9 Things We Learned at “The Artistry of Outlander

TV Lists Outlander
9 Things We Learned at “The Artistry of Outlander“

As Emmy season heats up, the Starz original series Outlander laid out a strong case for its costumes and set design categories last week with the opening of the exhibition, “The Artistry of Outlander,” at The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Cast and creatives from the show, including actors Caitriona Balfe (Claire), Sam Heughan (Jamie), costume designer Terry Dresbach, production designer Jon Gary Steele and executive producers Maril Davis and Ronald D. Moore (who happens to be Dresbach’s husband), attended the exhibition preview. All were in attendance to celebrate the gorgeous costumes and elaborate sets, and to talk about recreating 18th century Parisian society for the show’s second season.

Unlike the more straightforward costume dramas or period pieces on television, Outlander blends the genres of sci-fi, romance and history, following a British nurse and World War II veteran (Balfe) as she accidentally travels back in time from the 1940s to the 1740s in Scotland and Paris. Instead of delving into a singular time period and setting, the show focuses on a multiplicity of eras and characters, which is a challenge for all those involved.

We learned several surprising facts during the walkthrough of an exhibition that includes Steele’s models, designs and life-size photography of sets, as well as a number of the dazzling costumes, including Claire’s famous “red dress,” detailed in Diana Gabaldon’s second novel Dragonfly in Amber, (on which this season is based). “Both Gary and Terry are such artists,” Balfe said during the preview. “It makes our job so much easier when you have all of that support. It takes away a lot of our job of trying to imagine ourselves in a particular place.”

1. The red dress might be a fan favorite, but both Dresbach and Balfe have an affinity for another.
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Paley Center
“This is our glory. This is the costume of the season,” Dresbach said as she stood before the gown modeled after a Dior-inspired dress. “Claire Randall—Claire Fraser—excuse me is a woman from the 1940s, and Caitriona Balfe and I worked very, very hard to retain that even through Season One. But she was given all of her clothes in Season One, and in Season Two, she actually went to a dressmaker. I looked at all of these fancy, frilly costumes and went, ‘It’s not her. I can’t do that with her. It’s not going to work.’ So I started looking to the ’40s and the most quintessential costume of the 1940s, and probably the most well-known costume ever—fashion-piece ever—is the Dior Bar Suit, which is what this is.”

“Costume-wise, I have so many favorites,” Balfe added later. “But the Dior is definitely a favorite and also the “dressage” one was beautiful.” (That’s the gown Claire wore in the king’s gardens when she and Jamie first see the return of nemesis Black Jack Randall.)


2. Dresbach’s team created a staggering number of garments this season.
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Paley Center
“We made 10,000 garments this season,” Dresbach said. “That’s everything from a hat to a gown.” She went on to explain that Balfe alone had 30 gowns in the first six episodes, and the Comte St. Germain (Stanley Weber), a supporting character, had 15 costumes. “So when you multiply those by two months [to create them], it was not the most fun period of time.” She had nothing but praise for her young, and somewhat green, team who shared her commitment to historical authenticity. “The untold story of this season is the craftsmanship,” she said, pointing to a number of the costumes that were hand-painted for the show. “We have about 10 people of a staff of 70 who’ve worked in film and television before.” They brought in theater artists, sculptors, painters and translated their skills into costume design and creation.


3. Fight scenes aren’t costume designers’ favorites.
While Claire’s gowns are generally solo creations, Dresbach’s team has to make multiple outfits for the more rough-and-tumble scenes. “We have many many meetings about [fights]. And I’m always going, ‘Can we just hit him in the head with a rock instead of stabbing them, please?!’ Every time somebody gets stabbed, every time somebody gets shot, you have to make four of those.” She says that while designers on contemporary shows might be able to go to the mall and buy five T-shirts, it’s not that simple for the Outlander team. “Well, now we have to make five 18th century waistcoats,” she added. “So it’s taken a couple of years for everyone to get tired of me going, ‘You know what, that’s five more costumes, you better be sure. Don’t change your minds.”


4. Dresbach designs a lot of shoes.
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Paley Center
“I love 18th century shoes. They’re very sexy,” Dresbach said. One reporter asked about a pair of Jamie’s leather boots on display, which wouldn’t seem too out of place today. Always keen on historical accuracy, Dresbach noted, “That’s actually from a painting I found at The Met.”


5. Master Raymond’s coat tells a story.
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Paley Center
“At the end of the day we’re storytellers,” Dresbach said of her craft. She then showed off the exquisite embroidery found on the coat of apothecary Master Raymond (Dominique Piñon). “It’s a bit of a billboard, signage for what he does,” Dresbach said, pointing out monsters on the frock that represented various diseases. “We have a team of six [embroiders], kids who are out of art school, who are technologically adept enough to figure out how to take 18th century embroidery, translate it into drawings, put it into digital embroidery machines and have the embroidery come out the other side,” she said. “These are kids who have never embroidered before, ever. And to me, that’s the most fantastic aspect of Season Two.”


6. The one-of-a-kind Star Chamber
Photo Credit: Getty Images for Paley Center
Steele doesn’t mince words when choosing his Outlander set pièce de résistance: The Star Chamber in King Louis XV’s (Lionel Lingelser) palace is clearly his favorite. The walls and floors are decorated with symbols from alchemy, sacred geometry and astronomy. “It’s a mystical, magical room, [a] secret room in Versailles Palace, in our mind, anyway,” he said. “And I wanted to have a dome that’s pierced with light, so that when Claire walks through the secret doors into this room, shafts of light hit up her face and dress.” It’s in the Star Chamber that Claire helps the king judge Master Raymond’s and the Comte’s fate. “I spent a little bit of money on this one,” Steele noted. “This was my baby. It was special, but it needed to be special.” Balfe added in agreement, “The Star Chamber was amazing, and we used it for one scene. It was a very long scene, but one scene, which was insane. It was so beautiful.”


7. Sam Heughan has a love/hate/love relationship with the brothel.
Photo Credit: Christine Ziemba
“Set-wise, the brothel is incredible,” Heughan told us during the exhibition. “I actually grew to hate the brothel, because—it’s magnificent—however we were shooting there in the studio in the summer, and actually for the first time in Scotland, it was hot. And we were boiling.

“But it’s just so sumptuous. I love the mannequins on the wall, the screens that you kind of see people behind the wall, but you kind of don’t. It’s very sexy and very mysterious. It feels luxurious, but it’s a very scary place as well. Things happen in that brothel that are quite terrifying. All of Gary’s sets are incredible.”


8. On reds and other colors
Photo Credit: Starz
Like most television shows, Outlander’s designers and artisans make conscious choices about color palettes, but sometimes showrunner Moore makes decisions for them. “The first season, we could not use red because of the Redcoats. Ron only wanted red to be used for the Redcoats,” Steele said. “This year, we were kind of told that the ‘red dress’ is kind of the new Redcoat—so no red. Steele said he was able to incorporate blues and golds and other colors to convey the decadence of the 18th century, marking a complete contrast to the grays and browns of Scotland in season one. He joked that the set painters used the same colors so much last season that they affectionately dubbed a hue, “brownlander.”


9. Reusing and recycling sets.
Photo Credit: Starz
With the exception of the Star Chamber, most of the sets on Outlander get reused. This season, the Frasers’ dining room in Paris also doubled as the couple’s bedroom. Now that the show has gotten picked up for Seasons Three and Four by Starz, Steele is already looking ahead. [Stop now to avoid a small spoiler.]

“The Paris apartment is being stripped of all the mouldings. It going to be rejigged and turned, and we’ll use the courtyard and everything else, and it will be turned into the Boston apartment for next season.”

Outlander’s second season currently airs Saturday nights on Starz. The Artistry of Outlander is on view at the Paley Center through August 14. Admission is free.

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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