Behind The Traditional Costumes (Outlander)
Do you ever get so caught up in a television series that you want to pack your bags and transport yourself to the show’s time period and location? That’s how I feel about Outlander. The time-traveling adventure focuses on the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), and it’s enthralling. Based on the beloved books by Diana Gabaldon, the Starz series whisks you up and takes you on an emotional ride. It’s not just the tightly woven plot or the exceptional performances (and they really are—the casting in this series is phenomenal), it’s the setting. It’s the sweeping, fairy tale like vistas of Scotland. It’s the stone structures and dirt paths. It’s the music by Bear McCreary. And it’s the costumes designed by Terry Dresbach and Glenne Campbell. Dear goodness, is it the costumes.
Outlander takes place in two time periods: 1945 and 1743. It is told from the perspective of Claire and begins after World War II has ended. Claire is on her second honeymoon with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) when she visits the stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness in Scotland. Touching one of the stones makes Claire plummet through the corridors of time and she wakes up in 1743 and soon realizes returning to the future is anything but a simple task.
Creating costumes for one time period is challenging enough. I can’t imagine planning and creating for two eras that are on rather different ends of the fashion spectrum, but Dresbach and her team nail it and tell a story with the costumes they create. Scotland in 1743 is about kilts (oh so many kilts), corsets, and heavy fabrics made for utility and work and to withstand the chill in the air. The palette is more muted–but still rich–with earthy colors. Nods to nature can be seen in embroidery on stomachers. The costumes here reflect the world around them and dirt, wear, and tear is no small part of it. Castle Leoch doesn’t have a washing machine. They have people.
Then there’s 1945. As we saw in Marvel’s Agent Carter, the clothes in this era have an elegance about them. Claire’s outfits are tailored with crisp lines and sometimes hats. They’re often a blend of designs that represent the ’30s and the ’40s. They’re basic but lovely and say much about her strong and determined personality. Frank’s suits are dashing. His costumes emulate a little of a Cary Grant sort of flair. He’s dapper.
Historical accuracy is a consideration for both periods. Dresbach has spoken on Twitter (go follow her if you like Outlander—she shares a ton of fun costume information) and her blog about balancing historical accuracy, modern expectations, practicality, budget etc. She does the research. Her team does the research. While we’ll never see anything extremely out of place on the show—like spandex—they will have to slightly bend the rules sometimes. Compromise is key. But in many areas, they stick close to the history books.
Nearly all the men in the 1743 portion of series are clad in utility kilts. Everyone from Jamie Fraser to Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) dons the tartans of their clans. Dresbach talked to Variety about developing the colors of the tartans and says, “There’s a huge debate — I talk to fans all the time who are still having a debate with me about the weaving of the 18th century. There’s a school of thought that the really bright-colored tartans that we see today were invented by the Victorians and there were those who say no, they were always there. That’s often the case where you have a lot of conflicting opinions on what was worn historically, so we made it a creative choice based on talking with Ron about the look of the show.”
The kilts are voluminous. They’re made from yards of fabric and can be wrapped different ways to make pseudo cloaks and hoods and even pouches. You can see different examples of this throughout the series. To put the kilts on, the actors have to lay on them and wrap themselves up.
One piece that always catches my eye as far as historical accuracy is the bum roll, also known as a pannier. The bum roll is exactly what it sounds like. A crescent shaped pad tied around the hips to accentuate the wearer’s hips and make the waist look smaller. It’s one of many, many pieces in an 18th century outfit. Dresbach wrote about the layers of clothing that make up a costume and putting all of it on takes time. It’s impressive, but what I particularly like about the bum roll is a possibly sillier thing. I simply appreciate that they’re part of the costume. In our times, making hips look bigger is not fashionable–especially on screen-and I can only imagine the discussions that might have happened in order to get them approved.
If you watch closely and obsess over the costumes, you’ll notice Claire’s wardrobe is limited like it should be. She stumbled into the 18th century and the graces of Mrs. Fitz at Leoch. There were spare clothes to be had, but there isn’t walk-in closet next to Claire’s surgery. On her blog and on the official Outlander podcast, Dresbach has talked about how Claire mixes and matches skirts, stomachers, and knit pieces and it’s noticeable once you keep your eyes open.
And while we’re discussing details, let’s look at Claire’s magnificent wedding dress. This the part with spoilers. Circumstances force Claire into a marriage with Jamie in episode seven, “The Wedding.” This was a moment Outlander fans waited for with bated breath, and it didn’t disappoint. There aren’t words to describe the elegance.
The dress was inspired by gowns made with metallic embroidery meant to be worn in candlelight. They’re designed to glow. The leaves and acorns you see on the front of the dress were embroidered by hand with metal strands and aged. Dresbach and her team even shaved mica rocks into paper thin slices and incorporated them into the dress to add to the shimmer effect.
Dresbach told Yahoo TV it was quite the process, “It began with a million pictures on the wall of 18th century gowns that I loved and close-ups of details like pleating, stomachers, and different kinds of embroidery. Then we began the process of playing with it. It was trying five different sleeves and looking at 10 different kinds of embroidery. Then we built it on the mannequin, which is when I started really sketching and pulling it together as a singular piece. All in all, we calculated that if one person sat down and made it, it would have taken about 3,000 hours. It was insane. After this was all done, we laughed about how long it would have taken if it would have been the real world.”
Jamie’s wedding attire wasn’t too shabby either. Up to this point we’d only seen him in various stages of scruffy, and here, well, he grows up. This is where he transitions from boy to man and not just because of losing his virginity. He’s taking a wife. Regardless of the circumstances, he now feels responsible for the welfare of another person. His outfit reflects all of those elements. It marks the first time we see the Fraser tartan, and he wears his kilt differently than we’ve seen him wear it before.
As the stars of the series, Claire and Jamie get the brunt of the attention but other characters shouldn’t be overlooked. Some of the most interesting wardrobe pieces belong to Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek). I won’t give away Geillis’s secrets, but she’s… quirky. Everything she does is calculated even though she gives off a whimsical air that makes you underestimate her. She doesn’t necessarily follow society’s norms and her nature comes through in her clothing.
I’m particularly taken with the dress she wore in “The Gathering” (pictured above). Dresbach says Geillis is all about playing dress up, and she sees this as Geillis’s take on an arisaid. It’s adorned with a piece of jewelry I only learned about because of Dresbach, a Lover’s Eye. It’s not authentic to the time period, but it’s perfect for Geillis and those type of liberties figure into the balance I mentioned earlier. And another fun thing about Geillis: If you ever notice a costume she’s wearing has an oddly placed hole or has something sitting at a weird angle, that’s Verbeek. She likes to play with Geillis’s clothes and wear them in unconventional ways which I think fits the character.
And then there are costumes for characters who are only seen briefly, like Hugh Munro in “Both Sides Now.” The beggar is a friend of Jamie’s, and his outfit is layered with details and textures and character.
This is only a tiny representation of the costumes of Outlander. Each cast member from lead to extra must be dressed according to the period, and Dresbach’s team makes the majority of the costumes. It’s a monumental task given the amount of people present in each episode. As an example of what’s ahead for next season, Dresbach explained some numbers to put things in perspective. If they make 600 suits (remember, there have to be some duplicates) comprised of a frock coat, waistcoat, and breeches, that’s 40 buttons per suit. And then you need 24,000 buttons that fit the time period. And then those 24,000 buttons have to be sewn on. Just thinking about the work involved makes me want to take a nap.
On top of the large amounts of labor, the costumes aren’t merely clothes that are being pulled off a rack. They’re pieces of a character. The way the clothes look and fit, they way they are worn—all of it makes a statement and Dresbach’s designs add layers of story to Outlander.