For a period show like Outlander, atmosphere—the look and feel of the whole production—is critical. The audience has to believe, from exterior landscape shots free of cell phone towers to the interiors lit as if by candlelight or oil lamps. Costumes serve this purpose as well, but are also strong points of characterization and storytelling. The costumes transform the actor into her fictional character, both for the actor herself and for the audience. Terry Dresbach, the brilliant costume designer on Outlander, told the New York Times, “You put on a costume to become a different person.”
Outlander has two periods to deal with, England in the 1940s and Scotland in the 1740s, and a couple of actors who move between these times. Tobias Menzies plays Frank Randall in the 1940s and Jack Randall in the 1740s. For him, the costumes help inform his transformation between the two characters. Frank is more buttoned up, wearing the soft wool trousers and tailored shirts of post-war England. Jack Randall, violent and dark and an officer in the English military, is always seen in uniform. So, for the actor, those stark delineations certainly must help inform his process. For viewers, it is an unmistakable cue which character Menzies is portraying. Dresbach says the transformation to Jack Randall started instantly in the costume fittings with Menzies: “You saw him stand up straighter, his shoulders went back and his legs planted firmly in the ground. He just became a different person before your eyes.”
Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, is the same character in both settings. For her, the bigger transformation comes when she first arrives at Castle Leoch and is dressed by Mrs. Fitz. She exchanges the 1940s white cotton dress (a costume Dresbach hates but was “born out of necessity, not design,”) for the heavy and complicated 18th century Highland garb. The dressing transformation itself earns its own sequence in Episode 102. Ronald Moore, Executive Producer and Showrunner, wrote the scene into the show just for that purpose, as he explains on the Inside the World of Outlander extras from Starz.
In Episode 114, another transformation takes place for Claire, this one again facilitated by her costume. When she and Murtagh hit the road searching for Jamie, part of their plan includes a minstrel-type show. For this, Claire dons the clothes of a traditional English man, including a tri-corner hat and pants. The pants heighten the comedic effect while also setting the world a bit askew, but also make it easier for Claire to travel quickly across great distances. The search is a desperate, last-ditch type effort with little hope of success. The ridiculousness of Claire’s stage costume helps unsettle the viewer and also demonstrate the level of Claire and Murtagh’s desperation.
Each kilt, corset, and cape are carefully constructed for utility, visual impact, and authenticity. Terry Dresbach and her wardrobe team are powerful storytellers supporting the actors in their craft and delighting audiences with their thoughtful and beautiful designs.