Terry Dresbach must have the absolute best costume design job in television right now. She certainly acts like she does, going by her work on Outlander, which is infused with tremendous care, thought and an understanding of the importance the characters have to its audience. There is true love to be found in every stitch and fold; every fabric choice, historical reference and color scheme. All costume designers of worth will pour themselves into their work if they’re really committed to it, but there’s something very special about Terry’s approach; something that comes through quietly, the way most costume design does, but also makes its story and character points so strongly that you not only believe in these characters as real people, you’d swear they were close, intimate friends of Terry herself. She knows these people.
But of course, part of what makes her job, we imagine, one of the best of its kind, is that she gets to play around with different eras, locations and cultures; the combination of which simply wouldn’t be available all on the same job, normally. After two seasons in the 18th Century of the Scottish Highlands and the French Court, not to mention post-WWII Britain, she now gets to turn her attention to mid-Century America, where Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser Randall, ever the traveler, finds herself. Having left behind her grand love Jamie in the past, she’s joined up again with her first husband Frank, in America.
So, what are we looking for in Claire’s costumes? Modernity, for one. Ambivalence or confusion, for another. And finally, the looming issue of her impending motherhood, which is clearly a good thing for her, but also something that causes her a fair amount of private stress, since Frank has agreed to raise another man’s child.
Terry, who writes extensively about her work on her site and interacts a great deal with the show’s fans on social media, loves to make clear and direct observations or references to the trendiest fashions of the period. The shoulders, nipped waist, and flare in the back of her coat are extremely on point for post-War, New Look-inspired styles of the time. Compared to what we’ve become used to seeing her wear in the past, she looks shockingly modern, unencumbered, and bold. She’s also in blue, which is a fairly rigidly adhered-to color scheme for her character throughout the episode.
In western culture, blue is often seen as a maternal color, due to countless Madonna and Child representations over the millennia.
There’s also a point being made here about how truly free she is in these clothes, in comparison to what she wore in the 18th Century. They’re lightweight, easy to wear and leave her unrestricted, for the most part. And yet she’s deeply uncomfortable.
There’s an irony built into these scenes: despite the relative comforts of the 20th Century, like gas stoves, she’s frustrated and out of sorts with it all. You never lose sight of the idea that her heart and mind, despite the comforts of the modern day, would much rather be in the past.
Note the tartan of the neighbor’s skirt. Everything about this scene is about the past calling to Claire.
Note how much her blue stands out among all the browns and grays of the disapproving or condescending men around her. Note how her collar and bow are feminized forms of a man’s dress shirt and tie. Again: despite the modernity of her trappings, she didn’t feel condescended to when she was living two centuries in the past. All the heavy skirts and corseting in the world didn’t prevent her from achieving a level of freedom and independence that she’s realizing will be harder to come by in the present.
There’s also a slight sense of her drawing closer to Frank over time, whether she consciously wants to our not. Her clothing, despite the skirts and maternity wear, has strong, broad-shouldered touches and masculine accent colors of black and gray. Scroll up and look at that neighbor again to see how Claire is working a stronger, more assertive look than her.
Which isn’t to say that Claire is dressing in a masculine manner. After blue, the other persistent motif in her costumes were florals, whether lightly exoticized tropicals (very much of the period, since so many GIs came home from the Pacific with a taste for Tiki)…
…or delicate little Liberty Print-style florals (which would naturally appeal to an Englishwoman of the early 20th Century) which only tend to call to mind the ridiculously bold florals and rich dressing gowns of her time in Paris – if only to look all the poorer in comparison. Again, there’s that sense of irony in the design. She’s trying so hard to be the post-War wifey-poo here and it’s making her absolutely miserable. In that sense, she’s like a whole generation of women who were forced out of j0bs and careers they’d come to love after the men came home.
But like we said, there’s also something of a sense of her slowly pulling closer to Frank, even if she’s resisting it or feels conflicted about it.
When things get real – and they don’t get more real than “My water broke” – they’re clearly a couple, unified in shades of brown. But just like the nurse’s question that ended the episode and underlines the main emotional conflict in the story (“Where’d she get the red hair?”), there is a subtle reminder here that, even now in this moment of coming together, the past is intruding. Frank’s in a tartan-inspired plaid.
And that’s it for now! As always, we ask book readers to keep the details of upcoming plot turns to themselves, so as not to spoil the non-readers here. We can’t promise we’ll be doing the same level of costume analysis episode to episode, but Terry’s work in the 20th Century this season is some of the best costume design of the period we’ve ever seen. And that’s coming from the guys who literally wrote a million words on the Mad Men costumes.
[Photo Credit: Starz – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo, Starz]