Let’s see, what are we currently doing?
Well, we have found the 24,000 buttons, give or take a few thousand. It seems I underestimated how many we needed.
We have dyed and decorated about three – four thousand shoes. We’ve made about a thousand costumes in the last six months. That means frock coats, waistcoats, breeches, shirts, cuffs, stocks, coats, gowns, skirts, stomachers, caraco jackets, capes, petticoats, chemises, corsets, fichus, cuffs, shawls, reticules. We have accumulated gloves and jewelry, made and decorated hats, dyed and printed thousands of meters/yards of fabric.
Last weekend Ron and I did our first appearance together at a fan convention organized by UK Outlander fans. It was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to give a talk about what I do, what we do in the costume department, and it inspired me to reach out to the broader audience and share a bit more of the process of costume design.
It is the same basic process that all Costume Designers and Costume Departments work to, with variations on the theme depending on if you are working on a Space Odyssey or a Western. But there are always particulars to any creative project.
As I have referenced before, no two snowflakes are alike.
I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do Outlander three years ago. Yes, it was a book series I loved and read many, many times since they were first released, but I knew how huge it was, and one of the reasons I got out of the business over a decade ago, was the dwindling amount of time given to prep these massive shows. Prep, as we call it, is the period of time before a show begins where each department pulls everything together needed to do a show. The Art Department builds the sets, Costume Department makes the costumes, Props make all the props, Writers write, and so on. You live and die over the course of a season depending on how much prep time you get. That amount of time decreases every year in our business, so you rarely get the time needed. I knew there wasn’t going to be enough time to do a massive show like Outlander, without it being completely crazy. But Ron wore me down, and I finally agreed.
So this process begins with reading the scripts. That’s when you get a feeling for the tone and direction of a piece, where you begin to get to know the characters and the story. But at this point there were no scripts yet, but there was a book and I figured that would be a tremendous help as I knew the story and characters so well. Sometimes scripts are really bad, but sometimes you get an opportunity to work with a gifted writer like Ron Moore, and that makes everything better, on every level.
So, that was a plus.
The second plus, was that I was married to the Executive Producer of Outlander, and figured that would put me ahead in the information department. Information in the film and television business is like some sort of secret buried treasure.Those of us who make the costumes and build the sets, spend weeks trying to glean any information we can. What are we doing? When are we doing it? Where will it be, and WHO is doing it?? All of those answers are locked in some secret vault, and we are safecrackers doing everything we can to get in. Usually we end up just hurling our crowbars at the damned thing after all else has failed. Living with the vault keeper seemed like it might help.
So based on those two “pluses”, I threw my brain and every bit of sense I possessed, out of the window, and signed on. In retrospect, I cannot help but laugh, that cynical me, who knows exactly what this is like, was so still idealistic and optimistic, still believing that this one would be different than all the others. This is a woman who once went temporarily blind in one eye on a show, due to stress. believe me, I am no lightweight, I am a tough broad, but the closest thing I can think of to being in the film business would probably be the military, albeit with no REAL weaponry.
We needed about 20 weeks minimum to prep a show of this size. When all was said and done, we had eight.
Eight weeks out, we had a raw space, no tables, no sewing machines, no phones, no racks, no crew, no cast, no costumes. We had also discovered that we were not going to be able to rent any costumes except the barest minimum. Every TV show and movie in Hollywood was shooting in the UK, and the vast majority of costumes were not available.
To top it all off, I had personal challenges. My family was unprepared for me to get back in the business, we had two teenagers still in school, and had just moved into a new house. I had been out of the business for ten years and all of my crew had scattered, not that I could take any of them any ay. I knew NO ONE in the UK in the costume game. No contacts, no one who knew anyone, no one at any of the rental houses, no dyers, no equipment hires, no suppliers, not even fabric stores. Like any business, you spend years building contacts you can call on when you need them, and I had nothing. But yeah, let’s walk away from life as we know it, kids pets, unpacked boxes, and do this!!
So, back to prep. The first thing you need to do is to find is a really good Costume Supervisor.
A Costume Supervisor is your right hand on all things of a practical matter. They are the Project Manager. While you deal with everything creative, and even though you are responsible for the budget and oversee the running of the department, you need someone who will deal with all the nuts and bolts. So the supervisor, hires the crew, and has ALL the contacts and connections for everything else. In this case, as I had none, this position was the key to happiness and fulfillment. Will any crew member be good or bad? In our business, we try to get a crew together that we can keep for years and years, so starting from scratch is scary As I had none, I hired a costume supervisor recommended by our UK producer. It is a leap of faith. The wrong choice can be disastrous.
Once the supervisor was in place, we could get started. But it wasn’t quite so easy. Just as there were no costumes available, there was almost no crew available either. Every studio is currently filming in the UK right noes, taking advantage of tax breaks, like Canada in the 90’s. Almost everyone is employed. Crew is at an absolute premium, so finding anyone to work in such circumstances was problematic at best. The few people who were available, were highly sought after in a highly competitive market.
So we searched for crew, and while we were climbing that little mountain, we turned our attention to building a costume house.When you do a show you need access to resources, supplies, and vendors. Very few of those exist in Scotland. If you want to rent a costume, it has to come from a costume house inLondon. If you’re in the States, it comes from a costume house in Los Angeles. But that means that someone has to fly to London to find that costume, that fabric, the buttons, everything, every time we need something. We didn’t have time for that. So we had to build our own Costume House, filled with everything we need.
Our Costume Supervisor had found an Assistant Designer, and the beginnings of a crew of 12. We needed sewing machines and the tables to put them on, lighting, phones, desks, shelving, office supplies, hangers, irons, steamers,racks, dyeing vats and dyes, aging supplies, sewing supplies, hooks, tapes, linings interfacing an endless list of items. And understand that it is not a home sewing kit, it is an industrial sewing kit. Hundreds and hundreds of spools of thread, a couple of thousand hangers, thousands of yards of fabric. It is big, really big.
Where do you hang all the clothes, and store all the shoes, and accessories? Racks and shelves, enough to hold hundreds and hundreds of costumes. You have to install a racking system that goes from floor to ceiling in the warehouse. Floor to ceiling shelving systems also have to be built, and hundreds of boxes purchased to store everything in. The aging and dyeing department has to be set up. They are seriously an industrial endeavor. They need to dye and age hundreds and hundreds of items. Chemicals, machinery, these women actually blow torch costumes to age them.
Setting all that up takes months that we didn’t have. But you have no choice but to go forward and hope for divine intervention.
The Assistant Designer is absolutely essential. They have to live in your head. The Assistant Designer is the one that you download everything to. They are the one who see it through, taking your sketch to the cutters, who make the patterns and cut the fabric. They makes sure the fabric is dyed exactly that right shade you want, and make sure it all happens on schedule. They gather all the bits and pieces, help with research and sourcing materials, schedule the fittings, and interface with our set crew.
While the Assistant Designer is buying bolts and bolts of woolens and linens in London, the equipment begins to arrive, and the fabric is shipped in from London, The cutters and makers are starting to show up. But we still have no actors, so we start them making extras clothing, while we wait.
When I am not figuring out how much rack space we need, I am designing, thankfully for characters I know so well. In the beginning of a show, everyone wants to see sketches, the studio, the network, directors and producers. The first part of my job is to put what is in my head onto paper. So, you do a million sketches. It is harder than one would anticipate. Not only do you have to a lot of them, because you need to convey a real overview of the entire season and all the characters, but those drawing need to be good. So you draw, and redraw, then redraw again. A lot of designers hire illustrators, but I can’t do that. Drawing is what I do, and it is where the design is formed. I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way.
On Outlander it became very clear not long after arrival, that everything I thought the costumes would be, was completely irrelevant, due to the climate. I had to throw out everything I had designed before coming to Scotland. If the characters of Outlander had pranced around in the fine silks associated with the 18th century, they would have all died. Scotland is so very cold and damp, and it was clear that people would have had to wear fabrics much heavier and warmer. I had to figure out how to redo the 18th century silhouette in heavy woolens. Something a lot easier to do with paper and pencil than actual fabric. But eventually it began to take a shape of some sort, though it felt very vague and theoretical.Nothing to really grasp a firm hold onto. No solid research, paintings that can be anything the painter or subject wants them to be. Surrounded by chaos and stress, you just have to hold on and have faith in your own experience and talent. It was a shaky hold after being out of the business for ten years.
Sam Heughan was cast first as Jamie Fraser. He was the easiest actually, because I never saw him as having more than a couple of costumes, and because I had such a clear image of him in my mind. Plus he is a delightful and lovely human being. we have been very blessed with our cast. All lovely and accommodating people. We took care of Jamie Fraser and waited for the rest of the cast.
I am not sure how to describe how absolutely mad things are at this point in production. Building the studio, writing scripts, a million meetings, building sets, finding crew, all at once, everything down to the wire. Waiting for cast, waiting for Claire. All in one breathless, gasping rush. It’s a pretty stressful place.
Finally Caitriona Balfe was cast as Claire, two weeks before we began shooting. Then the rush really began! I wish I could tell you how we pulled it off, but I can’t really remember. It was pretty tough going, there were a lot of tears, people falling apart, and sleepless nights. Maybe it is a good thing that we really can’t remember how we did it, otherwise we might have all run screaming, as we approached Season Two. I think it was just cobbled together out oa f mad combination of faith, panic and experience. Things come back to you from years and years ago, like riding that proverbial bicycle, just as everything is about to burst into flames.
But It seems to have all worked out. The response from the fans and the press to the costumes has been wonderful and extremely gratifying for the entire Costume Department.
We are now a department of fifty, instead of fourteen. My Costume Supervisor stuck with me, I have two wonderful Assistant Designers. We’ve added an embroidery department with four embroiderers and five super embroidery machines. My Alchemy lab (aging and dyeing) are still in their room grinding up frogs and bats blood, or whatever the hell they do in there. An amazing textile artist has joined our staff, as we continue to discover that we may as well just make everything, since it is what we do. The walls are all in place, the machines hum, the crew is solid, and there are fewer and fewer tears. Things still get really crazy sometimes, but a rhythm and flow is beginning to take place, and a system is taking hold, that keeps us afloat when the going gets rough.
And here we are just beginning Season Two, sewing on about 30,000 buttons.
I often rage against the machine. The pace, the stress, the lack of humanity. My “justice issues”, as Ron calls them, run rampant. I am the child of union organizers, after all, and this business needs all the “justice issues” one can possibly throw at it. But Ron gave me a lecture the other night about who I am and what I do. That I need to accept it and make peace with it. I am considering the possibility.
Maybe, just maybe, this is what I do. But don’t quote me on that!