Here’s to the costumes…what a fan learned from Outlander

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My maiden voyage into fandom has been filled with treasure troves of friendship, self-discovery and unique opportunities to learn the lay of the land that is film-making. In short, Outlander on Starz has been a singular experience. One of the reasons this experience has been so positive is my  interaction with the author and the folks making my favorite book come to life on the screen. I never dreamed I would have such access and the reality of their willingness to talk with and share with fans has resulted in a life-enriching experience.

Terry Dresbach, the costume designer for the show, has been one of the more open and accessible folks.  She very quickly realized that fans were genuinely interested in what she does and how she does it. She has been open to questions and even started a blog to help satisfy our curiosity about her creative process TerryDresbach.com. I have laughingly said she is like the Wizard of Oz and has let us see behind the “creative curtain”.  She has let us into her world of research, sketches, swatches, and interpretation. It has been fascinating.

Like many fans, I’ve been oh-ing and awe-ing over her creations. I’ve listened to her explain her creative choices and how she has blended historical accuracy with the needs and the realities of making a film. I’ve learned a lot, but per usual for me, there was an “aha moment” that caused me to look a little deeper. It was this.

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I’ve heard Terry say that costume design is about telling a story and I guess at some level I understood that, but this was the moment I think I truly understood what she was saying. HER COSTUMES HELP TELL THE STORY. Yeah…we understood that…I can hear you saying, but for me it took this minimal costuming to clarify what I learned.

“What is it that costume designers truly do for a production?” was the question I clarified for myself when I heard Terry explain this scene. Her choice to let these characters be clothed in pale linen and their own skin allowed the viewer to focus on what the actors were saying.  We were not distracted by the “costumes”. However, I’ve come to see that her design was about more than that; there was a connection to the Abby and the practicality of nursing Jamie’s wounds and innocence and intimacy and vulnerability and unity with the set design and….probably a lot more.  The thought that went into those simple garments staggers.

Here, in this scene, I understood the genius that is her costume designing.

I’ve come to understand that it isn’t about parading beautiful clothes across the screen, but about helping the viewer become immersed in the character and story. She makes her costuming a seamless part of the storytelling. Sometimes, she chooses to make something stand out on purpose and sometimes, like the abbey scene, the costumes make the scene standout by making the costumes not stand out.

I wanted to know more, so I did a little lite research. I read an interesting excerpt from the book Filmcraft: Costume Design  by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the 2015 Edith Head Award for the Advancement and Education of the Art of Costume Design recipient.  Ms. Landis says that the role of a costume designer is to design the people in the show.  She says that film costuming serves two purposes,

” …the first is to support the narrative by creating authentic characters (people); and the second is composition, to provide balance within the frame using color, texture, and silhouette.”

The abby scene illustrates this point perfectly.  Terry’s choice in color and simplicity helps, “support the narrative and create a unified fictional space”.

Now, I’m thinking…where else did I see this color and simplicity? When I realized where, it literally brought tears to my eyes…the Wedding.

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Once again, her design tells the story of intimacy, innocence, and vulnerability.  There is nothing in the design to get in the way of the words and yet it enhances what is happening on the screen.

Her designs are helping to create authentic people within the parameters of a historical period and with an idea to each character’s personality and place in the story. A case in point is Black Jack Randall and Frank Randall.  I remember Ron Moore, the executive producer who just happens to be Terry’s husband and the person who thankfully talked her into designing for this show, describing his watching Tobias Menzies trying on his costumes.  He said he quickly went and got Terry to see Tobias, “doing it again”. What he meant by this was the transformation that seemed to occur when Tobias put on his costumes. He stood differently,…his body language was different.  The costumes helped him create and become his character.  Terry “designed” Black Jack Randall and Frank.

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I’m starting to notice other little touches and nods to character, color and texture in her designs. I was admiring the elaborate and beautiful wedding dress when I realized Terry was telling the story of two weddings! Both in silver! And, both were telling something about Claire’s role in two different time periods.  In 1945, Claire is wed in a beautiful silver suit with simple lines that is as modern and confident as she is herself.

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In contrast, in her 1743 dress she is completely the opposite.  Once again dressed in silver to be wed, she is anything but modern, simple or confident.

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She looks like a fairy-tale, but the elaborate gown only accentuates that she is a stranger in a strange land. I can’t help but speculate about what else this deliberate design choice was saying about Claire and the story. Is it that the more fairy-tale like dress foreshadowed the fantasy quality of Jamie and Claire’s relationship? Is the rushed and simple wedding significant of Frank and Claire’s doomed relationship, etc…

Once again, costumes help tell the story and design the “people”. A costume designer’s job is to help realize the screenplay, but, I’ve learned that isn’t an easy thing to do and my respect for Terry and the job she tackles has grown!

…A designer’s work is inextricable from the theatrical context and collaborative interrelationships in which they work—the dialogue, the actor, the cinematography, the weather, the season, the time of day, the choreography of movement and a dozen other dilemmas all present challenges… Deborah Nadoolman Landis © 2012

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Terry doesn’t do this all on her own. Her designs are brought to beautiful fruition by a very talented team. I’m sure her love and appreciation of them is great. The quality of workmanship is obvious and their dedication to their craft very much appreciated by this fan! They make me proud!

So, here’s to the costumes, their designers and makers because of you Outlander is beautiful and the characters and story have a soul.

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59 thoughts on “Here’s to the costumes…what a fan learned from Outlander

    • Lin Robertson

      The detail in the costume designs are absolutely incredible. Terry’s skill is evident in each and every design, and without them the story would not have near the impact it does. I belonged to a medieval recreation group in my 20’s and we had a “costume mistress” who sketched and created the most wonderful period costumes at times from whole cloth without patterns, fittings or anything else so I saw first hand how much time and skill goes into designing with keeping the period uppermost in mind. No zippers, natural fabrics, yards and yards of cloth. Well done.

    • Brenda

      Thrilled with your blog Terry. It’s such a treat to go behind the scenes and see all the amazing detail in each costume and the incredibly insane amount of work that goes into creating an authentic 18th century world. Thank you for sharing so generously. Your fans LOVE what you do… truly!

  1. As a design student, we were taught to work with the whole production team, from stage designer, lighting designer, etc. It is a collaborative effort, but the work the costmer designers do goes above that. Usually there is an arc you want to show for each character as to their growth as a character in reaction to what they do in the show and it needs to grow along with the other characters and you have to understand their character’s arc too. It is a lot of work for one person, and Terry does do that expertly! She is a great designer because you don’t really see most of the costumes, they are a part and parcel of the character and scene!

  2. Patty Hoye

    Great costumes are just like a fine score to a production. Enhancing and supporting, yet filling the senses where words alone are not enough. I appreciate them as much as great acting, writing and direction. Outlander has these all in spades.

  3. Another important thing that you touch upon is the transformative quality that costumes have for the audience and the actor. Personally, the whole thing comes together for me when I am put in my costume. I go from happy relaxed Sara to…..whomever I am being asked to play. (This is also true for me w/ hair & makeup). When I was put in a corset & nightdress, had long curly hair, I was no longer myself. I was a Chekovian woman in the late 1800s dying of tuberculosis. I felt like the person I had worked so hard to create really came to life when I stepped into my costume. Gone was fun loving Sara enjoying life. Enter, Anna. I coughed, cried, fought, and eventually died in my husband’s arms. I was no longer able to deny this person I had created and it was because the elements would not allow me to not be this person that I felt I understood.
    You stand, talk, and act differently in costume. I’m not delusional, I know I am not another person, but the thought & detail that goes in, is not unnoticed. I had a show that I did a short tour on where they hand made the whole costume to specifically contour to my body in order to give me the best silhouette possible and, honestly, to make me as attractive as possible. Another character needed to have a moment where he saw me & fall madly in love, therefore the audience needed that experience too. I think it worked. I felt BEAUTIFUL! (My boobs were hurting from all the squeezing, but it was worth it!). For me, that was The Wedding. Cait & Sam were amped up by the costumes and Claire and Jamie, by changing out of the “normal” clothing were also being transformed.
    This post is interesting to me because Caitriona says in an interview, one of her favorites is a nightgown she wore in the latter part of the show & I think it’s the one at the end of “Lallybroch” when she tells Jamie she loves him. How do I know? It looked very similar to one I had worn and I thought “Wow, that is very beautiful & romantic! How do you NOT feel lovely in that?” I shot a movie where I was COVERED in mud, dirt, and general filth and I DO NOT think I could’ve evoked those same romantic feelings with that nasty get up. They say clothes make that man & it really is true. I’m so happy Terry is open about her creative process and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that fixates on all these things too!

  4. lorischmitt

    Yes. I think that you totally explained what is happening with the costuming in “Outlander”. I think that clothes most certainly help tell the story, and although I loved Claire’s suit in 1945, the dress she wears in her marriage to Jamie, is everything I envisioned. When he tells the story of the dress on the wedding night, and it flashbacks to her cape being removed, well, it just made me cry. The expert team involved in this show deserve recognition, Fingers crossed for Emmy nominations.

  5. Harriet Weber

    Beth,
    Thank you for continuing to find things that are insightful and challenging to speak about. I used to write a weekly column, so I know how difficult it is to find your zone and then bring it to fruition…love you, love you, love you! Thanks!

  6. sallyinvt

    When I see Terry’s clothes and imaginings, I see real clothes on real people. Because Tobias inhabits two characters, his alignment with the respective costumes is pronounced in the contrasts between Jack & Frank. But on screen, I see only the character Tobias is onscreen, a testament to his collaboration with Terry to make each character specifically unique. Wonderful. Hoping Terry makes a documentary: The Making of Outlander Costumes.

  7. As usual, your insight and comments are so well thought out. Love your posts and now I when I looked at a scene, I will be looking at more than the actors. The clothes designs fascinated me and you have clarified why.
    Thank you Beth and of course to that Wonder Woman Terry D..

  8. Leona

    Totally agree! The show would not be what it is without the costumes.

    Can I suggest that you write a similar piece on the makeup and prosthetics team? They are doing a fantastic job as well (and that gives lots of opportunities to show Jamie’s backside 😉

  9. Janice

    Thanks, Beth, for shining a light on Terry and her team’s rich costume design and helping us to see how truly brilliant it is. Its contribution to making Outlander such a wonderful show is certainly worth celebrating. Thanks, too, for continuing to help us survive droughtlander.

  10. Jackie Campbell

    The first picture I saw of Tobias as Frank made me shiver, he looked so much like my fuzzy mind picture of Frank, but so much more! Same with Black Jack. I had seen Tobias in other series, but these clothes gave him so much more power and presence. He looks so great in them. If he gets an Emmy I believe his costuming should get part of the credit. Probably same goes for Jamie and Dougal. Great essay!

  11. Catherine

    Beth,

    As always your articles make me pause and think. It never occurred to me to view costumes in their own right, I just absorbed them with the characters. Thank you and I look forward to more of your insightful thoughts and observations.

  12. CarolynB

    I had not seen the juxtaposition of the wedding dresses prior to your comments. Astute points, Beth. During “Ransom” I had a visceral reaction to the fine linen shirting Jamie wore at the Abbey. To me it seemed Jamie was clothed in bandaging was nothing more than a linen shroud. Claire was associated with first aid/healing and there was nothing more basic than a linen sling or rolled bandages for a nurse of the 1940s; it was her stock-in-trade. She’d used this material on his smaller wounds many times prior. At the Abbey, Jamie was soul-broken, was utterly vulnerable, and he had very little left of himself and even less to cover with–and even that was ephemeral, wispy. In the end, Claire was able to fight past his shroud-like garment, to fully expose his destroyed soul, to open his deepest wound and to begin her healing.

  13. Thank you for this post Beth. I just love learning more about the process of costume design. When I was a kid watching Saturday afternoon movies on rainy days and the Oscars when I was allowed to stay up, I wanted to be Edith Head not the stars in the movies. I learned how to sew because of Edith Head’s work. I would love to be in Terry’s work room working on the fabulous designs she envisions. Heck, I’d be happy to pick pins off the floor, thread needles or fray fabric for her and her team.

  14. Thank you Beth, I am somewhat overwhelmed. You are very generous, both as a person and a writer.
    May I repost on my blog? I think that aside from being very flattering, it is a rather remarkable perspective on what costume design actually is. Not from the view of someone behind the camera but from a viewer, and I think that is a very important and valuable perspective.

    • I’m so glad you liked it! And, I would be honored if you reposted! You have been a large part of making this a wonderful ” fan” experience for so many of us! Thank you!

  15. Way to go Beth! Not only was it an awesome post for other viewers with it’s insight, but you impressed the Lady herself! Nothing I could say would top that. *applause*

  16. Reblogged this on Terry Dresbach and commented:
    I am somewhat embarrassed to post this incredibly flattering piece by Beth Weson, lest anyone mistake my intention in doing so. I think it is an important read as is surmises so well what the job of a costume designer actually IS. I can yap on abut it, continually, but this is a fresh perspective, a viewers perspective, and I find it very valuable to hear how the intention of a designer is received.
    At the end of the day, we are speaking to you, the viewer, through our work. If it were a few hundred years earlier, we might be describing a gown, or a coat, to listeners around an evening fire. Storytelling, once again.
    Thank you Beth for an amazingly well done and thoughtful piece.

  17. Reblogged this on Terry Dresbach and commented:
    I am somewhat embarrassed to post this incredibly flattering piece by Beth Weson, lest anyone mistake my intention in doing so. I think it is an important read as is surmises so well what the job of a costume designer actually IS. I can yap on abut it, continually, but this is a fresh perspective, a viewers perspective, and I find it very valuable to hear how the intention of a designer is received.
    At the end of the day, we are speaking to you, the viewer, through our work. If it were a few hundred years earlier, we might be describing a gown, or a coat, to listeners around an evening fire. Storytelling, once again.
    Thank you Beth for an amazingly well done and thoughtful piece.

  18. Susan deGarmeaux

    Thanks so much for your insight on the costumes! I usually notice things like the silver colored wedding dresses…but I hadn’t. Wow!

  19. Elizabeth Taylor

    Such great insight, Beth. Until Outlander, which should be read Terry, the only focused attention I ever paid to costuming was Scarlett’s dress made out of curtains in GWTW and Carol Burnett’s spoof on such costume. The education that Terry has provided me on what constitutes “costuming”is invaluable. I now come to the theater/movie or TV screen with an educated eye thanks to Terry Dresbach. Thank you for bringing to light this behind the scenes artistic genius.

  20. Lesley Ferguson

    Beth I love your blog and your perspective on our beloved books and series adaptation. I have been following you for some time now, but rarely comment. Just wanted to let you how much I appreciate your work, and the itelligent comments from your readers as well.

  21. momt14

    I read this on another site and was blown away. It never occurred to me to look for symbolism in costumes and it is definitely there.

  22. Reblogged this on lisatooes's Blog and commented:
    Beautiful article and so well articulated. You have captured exactly what I have been seeing and feeling and have provided so much more to my own understanding. This is an amazing world of creation – I would have loved to be part of this world. Touches my soul – truly. Thanks so much for this. (Wonder if it’s too late!)

  23. Beth

    Admiro e concordo com a sua interpretação sobre os trajes dos atoresijos brasileiros principais relacionados a momentos emocionais vivenciados (sofridos) por eles. Você fez excelente análise. Eu não havia analisado tão profundamente sobre isso. Parabéns. Congratulations.

    Seu blog é maravilhoso e transmite a sua sensibilidade.

    Kisses from Brazil
    (me…Outlander’s fan)

  24. Beth

    Admiro e concordo sobre sua interpretação dos trajes dos atores principais relacionados a momentos emocionais vivenciados (sofridos) por eles. Você fez excelente análise. Eu não havia analisado tão profundamente sobre isso. Parabéns. Congratulations.

    Seu blog é maravilhoso. Transmite a beleza de sua sensibilidade.

    Kisses from Brazil
    (me…Outlander’s fan)

  25. LeaMarkum

    As always, spot on. This reminds me of the same quality I see in set design also. I started noticing that many times in a movie the walls, doors, and all the molding on the inside walls are painted the same color (usually a drab shade) and wondered why. It finally occurred to me that they didn’t want the setting to be a distraction to what was happening in the scene and the dialogue, so they made it recede into the background. I have never been a fan girl before, so I don’t know what happens with other shows, but it does seem that the people associated with this show have given us a rare glimpse into the processes of making art. It’s an amazing gift.

  26. Dearest Beth
    You may not get my comment here but it is to your credit that Terry has put links to your analyses. I have just found her blog as when I returned to Outlander land her blog was down because of stealth. I mentioned why I couldn’t cope in another of my comments. Anyway hats off to you for producing such a sound and rational blog of interest to among many, one of the key creators of the Outlander films.

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