Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

Modern History




There is an ongoing discussion about historically accurate Costume Design onscreen and what audience taste is for history. It is VERY interesting to reflect on having just finished doing the French Court for television after creating 18th century Scotland for Season One.


There is a reason that until just very recently there were not a lot of period pieces on television, with the exceptions of very small and contained BBC Dramas. It is an enormous endeavour and something that American studios and networks had no real experience with.

Hollywood is a town driven by fear. Fear of risk, ultimately. And doing giant period pieces is most definitely a risk.

Somehow, and I would love to know how, the period door was opened by Rome, (famously a complete production nightmare) followed by The Tudors, The Borgias and then nailed open by Game Of Thrones.

It is a logistical nightmare that television is just not set up to do.


First of all, there is just the time element. Look at it this way, making an hour long tv drama, is like making half of a movie once every week to ten days. It is GRUELING. Even with a contemporary setting, it is an experience of full on adrenaline pumping maniacal running from the tsunami of getting it done in time. In a contemporary setting, often a hospital or a courtroom, you rarely have more than 50 extras at a time, and even if you do, they bring their own clothes! Each one shows up with three choices and your team chooses the best option.

Period dramas often have scenes with hundreds of extras at a time, none of whom can bring different options for period clothing, in your palette, consistent in both construction and quality, week after week, month after month.The rental houses don’t have them either. They have some, but not hundreds and hundreds, designed for your show. They MIGHT have enough for a 2 hr movie, but not enough for a 13-20 hour television show.

Secondly, Hollywood is not only fear based, it is deaf. One might assume that studio and networks understand HOW shows are made and what challenges are faced in producing them. They do not. Oh, how they do not. The producers directly on the show usually do not know how a costume department works. Not even in the most general sense. Maybe a producer, usually male, is married to a costume designer, usually female, and if that is the case you have a bit more of a chance. She has a chance to talk to him into the wee hours about the challenges.

So you have to figure out how to MAKE hundreds and hundreds of costumes. This is something television is completely unprepared for. It is just not part of the system. Everything in TV is done at the last minute on incredibly tight time budgets. While you are shooting one episode, you are simultaneously prepping the next episodes.

Are there stunt doubles, riding doubles, does someone spill wine on their costume, is there something torn, how many extras shooting how far away from dressing rooms, we need 50 costumers for how many days???? It is a logistical nightmare, and every costume has to be made. In a drama there is a lot of stunt work, blood and wine spilling, so costumes have to be made in multiples of three, it is staggering how much has to be done.

Every episode, episode after episode, year after year.

You as the costume designer, now have to get the money, and even more importantly, the time to create hundreds and hundreds of costumes, NOT INCLUDING the costumes for the principal cast, which will have to be of a better quality. (Even principal costumes are purchased on a contemporary show) There is NO WAY the most expensive tv show on air, could afford to dress hundreds of extras in the kind of quality you would dress principals, it would be millions of dollars.

You not only need all the fabric, hundreds of thousands of buttons and trims, but you need the people to make all of those costumes and the infrastructure to make it all. You need to dye and age the costumes so they will look authentic. You need the shoes and gloves, hats, all the period accessories and you have to make it ALL. It is just a massive undertaking.

It is an undertaking that once proposed, will be met by those who are handing out time and money, with complete disbelief. “just go rent it all”. And there you are back at the beginning. But let’s say they do believe you, you still need the time, money, crew and the sheer organization to essentially, build your own costume house. This is just not going to happen 9 times out of 10, and the costume department has to make it up however they can, cobbling things together as they go. It will be complete headache that is going to last for years.

Better to make a contemporary show.

Or, you find another way around the mountain.

Maybe in a focus group, some 18 year old boys said, “History is boring”, “Their clothes look funny”, maybe some 40 year olds said it. It only takes a few to strike fear in the heart of a studio. To be fair, we are talking about millions and millions of dollars that are going down the drain if there are no butts in the seats or on the couch. And the bottom line is that Transformers or the latest super hero movie, is going to put waaaaay more butts in the seats than the latest rendition of Jane Austen. For no reason, perhaps than more 18 year olds go to the movies than 50 year olds. In the end, the film business is indeed, a business.

So you have now added that fear of financial disaster to the logistical nightmare.

“What if you make it look more modern? Make them look like us? Change the weird hair and makeup first of all, and can’t you do something to make the clothes look more like something our audience would wear??”

You have to be willing to fight tooth and nail against that, and be willing to risk your job to do that. Not likely most Designers are going down that path. It is actually the way we make our living and pay our mortages and bills with. How many walk away from employment for a creative principle, so that they can embark on a near impossible and incredibly costly endeavor. One they may have never done before, and can’t actually prove is doable.

So you end up making history look modern. Everyone is in leather, or the latest runway fashion is tweaked into an interpretation of history. Eventually it becomes the norm, and then becomes a source of creative pride for directors and producers, who put out brave statements to the press about how incredibly creative and innovatively they are choosing to interpret history.

It becomes a paradigm shift. The choice to make something that is historically accurate become a radical creative decision.

At it’s heart is a tangled ball of reasons. Money, time, logistics, public opinion, which is the original thread? Hard to tell at the end of the day.

I understand that shift better on the other side of 18th century Paris. It was a staggering undertaking, one only made possible by being the costume designer married to the executive producer. And a singularly confident executive producer who has enough self confidence to trust his own choice of costume designer, production designer, etc. One who has the faith to take the gamble that you are right about what you THINK you might be able to pull off.

There were definitely days, when I wished my executive producer might have had a little less confidence and belief in our ability, so that I could just take back my theory and go to the mall.

But we did it. We pulled it off.

I am not going to reveal how until the show airs. But it is a fascinating process. Maybe we will call this Part 1 of a multi part series.

39 thoughts on “Modern History

  1. traceymfs

    I am as always in awe of not only the standard and accuracy of your work, but how you manage the sheer amount of it. It is such a monumental task that you would I am sure all be excused for getting up and running away. Only being Outlander it has a far greater reach than any other show I have ever heard of, and in little ways as well as the bigger picture. So what you do has amazing repercussions that will last way into the future. The authenticity of your costuming is awe inspiring alone. The lengths you and your team go to to get it are just gobsmackingly incredible. Your insights into this process have made it all the more accessible and as part of an audience I appreciate knowing the how and why and the stories behind the clothes. It is what brings me back to further viewings. Maybe Hollywood will start very slowly I’m sure but start to be a little more generous in it’s response to period drama. Maybe there will be an ongoing grass roots overtaking of those fear issues. Maybe I am just a silly optimist. Whatever. Thank you Terry and Ron for being the brave and courageous people you are, and for bringing to life an epic series of books that could only be done with an epic tv series. Dare I say, may we have many seasons more. Outlanders do epic shit!

    1. annalapping

      Well said, Terry! After seeing your wonderful, authentic costumes for Season 1, I now compare every other period show I watch, and invariably say, “Terry would never do that”>

    2. lesliesusanne

      The rest of the Film Industry will be embarrassed to create costumes now that your standard has been recognized — Here, Here!! Or should I say, “Huzza!”, for your great work toward the authentication of an era!

  2. Katrina

    Great blog. It is always interesting to hear how it all works. That is doesn’t come easy and you’re all working against the odds. Thanks for sharing. That you have managed to pull it off is incredible. Perhaps your next favourite book will have characters in jeans and t-shirts lol.

  3. Hi Terry
    Once again you make me want to reach out & give you a big hug & put my hand up to help (yeah yeah, I know the rules). You amaze me constantly with your resilience & doggone stubbornness & bravado to face what to most would seem an unsurmountable challenge. You & your team are simply amazing & we shall continue to support you all in what you do.

    Thank you again for your continued interaction with the costume junkies & your time that you give us. We sure do appreciate everything that you do.


    p.s no. 2 on my bucket list is to meet you one day.

  4. Purl99

    Great post Terry and lets see: FEAR in Hollywerid, yes I call it that. Interesting I never looked at it that way but it makes total sense to me. I guess aside from a few films that hit the mark most are trash that are produced. When the bottom line is about money (I do get that) the results will always be less than stellar.
    Your work is brilliant and I am so anxious to see Season #2.

  5. claireokc

    You are so right on. I’m appalled at how little film-makers, videographers and the like realize the time for clothing. I’ve been asked to do clothing in only the time it would take me to travel to the shoot, and when I explain I can’t my body to your location in the time you need it, they look at me as if I’ve just spoken Greek. Huh?!!

    I think it comes from the unrealistic view of clothing: if a blouse costs $4.98 at the mall, it can’t possibly take more than an hour to make – if that, cause if it took more time it would costs more money and then you get into the whole fast/cheap fashion-slow/quality fashion thing. Then that takes you to the same misinterpretation, misunderstanding and certain misconception about clothing but how it’s made.

    1. autumnpearl

      Fashion Revolution did a great demonstration last year in Berlin (http://www.psfk.com/2015/05/t-shirt-vending-machine-cheap-fashion-fashion-revolution.html) to educate consumers on the real costs of producing clothing cheaply and quickly. It’s too bad they didn’t bring it to the States as I see more of a problem with that mentality here than in Europe. As someone who has been employed in the fashion industry my whole career (footwear materials), it’s a daily battle. Our brands are constantly looking for cheaper materials to hit artificially imposed margins with fastest turn around possible. Meanwhile shoppers are getting fed up with the poor quality of products on the market and are looking for things that will last, even if it means paying more and owning less. But upper management just won’t believe it. Nor will they look to other ways of bringing costs down, like reducing waste and organizational inefficiency. So the constant downward pressure remains.

      On the other hand, the beautiful materials and use of local craftspeople are what brought me to Outlander. It’s like a bright ray of sunshine in the business world of film and fashion. Terry is doing a wonderful thing and I hope it continues for a long time and promotes change in the rest of the industry.

      1. claireokc

        I totally agree about the quality of costumes in Outlander. I came for the story, but was bowled over by the costumes. I love the fact that this production uses so much craftsmanship and keeps it local. I try and do the same in my neck of the woods and work for folks who love to do that as well. I sorely miss craftsmanship in fashion, clothing as well as other areas of life. I would hope that a return to not only an understanding and appreciation of well-made items (including garments) would make a return, even if it does come through an economic channel. However it comes, I’m not picky!

  6. JuliaTowers

    Yes. I always wondered how we got movies like Camelot and shows like Reign where the costumes are horrendous. They were even pretty terrible in The Other Boleyn Girl in that they weren’t historically accurate at all! I love, and watch over and over, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess, and Marie Antoinette, but only the last, I believe is American made. Perhaps at the root of this is the American obsession with newness, modernity, and capitalism. We don’t value tradition, quality, or lessons learned from history. In the same way the Europeans savor a nice long meal or age a fine wine, or lavish in long conversation, we want what is fast and cheap, and convenient so we can have more…always more perhaps this will be our undoing….Thank you for your time, attention to detail, and uncompromising loyalty to books we love so much. The show will endure where many have not exactly because of the blood sweat and tears that are being shed in painstakingly recreating what was with what might have been for our viewing pleasure. Xx

  7. jennmc725

    Please don’t stop! The costumes for Outlander make my heart sing! Reading a book is a beautiful thing because your imagination fills in the gaps, but to see the whole Outlander universe come to life on screen….well, it’s a visual feast. My own Technicolor dreamcoat. Love. Love. Love.

  8. SueBriody

    This was my first thought while viewing Outlander for the very first time….how in the world could the costume department get all of it so right….for the first episode? Even the simple, white “shift” Claire wore for much of the episode in various perfectly coifed, to soiled, ripped and torn conditions were consistent scene to scene. There had to be at least 10 of just those! I watch all 16 episodes over and over again, just for the lovely historic details of everything, the clothing for sure, but the sets, the structures, housewares (that gorgeous Jacobite stemware!!), artifacts, the food, even the animals! It’s the complete immersion, as if “I’ve fallen through time” right along with Claire! Diana must be thrilled with all you’ve done to follow through on the successful immersion her readers experience with all of her books, the quest for detail so intense.

    1. MeiLing

      After reading your thoughts and observations on how the screen industry has responded to what it believed its perceived market was in past years, I think that was has happened is that they’ve inadvertently tapped into a market that they never thought they could grab. To me, it is clear that the best and the brightest in the film industry are now creating for the premium cable channels and the internet entertainment providers. It is rather undeniable that the best work is occurring there. That coupled with the ability to watch your shows on your own schedule, in the comfort of your own home, at a reasonable price (monthly subscription to a premium channel is currently about the same price as a night out to a movie for one individual) has drawn in the 35+ market that was heretofore unreachable. For those of us who truly appreciate great film work, these are grand times!

  9. JanieG

    Terry, your writing is enthralling. I find myself glued to your words. Before I complain about my job, which is not nearly as hectic, frazzling, stressful as yours for sure, I will take a sec to remember there are those who have it a lot harder and frustrating than mine.

    Will you be doing any podcasts with Ron. I love it when you do and love how you explain the costuming. I fins myself watching the extras in any period piece, I am fascinated by all the costumes worn.

    Thank you for taking time out of your busy, busy days and nights to share with us, much appreciated!!

    1. MeiLing

      My job may not be nearly as stressful as Terry’s, but it certainly isn’t as fulfilling as I’m sure hers is! The creative accomplishment to be the designer of such grand costuming has got to be totally breathtaking and amazing! The costuming rocks!

  10. auntiemame

    Very interesting, Terry. I just wish our 18 year olds loved history and Hollywood suits would appreciate older viewers. If so, they might make the time and money available for costuming historical dramas that teach as well as entertain. I, for one, watch more BBC movies and TV series than American programs simply because they give me such a complete picture of an era’s clothing, architecture, and manners. You have done a stellar job with Outlander costuming, and your connection with fans through your blog and tweets make all of us appreciate your talents, your knowledge of the entertainment system, and the process of putting together an entire season. I have also enjoyed your personal comments on the inequality of women in the industry, your position on guns in our society, and the glimpses into your life in Scotland as you work on the show. I think you and I would be great friends if we knew each other.

    1. MeiLing

      I don’t know if it is the market or those who hold the purse strings. When I was 16, I was totally taken by a period piece mini-series, that was based off a John Jakes’ mini-series. I don’t know if I ever watched any piece of screen work and thought of the costuming as something I wanted to buy for myself; so I really don’t understand why Hollywood felt that the costuming needed to be marketable. Certainly, certain periods influence individual style, but to think that it would influence one to buy something off a rack??? And how did Hollywood ever conceive that such a thought process would put dollars into their pockets?? I just don’t get their train of though!

  11. Cynthia Crane

    Terry, you said on Twitter yesterday that you do not do what you do for “recognition”. Well, be that as it may, your art and your work ethic and indeed your generosity in sharing it on social media is most definitely recognized, and admired, and appreciated. Perhaps not enough sometimes by the powers that be in Hollywood, but certainly by the millions of fans worldwide who have been drawn in by the gift that is Outlander. We are all extremely grateful to you for infusing the costumes of the series with your gift of creativity and integrity which our beloved Outlander books deserve. The TV series is indeed a gift, and like the books, will be a gift that keeps on giving as no doubt the series will live on and be enjoyed for years and years to come. As with Gone With the Wind, my grandchildren and their children, and so on will be enjoying and talking about the series. As one who very narrowly prefers to watch, and read, mostly only period pieces, it is disappointing albeit enlightening to learn of the difficulties behind bringing them to screen. No doubt viewership in the series will continue to grow and fill even more seats, thus proving to those execs holding the purse strings that this is indeed a worthwhile investment.

  12. hotscot

    This is all fascinating information- I was totally clueless about the entire process. But, you know Terry, that you stepped up the game- now we expect more from these period dramas. You’ve enlightened me and I now view everything with a critical eye. I wasn’t checking buttons and shoes & embellishments before, now I am. I’m a much more educated viewer thanks to you and you wonderful critical eye to detail.

  13. Jan

    Thank you Terry for sharing this with us. I find your blog post so exciting and informative! I love having a better understanding of the behind the scenes process; with all it’s trails and tribulations. When I go to watch the next season, it will make for a much richer and more appreciative experience.

  14. criemer

    I just want to thank you for sharing the backstory of your work process. I really enjoy reading your posts and have learned a lot. Your designs are amazing and we are so lucky to have you working on Outlander.

  15. dennasus

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain the whole dynamics about so many decisions about film/TV making. I think, us viewers, sometimes forget that it IS a business, first and foremost and that money plays such a huge part in it. And that studio / network executives are basing their decisions much more on monetary / business reasons than we fans / viewers might (want to) realize or care about. I’m really grateful that you took the time to write this post and I’m even more grateful that you and even more so Ron were willing to take on this huge project and to do it the way you are doing it! And to fight for being able to do it the way you are doing it. It’s so wonderful to see my favourite book in the capable hands of Ron and you and everyone else, who love this story as much as I do and who want to do justice to the story and the characters and the era they lived in. THANK YOU!

  16. gigiarr10

    Thank you, Terry, for another extremely interesting and informative post. I always get a little thrill when I see your name in my inbox. I think to myself, “What’s she going to tell us about today?!” Thanks again!!

  17. mandywhelan96

    I’m once again blown away by everything you’ve managed to do (and your team of course). Thank goodness you are married to the executive producer who is so supportive! I fully expect I’ll be watch S2 Paris episodes many many times to fully appreciate EVERYTHING that is going into them. Can’t wait but I will. Maybe I’ll sit down and watch my part II on S1 DVDs that arrived last week….

  18. saraelizabeth

    I have to admit that before your blog I never knew a thing about costumes. Like most people…it just never occurred to me! But falling in love with the story of Outlander and marvelling at the costumes lead me here and for that I am grateful. I have learned so much about the process AND historical accuracy. I wish I knew more about what is period appropriate, but I do not. I am trying to learn as I watch and it is difficult when you are an art lover but not very artistic yourself. You just (like most) assume they magically appear.

    I love your dedication to your craft. I do like other shows that use contemporary designs set in the past (like Reign) because I find it interesting to examine what pieces they use and trying to understand why. HOWEVER as a show it completely lacks the stylistic impact of Outlander (IMO). Not just because I find it more interesting than what character sleeps with what character this week…..but I want to live in the world of Outlander. The show transports me in ways other period pieces do not. Even before I landed here and became a “Terry-ite” (“Dresbach-ian”!?) I could tell that the world of Outlander was something special, different.

    Part of me is glad I haven’t read the books so each episode is a surprise and part of me wishes I’d discovered them long ago so I could’ve immersed myself in this universe sooner.

    Please never forget how grateful we all are for your hard work (and your whole team (obviously!))!


  19. kathleenlynagh

    A wonderful post. A true view of a designers life in a non-designer’s world.

    Wether you are designing and producing costumes or custom jewelry as I do, the complexities of the design world is only understood by those immersed in the process (and the ones who live with them)

    thank goodness we love what we do.

    When you listed the shows, Rome The Tudors, The Borgias and then Game Of Thrones I had my ahhaaa moment. The airing of Rome was when my husband and I started watching TV again. We continued with your list and now he watches your show. All of them were carefully crafted and created by talented hard working people like yourselves. Send my compliments to your crew and thank you to you and your husband for the vision to see it thru. KLH

    I haven’t even read the books.

  20. lmarkum

    Terry, thank you for the insight into the process of what you do. Reading this, I began to see the high-wire act you perform every day in the production of this show and how difficult it is to stay true to your vision and the authenticity of the work. At the end I actually had goosebumps! I cannot wait to read more, and to see what you have done on screen. So grateful that you chose to take this project. I cannot imagine it in anyone else’s hands. x

  21. rphelan

    Dear Terry, your work amazes me. Your creativity , color choices and designs give Outlander an incredible sense of reality. Reading your blog makes me appreciate the immensity of this job. I think it is the reality and details of the costuming that carries viewers out of the present and sends us all back in time to experience the joys, fears, and trials of all the characters. This week someone posted a photo of Jaimie lying in the bed apparently getting ready to have the bones set in his broken hand, Ep 116 To Ransom A Man’s Soul. This particular shot showed the film crew surrounding the bed. Perhaps because the shot was surrounded by modern equipment and crew I noticed the blanket on the bed for the first time. I remember thinking about how you insist on historic accuracy and was truly admiring the detail of the blanket stitch edging on the blanket. That simple hand-seamed edge would typically be found in a monastery rather than a fancier finished edge. I admit I did not notice the blanket so much while watching the show originally, but in retrospect realize that it was a brilliant choice both in color and construction to support and carry the viewer through that scene.
    Thank you Terry, for daring to insist on quality in the details. Those tiny details all add up to “Epic Shit” as only you can do.

  22. peggyvanslp

    Another fascinating and informative post. At the end of the production and everything is in the can, so to speak, are you able to just sit back and enjoy the episodes? Do you find yourself getting lost in the story, leaving behind your critiquing eye? Now that fans have a better appreciation of the work, dedication, and principled thinking behind the scenes, we find ourselves watching for details when re-watching the show. For me, though, the real proof in the production pudding is when the 50 minutes has started and ended without realizing time has passed. That is immersion in a story and the result of persuading me that I have a window to the past. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!!

  23. Katiscotch22

    Oh my goodness Terry it sounds like you have had an incredibly busy and frustrating time creating 18th Century Paris. Not being in your shoes I simply can’t imagine what your days were like but from the little we have seen it looks like you have done, as always the impossible and created totally authentic costumes. Thank God Ron is on your side and you haven’t had to battle the “powers that be alone”. I’m totally psyched to see the finished result. I want to see your costumes as much as I want to see the continuing story of Jamie & Claire. Thanks for sharing with us the “how” of what goes into making your creations but most of all I love your passion for getting it right!

  24. sheliadene

    Yes, Terry…all of the above! I enjoy your posts. You make the whole process of bringing our beloved Outlander to life. Please don’t, lose your mind from all the stress. And, I am so glad you and Ron love each other madly…

  25. MeiLing

    After reading your thoughts and observations on how the screen industry has responded to what it believed its perceived market was in past years, I think that was has happened is that they’ve inadvertently tapped into a market that they never thought they could grab. To me, it is clear that the best and the brightest in the film industry are now creating for the premium cable channels and the internet entertainment providers. It is rather undeniable that the best work is occurring there. That coupled with the ability to watch your shows on your own schedule, in the comfort of your own home, at a reasonable price (monthly subscription to a premium channel is currently about the same price as a night out to a movie for one individual) has drawn in the 35+ market that was heretofore unreachable. For those of us who truly appreciate great film work, these are grand times!

    1. auntiemame

      I don’t know about the 35 + market, but when you look at the demographics and realize that we are an aging population (14.1% now, doubled by 2050) of 43/44 million, most of whom are retired, there is certainly a market for good entertainment like Outlander. The other point I think TV executives miss is that more women than men read novels and watch evening television shows. I think I’m pretty average demographically, and I watch anything that has period costumes or some element of history about it, such as Vikings, Black Sails, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Hell on Wheels, Poldark, and anything the BBC does in mystery. I used to watch A & E for bible history, ancient battles, ancient weaponry, arts features such as ballet, artists, archaeology, but they changed to more masculine programming such as The First 48, and the History Channel now spends way too much time with Pawn Stars. It was refreshing to see them air the BBC production, The Last Kingdom. . .a great show based on a great novel by another of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell. Yes, Terry, I do hope STARZ will see that Outlander is a success and continue the series for many more seasons.

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