Who could forget Claire's stunning red dress from Season 2 of Outlander? What a knockout! By comparison, the blue riding habit she wore throughout much of Season 3 was downright drab. Which is why costume designer (and previous Emmy winner) Terry Dresbach was shocked by her Emmy nomination this year.
"I told everybody on my team that we'd never get a nomination this season," she Dresbach tells SYFY WIRE. "Season 2 was a feast for the eyes, and I knew in Season 3 all of that was going away, and the audience would go through one hell of a letdown."
Well, there might have been some disappointment for those who watch Outlander mainly for the fashion, as if it starred an 18th Century Carrie Bradshaw. "I watched Sex and the City like everybody else, and the clothes were so much fun," Dresbach noted. "But we can't do that. If Claire is on a ship, and every few minutes she has a new outfit, you'd be, 'Where is she getting that from? Is there a store down there?'"
But Claire's riding suit isn't just a suit. By its very nature — weather-proofed, utilitarian — it's actually an integral part of the story, down to its mismatched buttons and uneven hem. Which is to say, it's exactly the kind of suit a 20th Century woman with little experience in sewing might make in an attempt to fit in in the 18th Century. So the costume's design tells us a lot about the exigencies of time travel. In Voyager, the Diana Gabaldon book on which the third season is based, Claire buys a dress for her trip to the 18th Century. "It's a sort of Renaissance Faire-style dress," Dresbach says, "like the Gunne Sax dresses [designed by Jessica McClintock] in the 1960s and 1970s."
But what worked on the page wasn't going to work on television. Dresbach showed the writers and producers (including her husband, showrunner Ron D. Moore) what those dresses look like, and pointed out how problematic they would be. "I said, 'Tell me how she wouldn't be thrown into a whorehouse or an insane asylum or stoned to death?'" Like Claire's dress in the show's first episode, a dress like this would be mistaken for a shift. And given that those dresses were made out of lightweight cotton, without much volume to them, they wouldn't provide any protection against Scottish weather.
"She'll be soaked," Dresbach pointed out. "She'll freeze to death. She'll die of hypothermia." So then the question became, why would Claire — a smart, capable woman who already had the same problems on her first trip to the 18th Century — make the same mistake twice? Dresbach decided she wouldn't. "So she has to figure out how to time-travel in a way that makes her inconspicuous."
But Claire didn't have a lot of options. There were no shops around selling 18th Century clothing. And she couldn't hire someone to make her a cosplay costume. "It was like torture trying to figure this out," Dresbach says. "And the only believable solution that I could come up with was that she would make this suit herself."
This, of course, presented "a new ball of yarn to untangle," Dresbach says. First, does Claire even know how to sew? In all the scenes we've seen her in, she's demonstrated no talent in this area. But she has worn 18th Century clothing, and she has been in rooms where people were making 18th Century clothing. So Dresbach figured Claire could learn.
"You put yourself into the head of the character," Dresbach says. "So playing Claire, I did some research. And in an 18th Century encyclopedia, I found a pattern for a suit. So that book is on the table where she's sitting, and that is the suit she is making."
Dresbach related to Claire's predicament because she doesn't know how to sew either. "People always find this crazy," she says, laughing. "I can design, but I can't sew. The last time I made a garment, it opened up while I was walking down the street, completely down one side. But I'm around sewing. I know it. I see it. And I could make that suit… very badly. Which is what Claire does."
Look closely at Claire's suit, and you see the planned imperfections. The hem is crooked. The seams are wobbly. The sleeves are uneven. The cuffs are of different lengths. On the other hand, the suit is made of raincoats, so it's waterproof. And Dresbach has built in secret pockets in which to hide 20th Century items. And, most helpfully, perhaps, there are multiple layers. "If it's a hot day, she could go down to a blouse and skirt," Dresbach says. "And if the wind blows up, she could put the waistcoat back on, and the coat, and ultimately even the cape, if she wanted to." (The cape was one of the few items Claire could purchase before departure since they were in vogue in the 1960s.)
But then, as Claire wears the suit (which the production team had nicknamed the Batsuit) it begins to disintegrate and unravel. Over the course of her travels, she repurposes its parts as necessary – even wearing the shirt as a headscarf at one point. And as she does this, the suit becomes more and more … romantic. (Yes! Think Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen). "There's not an ounce of glamour to Claire's suit to start with," Dresbach says. "But I knew that it would get glamorous down the road. When you see her on the ship, with the belted blouse and a skirt, it's like the most romantic costume on Earth."
And that, too, is by design. When Claire creates the suit, she's been in a loveless marriage with her 20th Century husband Frank and is hoping to reunite with her 18th Century husband Jamie. "She's unsure and uncertain," Dresbach says. "And so the costume is supposed to look bad in every possible way because she's lost part of herself. She doesn't know if Jamie will be there, or if he's remarried." And so once she finds him, and they rekindle their love, the outfit loosens up, very much as Claire herself does.
It took a very drab journey to get to that point, but Dresbach thinks it was worth it. "It was a risky move," she says. "But it can't be all about the 'wow' factor."
A selection of Outlander costumes is on display now at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.