Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

Claire’s Shift


One of the most difficult designs I have ever had to do. It had to serve two very difficult and specific masters. Be a convincing 40s dress, and then change to an 18th century shift, two completely different structures. Plus to make it even more fun, the season for the show changed to autumn instead of spring, as it was in the book.
At least if it had been spring, I could have had Claire in a cotton voile or even a lightweight linen dress.
But in the fall, in cold rainy Scotland, my options got even narrower.

I will never LOVE this dress, but that is okay. It did it’s job very well I think, and sometimes it just has to be about practicality not beauty, just like in real life.

Here is a picture of an 18th century linen shift.


So THIS is what I designed…

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…to end up like this when Claire meets up with the Highlanders and Colum comments that his brother said she was running around the countryside in her shift. (not in some alien short garment). We have to believe that everyone buys that Claire is not an alien from the future and instead is a woman wandering about in her undergarments.


So there you go.


Shape Shifting. Here are a few of the ideas and shapes I played with while figuring it all out.

the hardest part came when Ron made it Autumn!! Then none of these could work.

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Connie has asked a question that readers may find interesting_
“And on a practical note, how much time did Caitriona actually spend in the “shift” on horseback and how did you protect her legs from chafing / getting rubbed bloody? I always wear full length jeans when I’m on a horse because there are so many pieces of tack that can rub one raw in a variety of places.”

We try to be as authentic as we can, but there is a limit to what you can put an actor through, especially when it is not SEEN on camera. There has been much written about what Cait had to go through while filming in the shift. It really was incredible, dead of winter in Scotland, freezing rain while wearing a thin crepe shift.

So that our lead actress would not end up in hospital, we spend a lot of time and effort doing everything possible to take care of her. She has layers of flesh colored high tech clothing under that shift, and shorts to protect her thighs. I was not on set much, as we were careening madly, trying to get clothes designed and made, but my guess is that there was also protection on that saddle.

We kept her full of hot soup and hot tea, enormous down coats on when not filming, but at the end of the day, it was just a very strong, brave woman who went out every day in awful conditions, and got the job done.

38 thoughts on “Claire’s Shift

  1. jbaillie88

    Thank you, Terry, for explaining about Claire’s shift. I see why it was so difficult to design, in order to meet such specific purposes. Well done, considering all the constraints! Please keep posting, this is VERY interesting and fun to read!!

  2. ewmb

    You did a great job. I always had trouble picturing the dress/shift in the book and as soon as I saw the footage of Claire at the stones in that dress I thought “perfect.”

  3. Letty (@lettya7)

    I agree with the comments above! Thank you for sharing all this with us. It is incredible to be able to read about the creative process that goes on behind the beautiful costumes you created. Thank you for making our favourite book this perfect!

    Love from Uruguay,


  4. Jody Boucher

    Fantastic! I also had troubles picturing the shift in my mind but could thought of it as something lightweight and linen so to see it and then also to read the creative process to make it all happen is wonderful. I also agree that when I saw it the first time I thought it was perfect and realized you did indeed pull it from my mind and make it real. The costumes you have made are incredible and beautiful. You have put so much love into this to make it real for all of us fans (including you). Please keep posting, it’s so neat to see the behind the scenes stuff like this. The clothing is a huge part of making this show believable and a success and it’s very nice to see your part of it.

  5. ellepique

    AAAAHHHH I’m so excited. I know that you said you would never LOVE the dress. But I am 100% smitten! As a fellow costumer I love that you are keeping a blog of the designs and process. Thank you for sharing with us!

  6. Felicity Dodson

    I love this piece as a 1940’s day-dress, but I thought the forethought to transition it for the 1700’s was pure genius! The use of the seam work to give it a proper shape, and the accessories that allow it to evolve from one century to another …. amazing creativity!

  7. gwillya

    Hi Terry! Just wanted to let you know, I really like the dress as well. What really made it something for me is the 3/4 sleeves. You did a great job creating the shift/dress. Job well done…as well as all the other costumes you have created. I’m very impressed and thrilled that your enthusiasm and love for the book is added into every part of the series. It will totally be a thrill for me to watch and to see when the series begins on August 9th. Hope you are having a great day. Thank you for all you do.

      1. amz

        I’m trying to recreate the shift dress, if you don’t mind. I love it’s simplicity and structure , I’m sick of wearing store bought clothes, can you tell me what type of darts you used ? and are they also on the back? I’m working on the toile now and need advice.

  8. Gail Griffiths

    Terry I like this dress/shift. I wondered how you would manage to turn her little printed summery frock into an 18th century shift. The decision to change seasons worked in your favor in the end. You are brilliant and your costumes are breathtaking for their realism. I think your sense of “getting it right” has been infectious. Thank you for sharing and I am looking forward to following your elegant blog.

  9. fiddlefuddle

    One of the things I love most about the dress, Terry, is the fact that it’s white. It is in stark contrast to the earthy colours that appear in 1700s Scotland and the red coats of the English soldiers, which I think makes Claire’s trip through time all the more shocking (in a good way) and makes Claire seem all the more vulnerable. Of course, I haven’t had the benefit of actually watching the first episode yet, but from the trailers I can imagine that white may not be a colour that would have been worn often in 18th century Scotland. How would you keep your whites looking white? BTW, I think Cait looks fabulous in white! Totally suits her. I am loving the costumes we have had glimpses of. I can’t wait for more.

    1. terrydresbach

      You are absolutely right. There really was no white. There were no “chemicals” as we know them today, no bleach, no brighteners, no stain removers, no dry cleaning. She gives all that up literally and figuratively when she goes through the stones.

      1. outlander roundup

        The only way I’ve found that people could get their “whites” whiter was laying them out in a field to let the sun bleach them. But in the UK, days like that sometimes are hard to come by but it was done with Linen when they could.

    2. Elizabeth Coleman

      Bleaching linen cloth was a tedious and lengthy process in the 18th century; for a long time the Dutch held a virtual monopoly on the business of bleaching, although there were bleachworks in other countries, including England and Scotland. Once the fabric was bleached and returned to merchants to be be sold or made into shirts, collars, stocks, shifts, kerchiefs, etc., it was kept snowy white by being washed in lye soap and dried in the sun. Advances in the bleaching process pioneered in Scotland around 1730 or so shortened the fabric processing time considerably, but the great leap forward came in 1787, with the discovery of the bleaching properties of chlorine.

      1. terrydresbach

        Yes, all true. But for the average poor Highlander, those methods were not very accessible.
        When I was designing the show, I had a question that I used for guidance. When living in a small smoky croft with 8 people and all your animals, with constant rain and cold, how much time and energy would you put into the color of your clothes?

  10. inklequeen

    Since first reading Outlander I’ve always had questions about how a 1940’s floral dress could ever be seen in the 18th Century as a shift, knowing as I do what an C18th shift looked like. I always felt Diana had stretched the limits of my credibility a bit too far! However, the books are so fantastic, I let it go and just enjoyed the ride.
    You must have also had problems with this point, as once I’d seen your design for Claire’s dress I knew straight away why it looked the way it did. I understand the dress HAD to be changed from Diana’s descriptions, and your solution is a lovely compromise….straddling two different time periods!
    Well done Terry! 🙂

    1. terrydresbach

      Thank you. I too, had always come to that point, and wondered how stupid Colum and Dougal had to have been to believe she was wearing a shift?
      They are men with wives and women in their lives. BUT, it works on the printed page!!!! Not so much on the screen.

  11. Krista Gragg Willmorth

    Lovely job with the “shifty dress.” =) MY thoughts on the conclusions drawn about her dress in the 18th century are simply that a shift was the only thing in their frame of reference that it *could* be. I mean, if I ran across someone out in the countryside wearing a color and texture of fabric I’d never seen before, I would probably assume they were simply a lost costume designer with access to fabrics I don’t know about. =) I would likely *never* assume they were an alien or from the future. Especially if they spoke my language. An explanation like that simply would NOT compute.

    Same goes for the flowers on her dress in the book. Yes, they might think it was weird, but probably wouldn’t go for the time-traveler explanation. Would that be called cognitive dissonance? This explanation causes me discomfort and *can’t* be true, so I will believe otherwise.

    Lovely job anyhow.


    1. terrydresbach

      Thank you Krista.
      No, I am only joking with time traveller reference. There is no way they would think she was that or an alien. But we did want her to be able to pass, to some degree, in an 18th century world. It is a choice we made.
      There has, and will continue to be, much attention paid to the change in the shift. There will be other changes in scripted clothing, just as there will be changes in the story and in the dialogue. Nothing major, but small bits along the way. It is the way with adapting the printed page to the screen. One has to use the book as a blueprint, not a bible.
      There will be fans who will be unhappy about any variance, no matter how small, hence all the focus on the kind of material for Claire’s dress. I am fine with that. I have been a fan of the books since they first came out, have read them many times. That line of Ron’s, about not fucking up his wife’s favorite book, is very true. I harass him about staying true, and I hold myself to a petty high standard in designing the costumes.
      I understand and accept that there will be those who do not like some of my choices.

      But maybe we all need to spread the word. I will not be designing the costumes to look exactly as they have been described. Diana is okay with that, and that matters a lot to me.

      I do like the idea that someone would think Claire was a lost costume designer!!!!! 😉

      1. Krista Gragg Willmorth

        Thank you for your reply Terry! I will do my best to spread the word…things will (and should be) different in the two media. I would hope that there is room in this world for more than one piece of fine entertainment. Diana has written a series of incredible books which have generated vivid images and scenes in mine and many others’ heads; and precisely because of that, no one will bring that exact image to life for me, but why would I ever want them to!?! It’s like Diana wrote recently, the characters have always been “brought to life” in her head, she didn’t need someone else to do it for her. That being said, I am SO looking forward to having a TV series, based on a story that I know and love, that will hopefully entertain me, surprise me, and maybe even teach me a few things I didn’t know about the story or the time periods covered. I have already learned a great deal just following the filming on Twitter and other social media. That is due in large part to your gracious (and often amusing) input, Terry. It has already been so much fun!

        I, for one, am looking forward to some new images in my head that I can access when I’m reading. That happened with GOT and I thought it enhanced both reading and viewing.


  12. inklequeen

    Hi Terry!

    I know you probably had several versions of this dress used in the filming, and I was reading a discussion on this online. Could you confirm please the following (in order to settle an argument!) When Claire is looking for the car her dress although still belted at that point appears to be quite figure fitted above the belt, then once she has lost the belt and is beginning to get dirty, the dress seems fuller and even the darts at the waist seem different (so it appears looser all round). My feeling is that we are seeing two or more different dresses. Is this correct?

      1. inklequeen

        That’s amazing Terry! I was already impressed at your design solution to what seemed a difficult garment to get right. Now that I know that the dress is indeed ONE dress, I’m even more impressed!
        Thanks for putting me (and a few others) right. 🙂

        1. terrydresbach

          Had to be one dress. We are pretty picky about authenticity. It not only has to LOOK right, but it has to feel right for the actors. You also HAVE to acknowledge that we now work in a high tech environment. A 3 ft. long papparazi lens might pick up the sole of an extras shoe, in between takes, something never going to be on camera, but the next thing you know there is a fat red circle on it on the page of a newspaper. You have to know that fans are going to watch an episode 10 times, in slow mo, using screen shots to examine every detail to discuss on a FB page. We no longer just design for the hour a show is going to be on a television or movie screen. It just has to be right ALL THE TIME.

  13. Tracey Walker

    I just have to comment about the shift/dress again. I was so worried about the costumes on this show. I was hoping there would be no “The Tudors” syndrome where everything was sort of prettied up and not true to the time. I am so impressed! When I saw what you did turning that white dress into something that looked like a shift, I thought “Genius” I’m part of a large group of people who make (and wear) historical dress for fun. People have differing ideas of how authentic you need to be. My bottom line has always been, “if I were to accidentally end up in a different time period, would I look authentic enough that the natives would believe I was of that era?” Of course they would believe it was a shift. The men would at least. Plus she says her family is from France. If they thought there was anything strange about it, they would just right it off as being some fancy thing from France or that the English had a new fashion. It’s not like they were reading Vogue in the Highlands in the 1840’s. They had other things to worry about.

  14. snarly

    “One has to use the book as a blueprint, not a bible.” AMEN, AMEN, AMEN.

    The best movies/miniseries respect the source material but understand that different media require different storytelling strategies. Usually one finds in adaptations that directors/producers/screenwriters aren’t reverent ENOUGH about the source material, but sometimes when they’re TOO reverent, we wind up with something slow, static, too-tightly-corseted (as it were!) and lifeless.

    After I saw the first two promos, I thought there was a good chance I’d like the show more than the books. (Unlike a lot of folks here, I am not a HUMUNGO fan of the books, though I’ve read all but the most recent…with a sense of diminishing returns and frustration.) And indeed, I have. The VISUALS — setting, costumes, landscape, cinematography — are KILLER. The MUSIC. And the pacing is much better than in the books. To me, spending the first half of the first episode with Frank (and the oral sex scene!) — SUCH a smart choice, since the books so stack the deck against Frank. And I felt that in the first episode, humor played a MUCH bigger role than it does in the books. (“Fetch me, she says!” and pretty much ALL of Mrs. Fitz’s lines and facial expressions.) SO KEY. And the costumes are just LUSCIOUS. I feel I could almost touch them thru the screen, though some look like they’d stink to high heaven.

    HELLO I AM LONGWINDED. But compliments to you and your husband.

    The shift was the precise moment I knew we were in absolutely brilliant hands, costume-wise. (And now that I’ve learned about the time constraints, casting and change-of-season challenges, holy moly.) Before I knew about this blog I actually TiVo’d back thru the scene a few times to see how the dress changed — it was gorgeous in its own right in the ’40s, but I wanted to see just what happened to it post-stones — button at the neckline gone, belt gone…did it also lose structure or stitching in the darts? Anyhoo it was a brill transformation, and answered all my “hey-wait-a-minute” headshaking from the book about the 18th c men’s response to a 1940s outfit. ANYHOW, my question: You’ve said a couple of times that you’re satisfied but will never love the dress. Why not? What do you think doesn’t work and what would you have done differently given more time?

  15. ⭐Pamela (@P_Umali)

    I know I am late in reading this post….While watching the 1st episode for the first time, I immediately thought–how brilliant to make Claire’s dress white (because I knew she had to look like she was wearing a shift when she passed through the stones)! Then she lost her belt during her fall and she tore her dress to create a dressing for Jamie and voila she’s in her shift– The white dress is perfect!

  16. Amitolanes

    Hello! Am terribly late to the party. I just wanna say I fell inlove with this particular dress when i first saw it. Beautifully designed and tailored. Thank you!

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