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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