Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

Monthly Archives: September 2015

Are Costumes Part of The Story?




For those of you who follow me on Twitter, there has been a lot of discussion about spoilers in relation to Costumes.

Heated discussion.

I have expressed my disappointment that the costumes have been revealed outside of the context of the story.

“But they are beautiful”, “why don’t you want anyone to see them”, “it keeps us happy”. “it’s good for PR”, “it keeps us going during Droughtlander!”. There is more, some really nasty stuff about me censoring people, chastising fans, sending minions out to harass and belittle, all sorts of fantastic motivations attributed to me.

All around a simple statement about wanting costumes to be revealed within the story.

But after lots of heated discussion, I think we finally got somewhere. At least I feel like I did. Perhaps a better understanding of what the issue is. I don’t think a lot of people know the purpose of costume design. Not just the audience, it is a prevalent issue within our business. We are a long way from the last Golden Age Of Hollywood, where storytelling was at the heart of film and television. Films like The Godfather,  Goodfellas, shows like The Sopranos, where costumes are not there just as eye candy, but a vehicle for telling a story. (we have entered a new Golden Age, but haven’t quite caught up about costumes)

In truth I left the business over this very issue. Not spoilers, because they didn’t really exist ten years ago as Social Media was not part of the equation back then. But the pressure from above to throw character development overboard in favour of “fashion”, became just to overwhelming to the creative process. Everyone had to look like they stepped out of the pages of a fashion mag. Young characters  struggling to make ends meet, tripping around on pair after pair of seven hundred dollar shoes and couture clothing. Waitresses wearing Gucci, everything had to be shorter, tighter, sexier, more low cut (don’t get me started on cleavage). It didn’t matter who the character was, where they came from, who they were, what there economic status was, everyone had to look the same. Lawyers dressed as sex workers. Costumes as part of character was out and “style” was in.

The era of the stylist began. I remember when producers and studio execs started calling Costume Designers “stylists”. We would cringe and politely correct them. “We are Costume Designer”.

But that era was ushered in about twenty years ago. So an entire generation of viewers has grown up with that on their screens. Cute clothes, “I want to wear that!!” Nothing whatsoever to do with Costume Design.

What does this has to do with spoilers? Well, I had to realise that my approach to costume design had become somewhat arcane. How on earth could seeing a costume be a spoiler?? In the age of cute clothes on the screen being the focus, I guess a costume can’t be a spoiler. It is a magazine page, often with a link that tells you where you can get “the look”, that your favourite character is wearing. More and more historical shows “contemporize” history, so that you can go to the mall and buy what your favourite historical character is wearing. Who knew so many men wore leather pants in centuries past?

But that is not what I do. That is not what a lot of designers do. And I think there is a disconnect a broken link between what we do and the audience expectation, and it causes confusion when we object or express distress over spoilers.

Costume Designers don’t pick “cute clothes”, we design characters to serve a story. We carefully craft Costumes within the story to create subliminal messages about who our characters are, what is happening to them, how they relate to each other and most importantly  to serve the story. That is the difference between us and Fashion Designers. Fashion Designers design for anyone who sees themselves wearing those clothes, Costume Designers design for particular characters within a particular story. We are Storytellers. Look at the Costumes, not just on the big period pieces, but on shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, lots and lots of shows, they are the same, and they are brilliant, because we all have the same goal, to make you BELIEVE what you are seeing is real, if only for a brief period of time.

There are a few posts here on the blog, about “What we do”, and “Storytelling”, outlining how and what that approach is and how carefully we plan it. There is nothing random about the costumes you see on the screen. There isn’t a closet of cool clothes that someone chooses from according to the mood that day. Costumes are carefully chosen for that particular scene, based on the writers words and many discussions about what needs to be conveyed in a given scene. What do we want the tone to be, how do the Costume Designer and Production Designer work together with the writer, director and show runner to tell the story?

So how is a Costume a spoiler? If we carefully orchestrate a Costume for a scene where we need to to tell the human story, stories of pain, joy, loss, whatever, we want you to feel it in the moment. It is designed for that particular moment. It is part of a tapestry, as I have said before, and when you pull out random threads the entire piece is impacted. When a costume is seen outside the context of the story, that thread has been pulled.

So, where do I go from here with this?? Nowhere. It is a losing battle. In the age of Social Media and instant gratification, the need for constant fullfilment is a tide that cannot be held back. This is what it is. When they made Casino and The Sopranos, and even Dallas or Dynasty, there were no cell phones, no selfie sticks, no Twitter, no FB. We just watched and enjoyed the finished product. That was it. But those days are gone. Perhaps only in theatre can that tapestry be protected.

I read a piece recently about how some artists are now putting their unfinished work on social media as they work on it. I suppose if then Mona Lisa was painted today, Da Vinci could have posted his progress for comment and audience input as he worked. It seems like a kind of communal ownership of the creative process, the audience as shareholders. Maybe that is a good thing, we evolve and nothing remains as it has been.

So, in the end it is what it is, I guess. Nothing will change that. But I wanted to at the very least, give you some insight into what I think the confusion and the disconnect is about. That is why I do what I do in terms of pulling back the curtain. While I don’t want to reveal the final creation until it is complete, I do love sharing the creative process. I think it really adds to the audiences’s appreciation of that final piece to understand what goes into it.

I have no interest in chastising or scolding. No ill will,  no annoyance, no censorship requested. don’t want to kill the fun. I get it, I understand the joy and the enthusiasm.

Just explaining, sharing and hopefully illuminating, putting a different perspective out there for consideration and understanding.

That is what this blog is all about. to showcase what Costume Design really is. And we move forward.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the spirited discussion.