Outlander costume designer reflects on the show's only Emmy nod
Costume designer Terry Dresbach earned her second Emmy nomination Thursday for Outlander — but the recognition is a bit of a mixed bag. Like previous years, the addictive Starz drama was overlooked in the major categories, like lead actress (what does Caitriona Balfe have to do, TV Academy?).
We checked in with Dresbach about her latest nod and what she remembers most about designing clothes for the show's third season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on a well-deserved nomination. Are you feeling a little lonely?
TERRY DRESBACH: Yeah. I do. I do, but the Emmys work in mysterious ways, as we all know.
I have to wonder if you are getting used to the snubs, being married to Ronald D. Moore who was notoriously overlooked for Battlestar Galactica before Outlander even hit the small screen.
Trying to predict the rhyme or reason of it, you just can't go there. You take your compliments where you get them and you are grateful for them. Ron is a pro at this. Battlestar Galactica was certainly a seminal piece of television and everybody knows it but he never won anything for it. You look around and you see the company you are in when you don't win. It's okay! It's really okay. You can't go there. There's nothing to be gained.
Now you have some perspective for season 3 costumes since you just finished with season 4. How challenging was that year?
Season 3 was designed to be very, very low key. It was a transitional piece both on screen and behind the scenes because we were going to South Africa, the show was getting shifted to a different country. The maintenance of that and the challenges of shooting on the ship, and we knew season 4 was coming at us, which we knew was going to be an enormous design proposition, the way season 2 had been. We really designed season 3 to be very small and yet when it was all over, Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) had as many costumes in season 3 as she had in season 2! Most of them were in the 20th century as opposed to the grand 18th Century French costumes. But the workload is never small on Outlander. We keep thinking we are going to make a small season and we never ever do. It was as big and enormous as everything else. Season 4 is even bigger. It was a fascinating season. The thing about Outlander in terms of costume design, we did two centuries and four decades.
It seemed like you spent a lot of time on social media defending the choices you made for season 3. Was that more so than previous years?
I think so, yeah. We kind of went against the grain for a big costume show in season 3. It wasn't so much defending but trying to get people to understand what the point of costume design is, which is to serve the story. In season 2 for example where we were in Paris and they acquired all these grand, over-the-top costumes, it was always like … eh, don't get too comfortable here because the show will not always be this! So then when season 3 appeared, and Caitriona is wearing that same suit over and over again, people are like, ‘Wait! Where is our Outlander from before? Where are the grand costumes?' The story doesn't ask for that! It's an interesting show that way. Season 4 will give a completely different thing. But it's never ever gonna be predictable. No one ever questions how many costumes the lead actors have. But the actresses are expected to be a revolving door of over-the-top amazing costumes. We didn't do that in season 3, on purpose, because the story didn't ask us to.
What was great about the season was how much history we learned from you in terms of how everyone keep their clothes for years and years.
Yep. Again, you're going against what is expected historically. Back to Gone with the Wind, people always changed their clothes every time they walked on the screen. This show has always been dedicated to the idea that it's going to be historically accurate. The truth is, people just didn't have that many clothes. And what they did have, they reworked and they remade and they repaired and they patched. I just thought that was a really glorious, beautiful thing to see on camera. People repeating things over the course of 20 years. You see the darning, the patching, it's such a rich and incredible history there. I remember when I first started on the show, somebody brought in an actual 18th century coat owned by an incredibly wealthy person. When you opened up the inside, it was all patchwork because even the wealthy kept their clothes for their entire lifetime. It's a chance to look at history in a greater detail than we usually do onscreen. All these things challenge people's assumptions. When you do that, you have to expect a little blowback. And it's okay. That's the opportunity for conversation.
So what costume did you get the biggest kick out of from season 3?
I really, really loved the '60s costumes in a big way. I basically recreated my own personal wardrobe from when I was kid for Brianna. So that was fun for me. And the costumes of my mother and my mother's friend and my father. It was very personal. I was surprised by that. I grew to adore the Batsuit (Balfe's time-traveling costume, see below). I had not always adored it. As we disintegrated it on camera, it became a character onto itself.
Why didn't you adore it?
It's not the most beautiful costume in the world. it wasn't supposed to be. It was a challenge for me as a designer to design something that didn't look that great. Before we called it the Batsuit, I called it the Salvation Army costume. It's kinda drab and a little dreary and not very romantic. That's what I wanted it to be. I wanted her to look a little uptight and insecure and a woman who hadn't had a lot of sex lately. It was intentionally not made to be beautiful and then to reveal itself over time as she reconnects with Jamie, it became an incredibly romantic costume that was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And then watching it disintegrate to nothing. It's an interesting thing when a costume can challenge you as a designer.
Will we see recycled clothes from season 3 in season 4?
Yes. I'm not telling you anything else.
Click here to see the complete list of Emmy nominees.
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Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending time-travel novels come to life in the Starz series.