Left, courtesy of Terry Dresbach, right, courtesy of Dior.
“Claire’s from a very specific period in the 1940s, just after World War II, and like so many women of that time, she’s worn trousers, worked in the military, been part of the first generation of women in the workforce, was independent,” Dresbach told VF Hollywood by phone last week. “So how do you maintain that, even the physical movement for her, while [costuming] her in 18th-century Paris, a time with incredibly fussy, beautifully fussy clothes?”
Dresbach’s answer came, ironically, from time-traveling (research-wise) back to the 1940s herself, where she looked for inspiration. It was in this decade that she found her key—French designer Christian Dior—and his link back to 18th-century Paris.
“You can’t go to the 40s, one of the most famous periods in fashion, without looking at Christian Dior’s New Look,” Dresbach said of the visionary’s iconic post-war designs, which helped revive high fashion and revolutionize style with higher hemlines and lower necklines. While researching, Dresbach realized that Dior created his New Look in 1946 and 1947, the exact same time period during which Claire travels in Outlander, an uncanny overlap that Dresbach mined heavily.
“People are seeing [Claire’s second-season costumes] now and kind of going, ‘That doesn’t look period correct.’ Well, it’s not, but it’s not supposed to be. Claire is not an 18th-century woman. She’s a woman of the 40s re-interpreting 18th-century fashion to fit her tastes. And with Dior, when you start looking carefully at what he was doing, you see that he was reaching back in history to the 18th and 19th centuries, taking things like a woman’s riding suit and translating it forward into one of the most famous pieces of clothing in history, the bar suit.”
This piece happens to be the precise look to which Dresbach paid homage in the second episode of the season with a bespoke, oyster-silk design for Claire.
“All the costumes for Season 2 pivot on this one costume,” Dresbach explained. “I wanted Claire and [Christian Dior] to converge in history so that they were both striping these clothes of all the extra bits and getting down to the essential silhouette that defines the New Look and then defines Claire as a modern women in the 18th century. That off-white jacket over the black skirt, with the hat off at a slant across her head—that suit blew everybody away, inspired an absolute fashion revolution, and put women who had previously been walking around in trousers back into corsets. The only difference, really, is that Claire’s gown goes to the ground and we re-created a pair of beautiful Christian Dior shoes from the 40s.”
Dior engineered huge panniers—cages essentially—underneath his skirts, the same that 18th-century Parisians wore. The sheer size of these skirts meant that production had to create special dressing rooms for the show’s second-season actresses, with extra-wide doorways to fit their 18th-century silhouettes. And Dresbach found herself reminding writers that logistical concerns would prevent certain plot details. For example, “If we’re going to do a dinner-table scene, no one can whisper in each other’s ears because the women are going to be sitting four feet away.” Another: “They would have scenes written where Claire would be undressing and I would raise my hand and go, ‘Not by herself she’s not! You gotta put a maid in that room to help her.’”
Outlander is celebrated for its sumptuous love scenes, and Dresbach found herself playing fashion fact-checker with that content as well. “You can’t just get undressed, turn around,and have sex, because you can’t get access—there are too many things in the way. So the slow undressing has to be seen as part of what makes it sexy and beautiful.” In the end [the writers] opted for some fiction over historical accuracy: “There’s a lot of ‘And he rips open the bodice,’ and I say, ‘No he doesn’t! Those bodices have steel boning. Nobody’s ripping anything.’”
As for the men in the show’s second season, Dresbach said that Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser on the series, “was terrified I was going to put him in embroidered lavender silk” because “the men of the period were either dressed like Prince or Liberace. Even calling men’s fashion of the period ‘peacock’ is putting it very mildly.”
Knowing that putting a “six-foot-four-inch redhead in those clothes would be a disaster,” and knowing that, like Claire, Jamie also wouldn’t eschew his personal style for period fads, Dresbach said she “focused on the classic man’s suit. I needed to keep him elegant, I needed to keep him heroic, and very, very masculine.”
At first, when she heard that Outlander would shift gears from Scotland to Paris, Dresbach was excited for the challenge but quickly realized that moving from Scottish fashion—which is not well documented—to Parisian fashion—which is excessively documented—would be much more difficult.
Along with her workshop of about 30 employees, Dresbach said that she created 10,000 garments between the cast and extras, even going so far as to make their own buttons—turns out, you can’t buy authentic 18th-century buttons these days—hats, shoes, corsets, petticoats, aprons, gloves, hats, purses, and even folding fans.
“It was the thrill of a lifetime that quickly became the hell of a lifetime,” Dresbach said, laughing. “Anybody who is into costuming or into fashion knows this period intimately.”
And even if Claire and Jaime can ultimately escape the time period, the fashion world won’t. “You never get away from it,” Dresbach explained. “It’s eternal. We keep putting it down the runway, season after season, anyway.”