Outlander Style: Useful Occupations and Deceptions

Posted on April 27, 2016


And we’re off once again, darlings; to a place of unhealthy obsessions and eyestrain.But who cares? There’s nothing we love more than to dig deep into costume design to see what themes and motifs we can tease out of it. We had the tremendous good fortune to interview Outlander‘s costume designer Terry Dresbach yesterday for our podcast (which will hopefully be up tomorrow) and one of the things she kept hammering home over and over again in her responses to us was how costume design is about being true to the characters and the script; how it’s more than just putting pretty things on pretty actors. It’s literally using clothing to tell a story. This made us almost gleefully happy, because it backs up everything we’ve been saying about costume design since we started writing about it.

This week, Claire and Jamie aren’t in the best place in their marriage as they strain under the weight of past trauma, too many secrets, and a lifestyle neither of them particularly wanted for themselves. And it is, of course, all written into the very fabrics they wear on their backs.


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Here is something we don’t think the show’s costuming has ever depicted before: Claire and Jamie in competing prints. As he’s talking about his plans for the day, he switches his brocade waistcoat out for an embroidered paisley, making for a stark contrast with her boldly floral robe. They’re usually fairly in step with each other when it comes to their clothing, but she’s so brightly and boldly colored and he’s almost completely colorless. It tends to highlight the rift growing between them.

As we noted before, in the 1947 scenes with Frank in the season opener, there’s an inherent imbalance implied in a scene where one character is dressed and the other is in nightclothes. It tends to imply that there’s some sort of power imbalance, which is exactly how Claire is starting to feel.


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Terry confirmed to us in our interview with her that if you want to boil the costuming down to the basics, season one was all about textures and tartans whereas season 2 is all about colors and florals. Look at how much Claire’s bold saffron gown pops out next to all the other women in the scene, who are mostly in neutrals or very pale shades. She’s taken on a little bit more of the fussiness that characterizes Parisian fashion (note the lace running down either side of her stomacher and the ruffles attached to her sleeves). But even with those concessions to the fashions of the city (a visualization of her attempts to fit in with these women), her look still stands out starkly in this scene. Her floral is bigger and bolder than any of the delicate ones the other ladies are wearing, she’s sporting black lace in a scene where all the other women are wearing white or off-white lace, and her dress is far less fussy. Compare the ruffles on the end of her sleeves to the ruffles on the end of any other woman’s sleeves. They’re almost minimalist in comparison.

The result is to make her seem somehow more modern than the other women are; closer to the aesthetics of the 20th Century than the 18th. You could take the basic elements of her gown and with a little reshaping, make a perfectly modern dress. You really can’t say that about the other women’s clothes.

Madame Louise remains the richest and most embellished of the women. Her clothes are fussy to an almost absurd extent. Mary, with her far more demure neckline and little cap, is clearly an unmarried woman; the only one in the room, we’d wager.

Now, contrast the boldness of Claire’s 18th Century clothes with her 1940s fashion choices:

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Granted, she’d have no reason to dress boldly and in brightly colored gowns while married to Frank, but it speaks to the somewhat dreary way her first marriage tends to be depicted in comparison to her second. The scene is tender and affectionate, but it’s also colorless and her clothes are so lacking in anything approaching “flair” that they more or less match her husband’s tweedy suiting exactly.


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This method of making her stand out in a scene by making her bolder and more colorful than anyone else in it continues with Murtagh. Of course, it makes perfect story sense as to why he’s not as dressed up as she is and perfect character sense as to why he’d never choose to be so, but it’s all part of continuing theme in Claire’s costuming to set her apart from everyone else. She is, after all, an outlander.

It’s interesting to note, however, the one time in this episode she comes up against someone as boldly dressed as she is:


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Of course, it’s not at all unusual that the Comte would be so colorfully dressed, since that was the style for the men of the day, but Claire herself isn’t spending time with the boldly colored men of Paris. The only men she interacts with on the regular are her husband and Murtagh, both of whom eschew color or embellishment or richness in a manner that sets them apart from Parisian men. Master Raymond doesn’t exactly shy away from bold motifs in his clothing either, but that has more to do with the theatricality of his profession than an attempt to keep up with the fashions of the day. Indeed, Master Raymond’s gorgeous coat looks like no one else’s clothes in the story, which befits him.

But we’re interested in the visual here as Claire and the Comte (who, it should be noted, has vowed to destroy her) face off. The fact that he’s dressed as brightly, boldly and richly as she is tends to underline the feeling that he is going to be a formidable enemy. They’re evenly matched. “Matched,” being the operative word here. What interests us most about his costume is how it specifically calls to her several of hers. The yellow in his waistcoat matches her coat and gown, the floral and botanical elements remind us of hers, and the purple of his frock coat …


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…is picked up again later in another of Claire’s boldly colored and rather starkly simple (in comparison to her Parisian peers) ensembles. Note again how she’s incorporating a masculine element into her clothing, with the deployment of the tricorner hat. Sure, it was fashionable for women of the time, but it also underlines (as do the many other instances of her wearing masculine motifs) the decidedly unfeminine nature (as defined by the time she’s in) of her character. She’s educated, strong and savvy in a way most women weren’t allowed to be at the time. That doesn’t make her masculine, of course, but it does make her a huge outlier in comparison to all other women in the story. And when a woman doesn’t act according to how society tells her to, the first thing society attempts to strip from her in retaliation is her femininity. She’s playing a dangerous game acting as she does in this time.


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Once again, a lightning bolt of color surrounded by colorless people. Again, it makes perfect sense that nuns would not be dressed in boldly colored outfits, but we’re just pointing out how pervasive this theme is in Claire’s costumes.

And as for that bold simplicity in her clothing we keep referencing…


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Just try and picture Louise or Mary throwing an apron over one of their typical ensembles. They would look utterly ridiculous.

On the flipside, Jamie is doing the exact opposite of Claire. He’s is wearing clothes far less colorful than those of the men he’s spending time with:
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There’s an almost priestly quality to his clothing, which is usually rendered only in black, gray and white, even as he’s meeting men dressed in every color of the rainbow.


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Claire’s color choices tend to make her look strong and bold and modern, whereas Jamie’s lack of color renders him serious and perhaps even a little depressed. He doesn’t like this life of maneuvering and chess playing. He isn’t sure if he’s doing the right thing. And he’s stuck sucking up to men he either has little respect for, or anything in common with. Black is exactly the right match for his state of mind.


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Charles winds up looking like a fool in comparison, especially when he’s wearing a pink satin coat with flowers all over it. He couldn’t possibly look more frivolous. Note the tonal difference between Charles’ rather silly and foppish-looking ensemble and the Comte’s, in his faceoff with Claire. Somehow, the latter looks formidable while the former looks silly.


Outlander-Style-Season-2-Episode-3-Starz-Costumes-Terry-Desbrach-TV-Series-Tom-Lorenzo-Site (14)Even Fergus, in his rough fabrics and simple styles (underlining his poverty and lack of status) is dressed more colorfully than Jamie tends to (underlining his French background). But note also that he’s wearing a gray waistcoat, which is something we’ve seen Jamie wear several times now. A callback and a visual representation of their growing bond.

Note how Jamie dresses when he’s at home, seemingly undisturbed by outsiders:


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Less fine fabrics, no embroidery, and even though you can’t see it in these shots, a kilt. Claire struggles with her Parisian life, but she’s taken to it far better than Jamie has, who sheds the clothing of his new life as soon as he can. Note how his vest looks just like Fergus’. Note how much more in synch he and Murtagh seem in this scene, now that they’re more or less dressed the same.


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Note how Claire, except for the silhouette, is basically dressed like a red cross nurse. You can take the girl off the battlefield but you can’t take the battlefield out of the girl. This is who she is and what she knows best. It makes sense that she’d (probably unconsciously) adopt something as close to a nurse’s uniform as possible.

Granted, the dress looks a lot different when she’s off the clock and back to the styles expected of her:


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The colors are very muted and the ruffles at her sleeves and the chain at her waist mimic Jamie’s shirtsleeves and sporran in the same scene. It’s tentative, but they’re moving closer together, now that they’ve cracked the code. The three of them together in this scene, costumed the way they are, really underlines how they’re all sassenachs in this city, and the only true bonds they can rely on are the ones they have with each other.

Now if only Claire would tell Jamie the truth…


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[Photo Credit: Courtesy of Starz – Stills: Outlander/Starz/Tom and Lorenzo]

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