on how to design her clothes.  Now, it makes perfect sense why there is a 20th century in her flaire in her 18th century dress.

f7109f15a1c60a0d-research2Outlander Season 2 2016outlander-600x800

When Dresbach refers to herself and other costume designers as storytellers, I understand her completely now.  I see how she works with actors to give birth their characters.  From dressing in the morning, to wearing kilts to uniforms of honor, and to designing their clothes in another century, it makes perfect sense.

Before learning about Terry Dresbach, the only costume designer that I could name was the late, great Edith Head.  Now, I am in awe of Dresbach.  To me she is the ultimate costumer designer. Even her name is the perfect name for a dress designer. Terry can “tear” into that cloth or that project. Dres? Really? That is too obvious.  Bach? The German passion to create art or visual music for the eyes, the “dress.” Personally, I think Terry Dresbach is as close to a superhero you can get. Sorry, Ron Moore (producer, writer) but I could easily see Deadpool in Terry’s future. Terry Dresbach brings a character to life from the pages of fiction. Without her, their story cannot be fully told because the actors wear the skin of their garments within their soul.

Dresbach’s Web site address:

OnLine Sources:

‘Outlander’ Costume Designer Terry Dresbach Talks Bringing History to Life

Terry Dresbach in her own words: