Outlander Style: Through a Glass, Darkly

Posted on April 14, 2016

Outlander Season 2 2016

If you’re at all familiar with our Mad Style series, then this post won’t need an explanation. If you’re new to how we do things ’round here on the costume front, it’s like this: When we’re so inclined, we like to do a deep dive on examining the ways in which the costumes of a show or movie have meaning that exists both in service to the story and outside of it and that such meaning can sometimes be derived independent of the costume designer’s stated intentions. In other words, as we did with Mad Men and its brilliant costume designer Janie Bryant, we’re trying to exalt the work of Outlander costume designer Terry Dresbach and showcase it, but we’re also going to use it as a starting point to talk about underlying meanings, motifs both intentional and unintentional, and basically just the whole semiotic ball of wax as it pertains to costume design in filmed narratives.

Having said that, we’re going to have to use this first post of the season as something of a place-holder, because most of the really interesting costuming developments are coming down the line, as Claire and Jamie acclimate to Parisian life and subsequently (because they’re kind of rockstars wherever they go), Parisian fashions. Right now, in this episode, it’s about forward movement as much as it is about slowly letting go of the past. That’s true of both the story and the costume design. In very simplistic terms, you could say that green in this story equals the past and blue equals the future, but it goes a bit deeper than that.


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Claire is thrust back to the 20th Century and quite clear about the fact that she considers her fate untenable. In this and virtually all the 20th Century scenes, the color palette is very muted and mostly limited to the natural world: browns, blues, grays, and most importantly, greens. Everyone is dressed to match the land and sky of the Scottish highlands.

We say that green is the most important of these colors because it’s the color Claire is wearing upon her return and it serves as a general stand-in for feelings about not only the past, but Scotland in general – because both stories in this episode are about her leaving the soil of Scotland behind her.


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It’s interesting to note how the green of the fields – and the exact shade of her dress – is almost mocked by the green of the hospital walls, which she clearly finds confining and even perhaps a bit unnatural to her – even as Frank ponders the confinement of her 18th Century corset.

Note how somber and colorless Frank appears; how his outfit mimics almost all the colors of the man who found her in the road. Virtually everyone we see in modern-day Scotland will be wearing the same tones of brown and gray, which repeat in almost all off the Claire/Frank scenes:


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Of course, part of that comes down to the accuracy of period fashion – very few people in the post-War Scottish countryside were wearing the latest in bold and bright fashions. But the choice of color scheme also serves to set a tone; to show a depressing, lifeless world that offers Claire little of the adventure and color she had by Jamie’s side. Note how there’s an inherent power imbalance in a scene where one person is dressed and the other is in bed clothes or lounge wear. It implies illness and vulnerability in a scene where Claire lays her story bare and Frank is forced to struggle with who she is now. It also underlines the news of her pregnancy, with its soft pink color invoking femininity.

It also serves to illustrate the difference when Claire comes to an acceptance of her fate; her acquiescence to the inevitable:


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Note how similarly she’s dressed to Frank in the scene where she agrees to be his wife again. He’s in a white shirt with a gray vest and pants and a brown tie. She’s in a white men’s style shirt, a brown vest, and gray skirt. There’s a deliberate attempt in the costuming to show that they are bound to each other, even as that bond seems grim and perfunctory from Claire’s perspective (hence the grim color palette of these scenes).

This modern-day motif of masculine touches in Claire’s clothing continues as she dresses to leave Scotland with Frank:


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We think there’s something to be said about the comparison between the hyperfeminine silhouettes and styles Claire wore in the 18th Century and the somewhat drab unisex uniform she sports when she agrees to leave that life behind her completely.

Also: Blue = travel. No, really. But we’ll get to that in a minute.


Outlander-Season-2-Episode-1-Television-Starz-Costumes-Tom-Lorenzo-Site (4)Note how Mrs. Graham is wearing a deep, rich green – the color of Claire’s Scotland. She is the only person in the modern day who both believes Claire unreservedly and doesn’t judge her for her feelings. She’s also always been rendered as someone who’s at least a little mystical in nature or sensitive to such things, which tends to secure her even further as Claire’s closest ally in these scenes.

There was a jarring moment in this scene as two planes roared overheard, establishing both how hard Claire finds it to be in the modern day and also establishing a motif about planes equalling forward movement and looking to the future. Airplanes literally represent the future in this story.


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“And they just stay aloft, like birds?”

“Well, no. Airplane wings are stationary.”

After all, airplanes were one of the first things Claire told Jamie about the future. They flew overhead as Mrs. Graham tried to convince her to let go of the past and they figured prominently in this scene, when Reverend Wakefield used his nephew as a metaphor for accepting change and moving forward with it.


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And of course, an airplane figures very prominently in the story as Claire prepares to step off one and into a future life. Note how Frank is wearing blue here, similar to the blue she wore when she first prepared to leave. Note how his suit, hat and tie perfectly match her suit and hat, demonstrating their bond. But also note the touches of natural green in her blouse, framing her face and reminding both her and us of the Scotland – and the past – that she’s leaving behind, somewhat reluctantly.


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Note how these exact motifs are picked up in the very next scene, with Jamie in a blue (traveling) coat, stretching out his hand to take Claire’s as she steps off in a brown dress and a rich green cape – one that is almost exactly the same color as Mrs. Graham’s dress in the earlier scene. She’s practically enveloped entirely in green, full of life (literally) and love for the time and place that she’s in. Green doesn’t just represent Scotland or the past to her, but the fullness of her entire life with Jamie.

Note how much richer the colors appear in these scenes than the previous ones set in the 20th Century.


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Note how her dress has the same naturalistic/floral themes as her 20th Century traveling blouse.


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Note the roughness and lack of color to their clothes in comparison to Jamie’s Parisian-dwelling cousin – who may be indulging in the brighter fashions of the continent, but is still wearing a green that goes well with his burr and serves to remind both us and Claire of Scotland.


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Note how much finer the colors and textiles of Jared and the Comte St. Germain (with his lace cuffs and embroidered pink vest) are in comparison to Claire’s and Jamie’s clothes. The Frasers are the clear outsiders here and the roughness of their clothing is of a piece with how the Comte sees them – as nothing more than English trash.

But put a pin in this outfit, because we’ll come back to it as a reference point to show how much Claire’s style changes once she starts paying Parisian couturiers to supply her a wardrobe. The silhouette will remain largely the same but virtually everything else about her style will change fairly dramatically in the episodes to come. More than at any other time in the story – and in Claire’s life – fashion and style will become essential components to her acceptance and her survival.


Our non-costume review of this episode is here

For more discussion on your favorite shows, check out our TV & Film forum.

We ask that you please not discuss any aspect of the books at all in our comments section. We are here only to discuss the episodes of Outlander the TV series that have aired up until this date and nothing else. If you’d like to discuss the “Outlander” series of books check out theOutlander thread on our Books forum.


[Stills: Tom and Lorenzo – Photo Credit: Starz]

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