Managing 100,000 Buttons Without Going Mad: Designing “Outlander’s” 18th-Century Paris

In recreating Parisian baroque, Outlander’s costume and production designers discuss how they marry historical accuracy and whimsy.

They’ll always have Paris.


Costume designer Terry Dresbach and production designer Jon Gary Steele have been BFFs for nearly 30 years, dreaming one day of re-creating 18th-century Paris.

Terry Dresbach[Photo: Susan Karlin]

They finally had their chance in the second season of Starz’s Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novels, the time traveling historical romantic fantasy follows a married World War II-era nurse magically transported to 1743 Scotland, where she falls for a Highland warrior. With the show picked up for another two seasons and returning next year, select costumes, production photos, and set models recently exhibited as The Artistry of Outlander at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

Luckily, the pair got their wish later in their careers, as the sheer volume and detail would have shattered the unseasoned.


“We decided we wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible, but then we kind of regretted that decision when got to Paris,” laughs Dresbach, “because that is a highly documented, well-known period.”

“We knew we needed time, because of so much detail—it’s the opposite of Scotland, which was stone and timber,” adds Steele. “We started on Paris and had all of the models approved before we left season one. Terry’s in my office all the time, so we’d talk about everything as it was getting planned.”

Costuming the Masses

The first season of Outlander—which already had the costume department churning out thousands of Scottish Highland outfits—was barely underway when Dresbach began heralding the Paris shmatapocalypse.


“I’m jumping up and down like a crazy woman going, ‘Season two is coming!’—you know, ‘Winter is coming!’—and the production folks are saying, ‘We’re shooting season one. Can you please shut up and go away about season two?’ she says. “We have to create Paris and the Court of Louis XV and finally—thank God I’m married to the showrunner [Ron Moore]—we were allowed to start preparing a year ahead of shooting. That kind of time can yield incredible stuff.”

Still, with a ridiculous number of costumes—30 gowns in the first six episodes for its star and half that for one supporting character, as examples—each taking roughly two months to create, “it was not the most fun period of time,” she adds. The department tracked the season’s 10,000 garments with bar codes and—after buying and making some 100,000 buttons—is investigating 3D printing for season three.

[Photo: Susan Karlin]

Dresbach applied shortcuts—like hand-painting 18th-century designs on muslin when she couldn’t find fabric from that period—and redirected skills of a mostly young and inexperienced, but highly motivated staff.


A team of six recent art school grads was tasked with figuring out how to translate 18th-century embroidery into drawings, then into digital embroidery machines, “and have the embroidery come out the other side,” says Dresbach. “These are kids who had never embroidered before. And then we added story.”

For example, the design on the apothecarist’s vest has a creature depicting yellow fever sitting atop an herbal cure. Buttoned above-the-knee boots—it idea gleaned from a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—provided a daring alternative to stockings for an edgier character. Another costume nodded to the iconic of the 1940s, the protagonist’s original time.

“At the end of the day, we’re storytellers,” says Dresbach. “Costumes are billboards for who the characters are. It’s part of our job to help the actors find their characters and develop their physical being. You always know you’ve done your job right when the actors start moving differently in your costumes.”

Apothecary in Outlander, season 2[Photo: Neil Davidson, courtesy of Starz]

Setting the Stage

Steele, meanwhile, had four months to research, sketch, model, build, and detail numerous sets simultaneously, imbuing in them a through-line of decadence, magic, and mystery.

“It was the Age of Enlightenment and people were fascinated by anything foreign and exotic,” he says.

Jon Gary Steele[Photo: Susan Karlin]

An architect by training, Steele crafted residences, a brothel, apothecary and courtyard with surrounding hallways, and panels and tapestries that opened to enable a greater range of camera angles and give rooms more depth. He found authentic textile designs at museums, paid for the design rights, snapped and enlarged photos of those designs, then printed them on canvas.


“I didn’t want the brothel to be red—too clichéd—so I went with gold and emerald green,” he says. “I went with different shades of gold to contrast the other sets. I wanted each one to feel like its own thing.”

But Steele’s pièce de résistance was the domed Star Chamber. “It’s my favorite set of two years,” says Steele. “It’s a secret room in the Versailles palace, with mystical magical symbols of alchemy, sacred geometry, and astronomy on the floors and the walls. I wanted to have a dome that’s pierced with light, so that when [the lead character] Claire walks through secret doors into this room, shafts of light hit her face and dress.”

Star Chamber[Photo: Getty Images for Paley Center]

Informing the Production

Steele’s conception impacted the writing for the chamber scene. “At first, no one had a clear idea of what it was,” says executive producer Ron Moore. “But his design gave us a visual image of being in this place, with the stars overhead, the shafts of light, and the spooky ethereal quality, and it helped us focus in the writing process.”


Costumes and sets informed in other ways. Noting a wedding dress’s mica shards refracting light inspired Moore to reshoot its scenes outside and in candlelight. Samuel Heughan, who plays Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser, always wore a kilt under his coats. “You could only see a hint of it, but it was to show he wasn’t losing himself,” in the decadence of France, he says.

“Gary’s sets are very specific and feel very real, which creates authenticity in what you’re trying to do,” says Caitrina Balfe, who plays time-traveling nurse Claire Randall. “With costumes, it’s so much about comportment. As a woman of today, it’s hard to understand how wearing a corset for so long makes you more emotional. I try to tap into that as my character.”

The thrill and exhaustion of realizing their dream has Dresbach and Steele looking forward. “It was my favorite period to costume design and now I’ve done it and I never have to do it again,” Dresbach laughs.


About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia


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