Outlander isn’t an easy show to describe to the uninitiated. It blends elements such as adventure, romance, action, and time travel. The setting varies and the tone shifts, but I’ve found one word that thoroughly captures Starz’s adaptation of the books by Diana Gabaldon: rich. The series is rich, resplendent in its story, characters, settings, and costumes. Outlander is a show all about details. The attention paid to the smallest set decoration and stitch makes each episode so immersive. And that’s exactly what is being celebrated at a new Paley Center exhibit: The Artistry of Outlander.
Costumes worn by Caitriona Balfe’s and Sam Heughan’s characters look over the streets of Beverly Hills. Designed by Terry Dresbach, the ensembles are showstoppers. Nerdist attended a preview of the free-to-the-public exhibit celebrating the show’s costumes and production design. Upon arriving, I made a beeline to Claire’s infamous red dress, on display near one of the outward facing windows. It’s one of the signature dresses from the book, and it made quite the impression in season two of the series. You can get up close and personal with the red dress and many other costumes in the exhibit, along with models of the sets. Outlander spent the first half of the season in Paris, and the locale presented opportunities and challenges for Dresbach and series production designer Jon Gary Steele.
During a panel after the exhibit preview, Dresbach and Steele revealed they’ve been wanting to tackle 18th century Paris for practically their entire careers. In fact, they longed to specifically work on Outlander. “Gary and I have been planning to do this show for about 25 years,” Dresbach said. She joked that she had to marry somebody (Outlander executive producer Ronald D. Moore) to make it happen, “It was all to get to Outlander.” Dresbach introduced Steele to Gabaldon’s book in the early ’90s, and they’ve been dreaming about it since. The reality of creating sets and costumes was perhaps more stressful than they imagined when they fantasized about the idea, but they both seem like practical people, so maybe not. Dresbach did say she kept warning everyone about season two in the midst of season one. “Season two is coming. Winter is coming,” she told the crew.
The sets in 18th century France were so opulent and vivid, you’d think they were shot on location. That wasn’t the case. Most sets were built in a stage—including Claire and Jamie’s apartment, Master Raymond’s apothecary, and King Louis’ star chamber. They shot some exteriors in Prague, but for the most part, Steele got to dream the world into creation. “As designers, we want to build. It’s all from the ground-up. You create the whole thing. You control the color, the floor, the walls, the ceiling. That is so much more fun. It’s on stage, so it’s better in many ways for all of production,” Steele said.
Costumes weren’t readily available either. Not by a long shot. People told Dresbach about the first season and the second, “Oh, you’ll rent it all.” It wasn’t an option for 18th century Scotland apparel, and it definitely wasn’t an option for the French court. A staggering amount of work went into creating the wardrobe for the Paris scenes. Dresbach’s crew grew from eight people at the beginning of season one to 70 people for season two.
To produce all the intensely detailed and extravagant costumes for the Paris half of the season, Dresbach and her team had to employ new methods. “There’s no period of history that’s more detailed, and we’d set the bar pretty high—we were going to be so accurate,” Dresbach said. She continued, “I have a pretty green team. Out of a team of 70, only about 10 of them have worked in film or television before. You have kids out of art school, and you’re going, ‘Here’s an embroidery machine. Let’s see if we can figure out how to make French embroidery.’ There’s no store, even in London or Paris that sells French embroidery. You have kids who have sculpture degrees that are now figuring out how to digitize actual French designs and turn them into the costumes.”
That’s really what season two was about: overcoming obstacles and being resourceful. “The story of season two is this kind of craftsmanship. This kind of detail from people that have never done it before is the most amazing thing,” Dresbach said. And she gave examples of a few hurdles they had to get past. “We ran out of embroiderers and embroidery machines and had to start looking at other techinques. That, again, is the story, is this constant discover of new processes. So, we started painting fabrics.”
You can see both the embroidered and hand-painted garments at the The Artistry of Outlander exhibit. It’s open until August 14 at the Paley Center; admission is free. Get more details at the Paley Center website. Don’t forget to visit the gallery below to see more shots from the exhibit.
Will you be visiting the exhibit? Do you have a favorite Outlander costume? Talk to me in the comments.
Images: Amy Ratcliffe