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June 30, 2016

Going Rococo

The excesses of the French court come to life in the costumes of Outlander’s second season.

Kathleen O'Steen
  • As Outlander moved to the second season, fans of the books were keen to see the red dress that heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe) had commissioned for a ball at Versailles. “To make a brilliant red dress in the middle of this series was an interesting proposal,” says costume designer Terry Dresbach. She found her inspiration in dresses from the 1940s, where color is the only embellishment. “I didn’t want to gild the lily beyond that.”

  • “We wanted the apothecarian [Master Raymond, played by Dominique Pinon] to be magical, but not hit you over the head with it,” Dresbach says. “So we divided his waistcoat into four panels, each embroidered with images representing a different disease and cure.” Here the yellow eye represents Yellow fever.

  • Fashion trends tend to be cyclical; here Balfe is wearing a dress based on a 1947 Christian Dior design. “This is our version of the infamous Bar Suit, complete with platter hat,” Dresbach says. “Think Grace Kelly. It’s a piece of fashion that just keeps coming back.” The purse is based on an 18th-century design, but Dresbach’s crew took it a step further, embroidering a stag’s head as a nod to her husband’s Scottish roots.

  • Dresbach outfitted Jamie (Sam Heughan) in grays and blacks, to play up his sex appeal. He wears simple buttons, as opposed to the highly ornate buttons of the period. “Buttons were a sign of wealth,” Dresbach says. “We wanted Jamie to be accepted into this society but not betray his masculinity.”

  • To pull together the saffron gold dress in less time, Dresbach’s team chose to hand-paint the vining flowers that cascade down the creamy silk front panel, rather than embroider them. The piece ended up being one of Dresbach’s favorites.

  • “Murtagh [Jamie’s godfather, played by Duncan Lacroix] was an interesting character to take to the French court,” Dresbach says. “He couldn’t be dressed as he was in Scotland, but we had to retain who he is.” The compromise was to outfit him in similarly deep hues of browns and blues without any ornamentation. “It was all about making the most of negative space,” she says.

  • Claire’s dressage dress, made of a fawn-colored silk/wool blend, is woven with florals that Dresbach says almost feels like chintz. “It had a Mamie Eisenhower feel to it,” she says. “Big, bold floral prints in an eighteenth-century context.”

When it comes to building a better corset, one imbued with picture-perfect 18th century detail, should the stays — this nasty little waist cinchers — be made of plastic, metal, or bone?

Terry Dresbach, costume designer on Starz's lush historical drama Outlander, ponders the question for a moment.

"We used all sorts of things in our corsets," she says thoughtfully, "but we found that bone can be brittle and break. It depends on what the garment needs to do. In a lot of cases we liked bamboo, actually."

For more than two years, Dresbach — an Emmy winner in 2004 for HBO's Carnivale — has immersed herself and her staff in the intricacies of clothing of several eras, from 1940s London to the Scottish Highlands of the 18th century and, this season, the wildly ornate French court of Louis XV.

The show's first season was a gorgeous homage to life in the wet and wild Scottish outback — each of the kilts worn by the rugged Highlanders, for example, was woven especially for the series from 12 yards of wool tartan. But that costuming task paled next to the show's second season.

With the story moving on to the second book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (Dragonfly in Amber) — and the setting moving from Scotland to France — Dresbach and her staff had to create a staggering number of costumes: 10,000. And mostly from scratch.

"We spent a year working on costumes just for the second season," she says. "In that day, people of a certain standing changed their clothes several times a day."

And these outfits were significantly more complicated than the wool dresses, knitted shawls and capelets that star Catriona Balfe — as time traveler Claire — wore in season one. "Each of her dresses in France took a month or more to make," Dresbach reports.

One of the more important garments of the second season was the red gown, which Claire has commissioned to wear to a ball at the Palace of Versailles. In the book, the hue is described as the color of Christ's blood.

"All through the first season, fans were asking if we were planning to create the red dress for the second season," Dresbach recounts. "In the book it's described as a dress that was shocking, very low-cut with no corset. For months I had been thinking about it, how to make it shocking in a world where low-cut wouldn't necessarily be shocking. I was also terrified that the red would overwhelm Cat."

Dresbach settled on a silk criss-cross pattern across the bodice as the only ornamentation. And it was extremely low-cut. "There was no reason to gild the lily."

In addition to the designer's team of some 30 artisans tasked with making the clothes, a second group was busy aging and dying fabrics and doing hand embroidery.

And while Dresbach designed Claire's 18th-century gowns with a sense of 1940s line and minimalism — "She's an elegant and strong woman with her own sense of style rooted in the 1940s" — the costumes worn by the French court feature over-the-top ornamentation.

"It was the whole peacock thing," Dresbach says of the style, which involved silks, brocades, ruffles, piping and jewels. "There was no such thing as blank space; everything was decorated And the men dressed much more ornately than the women."

Buttons, for instance, were considered a sign of wealth, so the men's costumes were replete with them: an average suit had 50.

And Dresbach and crew created some 1,000 costumes for the extras alone. "We had a few panic attacks over buttons," she admits. "They all had to be different. So we started embroidering buttons, which was accurate for the time." With all of that embellishment, one of the bigger challenges, then, was to outfit the show's romantic hero, Jamie, played by Sam Heughan.

"We had to create macho buttons," Dresbach says with a chuckle,

His brocaded vests were created in smoldering shades of black and grey. The sensual factor even extended to the leather brace that Jamie sports on his left hand (having had the bones smashed in season one by the sadistic Black Jack Randall, played by Tobias Menzies).

"Moving this rough character into this mincing, pretty world was not easy," Dresbach says. "He couldn't be seen in pink embroidery. It couldn't just be a bandage around his hand. It had to be the sexiest bandage you ever saw."

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