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Outlander Costume Designer Interview

Outlander: What Inspired the Wedding Dress, How to Put on a Kilt, and More

This week, fans of Outlander were rewarded with the wedding of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), because however abrupt that union may have been in the story, for those who know the book, it's when things start getting really good. The romance heats up with the marriage (as do the sex scenes), and someone who has been deeply involved in the show's big event is costume designer Terry Dresbach, who also happens to be the wife of show creator Ronald D. Moore. We chatted with Dresbach about her approach to Claire's and Jamie's wedding-day attire, as well as lots of questions you've probably had yourself while watching the series, like how exactly does one get into a kilt? Read on for fascinating answers about that, including the historical costume detail that other series always seem to get wrong.

POPSUGAR: Let's talk about Claire's wedding dress!
Terry Dresbach: I read the books when they first came out — I must have read them about 10 times by now — and it wasn't until I was actually doing the show that I realized I couldn't remember any of the costumes as Diana [Gabaldon, the author] described them. And I went back through it and looked at all the varied descriptions, and realized that, like so many fans, I had my own pictures in my head. So what you finally see is sort of a combination of the pictures I've always had in my head and the story that Ron is telling and the place we're in.

PS: The dress has a more modern look than what's described in the book; what were you inspired by?
TD: We are not trying to contemporize this show; we're trying to keep it as 18th century as possible, with a few variations here and there, but generally speaking, you're not going to find Alexander McQueen on this show. Discussions come up from people who are involved in the show — studio people, network people, whoever — who you listen to and get an understanding of what the viewers will also see. Like, everybody thinks a wedding dress is white. Well, now they are, but they weren't in the 18th century. A wedding dress was just your best dress.

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I wanted to do a metallic, I wanted to do a silver; we have pages and pages and pages all over our walls of every conceivable, beautiful 18th-century gown. And a lot of the gowns of that period were made with woven metallic fabrics. And what they do in candlelight is unbelievable. You can't do it with modern fabric. I wanted to try to get that glow [because] Ron wanted to the wedding in candlelight, and I wanted something that would just shimmer.

PS: How long did it take to make?
TD: If one person had made it, it would have taken about 3,000 hours — it took us about 3,000 hours, four months.

PS: What was Caitriona's reaction to the dress?
TD: First she started crying because she thought it was so beautiful; then she started crying because it was so heavy. It weighs about a million pounds. We had to build a special stool, like a sawhorse — right after the scene, there would be someone who would run up on set so she could lean against it.

PS: And Jamie's wedding outfit was a departure for him, too.
TD: It's a pivotal moment for Jamie, because up to this point in the story, he's an outlaw, he's a stable guy . . . But this is the moment in the story where he steps up, and we see that he's going to be the man of this series. And he says, "I'm only going to marry you if they got you a dress, a proper dress." He insisted on proper clothes, and to be married in a church — what's he going to do, show up in the same raggedy clothes? He's not. Sam and I worked very carefully to come up with a costume that would still be believable, that he would wear this, and that it wasn't just some ridiculous thing where you're going, "Where the hell did he get that from?" And if you notice, he wears his kilt very differently at the wedding. We wanted to really give a sense of strength and stability, and widen his already incredibly wide shoulders. Just make him look big and strong. And he's got a beautiful stock around his neck with lace trim and a diamond on at his neck. This is the point where we start to understand that this man is not what we thought he was.

PS: I hear there's a fascinating process to how the guys get the kilts on.
TD: It is, and I keep saying, you've got to make a video of this. It is about nine to 12 yards of fabric that is laid out across the floor and then pleated by hand. Somebody gets on their knees to pleats it by hand. A belt is laid down, then you lie down on the fabric, belt it around you, stand up, then start tucking and pinning it into whatever shape it is that you particularly like. And each of our Highlanders has a different way they like to wear it. It's really interesting to see how they have personalized it, as real Highlanders would have. It's about how you balance it on your body; it's wool, and it weighs a million pounds.

PS: How do you make all the clothes look so perfectly dirty?
TD: We have a remarkable aging and dyeing department within the costume department that hits our fabrics with blowtorches, [and] the kind of spray guns you use to paint a car. They have a room that they go into with masks, and they spray everything down with paint and dye that makes it look dirty. Our clothes all go through a remarkable process. They hit it with cheese graters, sanding blocks, every imaginable [thing]. It's like a workshop of crazed, demented elves in there. You send racks of brand-new clothing in — we make everything on the show — and these things come back on the other side, now really, really old, and really, really dirty. There were two things that Ron was absolutely fanatical about: the color of the redcoat uniforms and that everything was dirty.

PS: What's the story the redcoat uniforms?
TD: For about a 100 years, when I have watched any movie with Ron that has redcoats in it, he starts yelling at the screen, "You see? You see that color? It's wrong! It's the wrong color! It's candy-apple red. It should be scarlet! Look how clean he is!" Then he gives me long lectures about how the soldiers had to sew up the rips and tears. I've heard this lecture I don't know how many times. So we get to Outlander, and he gets all those movies and he plays them for me, because I didn't get the lesson the first 30 times, to just make sure I understand. The one costume we could have rented on this show? There's lots and lots of redcoat uniforms. And we couldn't use any of them.

PS: Let's talk a little about season two fashion, because we're going to France. [Note: some light season two spoilers follow.]
TD: I started designing France about a year ago, because it is going to be so enormous and so huge. There's a little bit of panic in the back of my throat always about how the hell we're going to pull that off, because we will have to build it all. So we are currently working on making about 1,000 extras costumes, and all of our lead actress's clothes have been designed. I don't have scripts yet, but I have the book, and I've read the book a million times. I'm really lucky in that I know the book — I know they're at the French court, I know they're at dinner parties in an apartment, I know she's working at a hospital. I know the basic story, so it allows me to go, "She needs this, she needs that, he needs this, he needs that." It is going to be so massive. We are already hard at work. It'll be spectacular. It's got to be spectacular! It's Paris! You can't fake anything in 18th-century Paris. It is the center of the universe in terms of fashion.

PS: And as we saw in the love scenes of the wedding episode, sometimes it's all about what's not being worn. Is it the costume designer's job to design the modesty garments?
TD: No, that is not. Those are things that I have a wonderful set team [for], and I let them manage all of those little bits, and I try not to know about any of it. There was a day that I had to do that stuff myself, but fortunately it's long in the past. I've had many, many embarrassing moments of trying to super-glue little patches, triangles of fabric across women. It's just horrible and awful, and they always fall off. They never work. Most actors just go, "To hell with it!"

Image Source: Starz
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