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We love Outlander for its storylines, talented actors, and of course, wonderful costumes! Which exquisite dress would’ve been a couch if it hadn’t been for the Outlander team? How could Brianna’s stunning wedding dress have been more historically accurate? And what were the designers’ reasons for muting Clan Fraser’s tartan colors?
In this article, we’re traveling through the Outlander Seasons 1 to 5. Let’s see how the costume designers expertly balanced historical accuracy, practicality, and budget!
Who was the magician behind the first four seasons? It was costume designer Terry Dresbach, who was a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s book series years before her husband, executive producer Ronald D. Moore, brought it to our screens. Where else to start than with Claire’s fairytale wedding dress!
Dresbach told Variety that she had about 5 000 pictures of every conceivable look that existed in the 18th century. She wanted a dress that would be incredible in candlelight. And, back then, metallic fabrics were made with actual metal woven into the fabrics. When you place them in a candle-lit room, they glow!
The leaves and acorns on the front were hand-embroidered with metal strands - and aged. Dresbach and her team even incorporated paper-thin shavings of mica rocks to add to the shimmer effect. True dedication! Terry knew that people in the ‘dirtier’ 18th century didn’t wear white gowns - and wedding dresses weren’t custom - which explains the colors.
What about the revealing neckline? Also accurate. That’s why in Season 2 when the show goes to the French courts, there’s a lot of cleavages. You won’t believe the next reveal! But Terry shared that their team (including her husband) found this dress stacked in the back of an old brothel. Initially, she was furious at her husband Ron but luckily got over it.
What about Jamie’s hot kilt? We'll get there! And now, over to Claire's classic Scottish riding outfit. With its forest green color, cinched waist, and fur trimmings, it’s spot-on for the time. As Terry explains on her website, this coat wasn’t planned but born out of necessity, because it was so bitterly cold, and actress Caitriona Balfe was freezing.
Her gloves were made with kid leather (the skin from a young goat) and they printed and drew stag antlers on them in honor of the MacKenzies. Oh, and this look became so popular that multiple real-life versions are sold at outlets across the world, like Amazon. The best detail of all? Claire’s coat becomes a hand-me-down in Season 4!
When Bree arrives at Lallybroch, her self-assembled outfit (her own doing in the future) leaves much to be desired, so she gets Claire’s riding coat. And remember the green plaid dress Claire wore in Season 1? It’s re-made slightly and Brianna rocks this along with the iconic coat! Accurate for the times, when items weren’t just thrown away, but re-used and re-purposed.
We promised we’d get to Jamie and his kilt! Well, he accurately demonstrated the right way to “get your kilt on”! It involves first lying down on the kilt, before wrapping yourself up in a specific way, depending on the specific look required (formal or informal). Actor Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, says there are many benefits of wearing a kilt.
"It’s very free, it’s got its own aeration and they’re very comfortable,” he says. “But the best part, for me, honestly, is the swing ... you get when you walk in it,” he says and reveals one major disadvantage, "When you sit down on the wet grass and you forget to do the little flick — it’s your bare ass on the ground!”
Let’s just address the elephant in the room. Those tartan patterns sure are a bone of contention. Many fans have questioned the drab, muted colors. So, here are the two main views.
View 1: One of Clan Fraser’s branches is the Lovat branch, to which Jamie belongs. Historically, Lovat tartans were supposedly bold red and green, but the show depicts them as dark gray and blue.
View 2: Scottish kiltmakers MacGregor and MacDuff think the show is accurate! They say muted tones were the original tones of kilts, as the dyes that are used now to make brighter tartans weren’t available at the time. Designer Dresbach spoke to Variety, saying:
“I tried to put myself in the head of somebody in the 18th century. So if I'm a dyer or fabric maker living … with three generations and maybe a cow and pig in the corner, and it's pouring rain outside all the time, how much time am I spending getting the exact correct shade of lavender? Probably not a lot."
Next, who didn’t love Bonnie Prince Charlie in pink! In 18th-century France, the men’s attire was incredibly impressive, especially for royalty. Okay yes, we said men only, but we can’t resist just one more peek at Claire’s Dressage dress in Paris.
Although this stunning, floral dress more accurately belongs in the 1940s, as a chintz fabric for curtains or upholstery. Dresbach admitted that the fabric for this dress was actually reserved for a couch - and discovered in the basement of a shop in San Francisco, California! Still, the dress matches the fashion-conscious Paris and the outdoor scene. We think it’s a nice artistic liberty!
A big part of Season 2 is set in Versailles, so there’s no shortage of drool-worthy dresses. Like Claire’s iconic red dress! In the books, Jamie comments, "You can see all the way down to your third rib". The writers decided to add in that Claire helped design this gown herself. So, the dress looks more modern than the actual 18th-century Parisian fashion, because it was intentional!
Actress Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, said: “What I loved about what Terry did this season was she really wanted to play with the fact that Claire would have gone to a couturier and told them what she wanted. So she brings all these elements of the ‘40s in.” For Balfe, the modern touch added new depth to her character.
Do you remember Claire's Jackie O-inspired funeral look? Attending a memorial for her late husband, Frank, in the 1960s, Claire wore this striking black outfit that paid homage to Jackie Kennedy. Yes, in this season, over two centuries away from Jamie, Claire trades her corsets for the fashion influence of the 1960s. Viewers are treated to elegant suits and matching gloves.
Caitriona Balfe told Vanity Fair:
“I did not miss that corset or bum roll for one second. Being able to do ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s—especially the ‘60s—it was just such fun.” Cait also mentioned that she loved the styles so much, she even asked Dresbach to make her doubles of some of the outfits!
A video about Outlander costumes wouldn’t be complete without mention of Claire's "Batsuit". The issue apparently is that Claire is wearing what looks like a modern button-down shirt with an 18th-century skirt.
But Dresbach explained their decision to Syfy Wire:
"[Claire] has to figure out how to time-travel in a way that makes her inconspicuous. The only believable solution that I could come up with was that she would make this suit herself."
Fans saw Claire (who’s from the future, remember) build in pockets to hold her smuggled 20th-century medical equipment! Dresbach designed this suit with multiple layers that are revealed at different moments. Which brings us to Brianna Randall’s 70s-inspired look alongside Mom Claire!
As Dresbach says, Brianna’s wardrobe was easier, because she always dressed Bree in what Terry herself would've worn! Terry told Harper’s Bazaar that she constantly reminded herself:
“You don't need to do anything other than just remember everything you wore. I went insane with her wardrobe.”
Let’s introduce you to co-designer Nina Ayres - also known for her work on Game of Thrones and The Golden Compass. As Nina points out, in Season 4 Jamie and Claire move into frontier America - and this shift sees an evolution in their fashion, too!
So, one thing that stands out is Jamie and Claire’s mix and match clothes at Fraser’s Ridge. In an interview with Elle, Ayres explains:
“Something we tried to do with our characters this season is that everything is mix and match. No one really has outfits that stand alone, as in ‘I am wearing this outfit today,’ unless it’s a ball or a party.”
Like Jamie’s favorite black suit, which followed him from Scotland. In S4, Jamie got one new suit at River Run, but he often sticks with the old one, which has been specifically weathered to convey its age. Ayres told Elle:
“We purposefully ripped the fabric apart and then stitched it back together again to make it look like it’s been repaired and repaired and repaired. Claire has repairs on her clothes as well, if you look.”
The aging process also included bleaching, pigment spraying, dry-brushing dirt onto them, greasing, sanding, and burning. Sometimes the costume team even placed the clothes into a cement mixer! And another way of re-imagining a costume was to cut it apart at the seams, turn it inside out and then sew it back together as a new dress. This was a real practice in the 18th century called turning.
Other changes in Season 4 were the fabrics - they became lighter, with less wool and more linens and homespun-type fabrics used. Ayres notes to Elle that the team re-used some of the Paris costumes. They simply reduced the size of the bum rolls, which of course also made everything a bit more practical. She says it helped sell the pioneering look.
Fans also spotted the blanket on Claire and Jamie's bed being re-used too! This is later re-made into scarves, as they weren't prepared for the cold. Other changes seen are the women’s colorful florals, which are quite accurate for the time.
Dresbach told TV Insider that she’d consulted with experts at Colonial Williamsburg and the Smithsonian to achieve the right mix of "checks and mismatched patterns." Which brings us to the not-to-be-messed-with Aunt Jocasta. Wow, the most regal-looking lady ever! As Dresbach says:
"Jocasta is the old world. She represents the wealthy plantation owners who never saw themselves as Americans, but as transplanted Europeans who just happen to live somewhere else. It's the dress of a matriarch."
Meet new costume designer, Trisha Biggar, who took over from Terry Dresbach. Biggar’s credits include STARZ shows Da Vinci's Demons and Emerald City, and she also designed for Star Wars! In Season 5, Young Ian returns! And looking very different, with his hair shaved on the sides and tattoos dotted along his cheeks. Where did his costume inspiration come from?
Biggar told Harper’s Bazaar that she researched the Native American outfits for a year because she knew they had to do it right. She explained that a lot of their information came from 18th-century texts about what people were wearing, but also from any sketches and paintings she could find. Fans are seriously on board with Ian’s look. “The new look is everything,” a fan wrote.
Next up, we look at another swoon-worthy wedding dress - this time, Claire’s daughter is wearing it! It’s Bree’s wedding dress, of course. Luckily, though, the family didn’t pass Claire's one down too! I mean, we love it, but it wouldn’t suit Bree. Brianna’s wedding dress is not historically accurate. Let’s explain.
While she did find the fabric at Aunt Jocasta's, the orange blossoms weren't typical for this time period. Also, white and cream wedding dresses weren't really worn until after Queen Victoria's marriage to Albert in 1840. So, although Bree looked gorgeous, her dress isn't technically the 18th century. Biggar told Town & Country that this beautiful, buttermilk cream dress was a deliberate artistic choice.
Look closer, and you’ll see a clever mix of styles, time periods, and cultures. This was done to portray how Brianna herself is a mix of cultures and time periods. And the orange blossoms were intended as a nod to the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless, Brianna's wedding dress has a touching backstory.
"We make a point of showing that this is one of Jocasta’s dresses that has been re-configured for the wedding. It's a hand-me-down, which is quite sweet," actress Sophie Skelton told Vogue.
So to end off, while time travel, romance, and breathtaking scenery are a few major attractions of Outlander, its amazingly detailed period costumes deserve an award or two! And we can see the dedication of the costume designers! As Terry Dresbach said:
“No detail [is] too small. That meant 7 days a week, given the size and scope of the show. I won’t lie, it is a grueling show to do. Long hours, hard physical conditions, and a seemingly infinite amount of work to do.’”
Trish Biggar also shared her thoughts on the costumes, explaining how she really felt about her job:
“I didn’t design costumes ... I designed people. People I knew intimately. Worlds I knew intimately. Two centuries and multiple decades.”
In the Finale of season 5, in Claire’s dream, Jamie wraps her in his tartan. This is clearly symbolic since throughout the show this gesture represents safety for Claire. We can almost feel Jamie’s love for her right through the screen while watching him do this.
Therefore, it’s understandable that she’d call up such a comforting and soothing image during the traumatic assault. Speaking with Elle, executive producer Toni Graphia explains:
“We came up with this metaphor of, that she wraps her family around her. Jamie comes up behind her and wraps a blanket around her, the way that he wrapped his kilt around her in the first season.”
We are 99% sure her red outfit in the dream sequence is a symbolic reference to Claire’s iconic red dress in Season 2. Claire felt powerful in the head-turning dress she rocked during their time in Versailles.
So she might be drawing on this memory of herself in a time of strength to get her through the assault. It might also represent a happy and more peaceful (wait, no, forget I said ‘peaceful’!) time.