This is the next article of the stage costumes series. This time, we’ll talk about the movie “Outlander” and Scottish traditional costumes used in it (at least in the first season of this serial). Folk clothing experts gave their opinion on how accurate the stage costumes of “Outlander” are. Also, we will find out what we should know about that historical period – the 18th century – and how the clothing articles for this show were created. First of all, let’s discuss the general info about the Outlander tartans.
The “Outlander” story is about a World War II nurse who, in 1945, is transported back in time to Scotland in 1743, during the early days of the Jacobite Risings.
“Outlander” series costume designer Terry Dresbach is best known for the HBO series “Carnival”, for which she won an Emmy in 2005. She was nominated for an Emmy and Costume Designer Guild Award for her work on “Outlander”, but lost out to Michele Clapton who is the costume designer for “Game of Thrones”.
This material is based on the video from a YouTube channel “Costume CO”. A dress historian and material culturist Brenna Barks also helped to create this analysis.
“Outlander” has had to make adjustments along the way. Terry Dresbach even stated that she had to rework her initial design. Having come up with concepts from her home in sunny California, she had no idea how cold it would be shooting in Scotland. For the sake of not killing the actors with hypothermia while on location, some initial concepts were scrapped.
But that doesn't mean we can let the design team completely off the hook. Brenna Barks says, “As a material culturist and dress/textile historian – especially one who has dedicated most of her research life to Scottish and Welsh dress and textile history – I get unbelievably frustrated/tired of being lectured on how I'm wrong despite having been up to my elbows in surviving garments, letters, accounts, etc., because they saw it on “Outlander”. It seems minor and those people are in the (very vocal) minority, but it's still taxing after a while”.
We know that, in reality, not everyone cares about historical accuracy, but for those of you that do, we will point out these inaccuracies in “Outlander” along the way – just so you know what the real history is.
The “Outlander” tartan origins
The manufacturer of the “Outlander” tartan fabric can be tracked to Ingles Buchan Textiles Ltd. which is a 50-year-old Glasgow (Scotland) based business that produces tartan accessories, including scarves, ties, and waistcoats. Ingles Buchan produced more than 500 meters of tartan cloth – a twill weave – for the costumes of the show.
All of the “Outlander” tartans were designed by Gordon Kirkbright, formerly a Fraser & Kirkbright Weaving Company Ltd. in Vancouver (Canada).
Here are the first three tartans registered with the Scottish register of tartans. They were used as Outlander tartans.
One area of dispute between historians and this series is the color palette.
Terry Dresbach said, “We did a lot of research about the dyes of that period, and about the plants available in that region. There is a lot of evidence about how expensive certain colors were, or about what amounts and time it took to achieve some of the intense colors. When we put ourselves in the shoes of poor rural Highlanders, we couldn't quite figure out what the motivation would be to spend time necessary to achieve those colors to wear in daily life”.
Meanwhile, Brenna Barks says that in “Outlander”, the fabrics were often inaccurate… the uniformity of colors was obvious”. Like in this picture seen here, which depicts the Highlanders wearing a set of drab and uniformly woven tartans.
Brenna argues from a historical perspective, “There were no men wearing a variety of different tartans – at the time period they would have worn a mix and of whichever ones took their fancy”.
Brenna adds that “People seem to think that absolutely everyone wore bright colors. When I say that Highlanders were known for being magpies and liking bright colors like blue, red, and yellow, but there weren't any of those at all in the “Outlander” costumes”.
People would save up to buy that bit of red dye – or more usually, blue. Bright blue is the usual color associated with Scottish dress until the Royal Stewart Tartan came about (because who doesn't want something nice to wear?). People don't change that much over the centuries, and there was an awful lot of drab grays and dark colors.
And Gordon added that, while red dye would have been imported from South America in the 18th century, other colors, such as yellow, would have been more readily available locally.
It's true that production made a conscious decision not to show any variety with the non-principal cast in “Outlander”. Gordon says that after the order of the first three Outlander tartans, the design team ordered an additional two tartan designs (pictured here) that would be used by all of the other townspeople.
The tartan on the right, meanwhile, was chosen as the one for both Rupert and Angus.
Costumes of the lads
Brenna Barks says that compared to previous outings like “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy”, the design teams version of Scottish costumes was a breath of fresh air. She states that the series gets the portrayal of Scottish men, for the most part, correctly. “The details may be fudged a bit (but there are so many good excuses for that: we've got budget, we aren't dressing 18th-century bodies, time constraints, etc.), but the silhouette and the variety in clothing is a relief”.
The usual portrayal is cookie-cutter, uniformous costuming we saw in “Braveheart” or “Rob Roy”. And having seen the Braveheart costumes in person, it was basically something you pulled over your head like a pinafore.
Brenna says that “In “Outlander”, men wear both trews and kilts, and they wear a variety of tartans and other fabrics which is far more likely. People weren't nipping down to the shops to buy their clothes, things were all hand-woven and homemade so being identical was highly unlikely”.
And although we often think of trews as having a tartan pattern, the word just means “trousers” in Scottish. Under the Dress Act 1746, tartan trews were banned outside of military service until 1782.
To start the lads off, here is Jamie Fraser's mood board.
Terry Dresbach has been very generous with sharing images through her website but also through social media. You might recall that a mood board is a sort of starting point for many costume designers before they even get to the rendering stage, and sometimes (perhaps in a contemporary setting), it might even replace a sketch entirely.
According to Dresbach’s website, this is an early sketch of Jamie. By the swatching, it appears that the team had already determined the tartan fabric. So, the basic elements are there, although Dresbach hasn't included Jamie's waistcoat and jacket. And like the rendering, part of a Scottish man's wardrobe would be a simple shirt and the belted plaid.
Jamie, portrayed by actor Sam Heughan, is seen here in his complete Highland dress. The most important part, of course, is the belted plaid which is, essentially, a length of tartan fabric that has been wrapped around the waist, belted, and the remains draped over his shoulder and secured with a brooch. In this ensemble, he also wears a waistcoat (which is a long 18th-century vest), a coat, and stock tie. His stock tie, as we'll see throughout the show on many characters, is tied in a square knot and tucked neatly into his waistcoat.
Gordon Kirkbright says that, for the show, it took approximately 3 yards or 12 feet of tartan (that measures 60 inches wide) to make one Outlander great kilt. In the 18th century, the plaid was described as being between 12 to 18 feet long and about 5 feet wide, and it was made of two strips of cloth at about 30 inches wide that were sewn together lengthwise. Highland looms at the time could only weave a maximum width of 25-30 inches, so two lengths had to be sewn together salvage to salvage and then that would be hidden within the folds.
Dresbach said that each male cast member was actually allowed to decide how they wanted to wear their kilt.
According to Brenna, in the episode “The Reckoning” she says, “Jamie gives a very, very accurate portrayal of how a Highlander wore his kilt. A plaid is laid out, pleated by hand, and then the man lies down on it, wraps the ends around himself, buckles his belt, and the remainder of the plaid is draped around the coat and pinned to the chest of the jacket”.
In this shot on the left, Jamie wears knee-high riding boots over long wool socks. We also see his leather belt that holds his dirk and the leather cross piece or baldrick that holds his sword. You might notice that the kilt has a raw edge that's not neatly finished, like you would see in modern kilts.
Brenna says, “You would be absolutely amazed at the number of people who don't seem to realize the modern short kilt is, well, the modern short kilt, and then when trying to recreate the great kilt, don't bother to look at one”.
Now, Brenna adds that there are practical reasons for wearing the kilt, saying, “The kilt had a distinctive advantage in the Highland countryside where the bracken, heather, and heath are rather unfriendly and like to cling to woven fibers. A kilt stops above the level of the shrubbery, enabling the wearer to move freely – as opposed, perhaps, to the English, trouser-wearing soldiers they might be up against”.
Pictured on the left, is Jamie's oval annular brooch fastened to his plaid. And on the right, is an example of a late 18th-century circular silver Scottish brooch on display at the National Museum of Scotland. This brooch was made in Inverness.
Pictured on the left, is the official Outlander tartan worn by Jamie and sold through “The Celtic Croft”. On the right, is a tartan detail of the Outlander pattern number 3 from the Scottish tartan registry. And the colors look slightly different because the image on the right is a digital image and not an actual fabric swatch.
Gordon Kirkbright says that the Outlander fabric was woven in a hopsack plain weave which is looser than a contemporary weaved. Then, it's washed to remove the oils and machine-dried, similar to the dry cleaning process. The wool shrinks during the washing process and is stretched back to about 60 inches wide.
This Scottish woolen twill-weave tartan coat, sometimes called the “culloden coat”, is an example of a Highland jacket around 1740-46. This coat is from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. And while it's a much bolder colored tartan in keeping with the brighter palette of the period, the cut is very similar to Jaime's coat, although slightly longer.
According to the Glasgow Museums, mid-1700s coats generally covered the thigh, but this one is cut to the hips to allow to be worn over a belted plaid. After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1746, the government banned Highland dress, making Highland clothing from the 1700s very rare. This coat is, therefore, a wonderful surviving example from this period.
Jaime's waistcoat and coat have distress metal buttons. The coat has them on the right side and on the sleeves, and the cuffs of his jacket are shorter than the historical example. Cuffs were getting shorter toward the middle of the 18th century.
Here's a close-up of the subtle tartan pattern on Jaime's coat – a brown wool background with three rows of muted blue to create this sort of windowpane pattern. And from this close-up, it appears that the buttonholes are non-functional and for decoration only.
Pictured on the left, are Jaime's weapons. We have a Scottish basket-hilt broadsword – a sword with a basket-shaped guard to protect the hand. It's got a wider blade than the rapier, hence the name. And then we also have a dirk, which is a long, thrusting dagger, commonly carried by Highlanders. And on the right, is a steel&wood Jacobite basket hilt to a broadsword from Kelvingrove History Discovery Center in Scotland. And it dates between 1700 and 1710.
So, if you look closely, you'll see that Jamie's sword also has an “S” incorporated into the basket. The “S” might be for “Sterling Swordsmiths”, who were the makers of the sword. Also, the “S” might also stand for “Stewart” as in James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of King James II of England and VII of Scotland.
The disarming act of 1746 put the Sterling Swordsmiths out of business temporarily.
Here's a shot of Jamie without his coat on. The waistcoat or vest is made from a topi cloth, maybe linen or lightweight wool, and the back is made from a natural linen cloth and lacing.
The back part of the longer waistcoat is often shorter than the front, and the lacing might be for the ease if the bearer gains or loses weight.
And according to historians, men would not have worn their waistcoats alone, without their coats, unless they were engaged in hard physical labor.
Here's a pretty stripped down version of Jamie, with his shirt and belted plaid. The shirt is often what we think of as a “poet's shirt”. It's cut generously, giving it that voluminousness, and with drop shoulders. The sleeves appear to be seamed to the body with some gathers just for ease, but cut generously and then gathered into the cuff. This creates this sort of romantic sleeve.
There are very few examples of shirts from the 18th century because they would be worn near the body and, as a natural fiber, would decompose at a greater rate than other historical items. We couldn't find any pictures of shirts from before the 1750s, but here's a fine example of a man's linen hand-sewn shirt that dates between 1750 and 1800, and it’s from the V&A Museum in London.
The next picture shows how the makeup artist is using what looks like a paintbrush to apply makeup to actor Sam Heughan’s face, wide enough to cover dirt over a large area. And the girls in the front look like they're smoothing out his stock tie between takes.
Jamie is wearing woolen trews here. Since we've seen Jamie in a belted plaid for the majority of Season 1, Dresbach outfitted him in trews to show another side of his character. She explained, “Trews were worn most often by men who had the means to own a horse – it was more comfortable for obvious reasons. But we need to add a shadow nuance to him and to all of our characters as they develop over the years”. And she adds, “Even Clark Kent had two costumes to show two sides of his character”.
Pictured here, is a studio shot of Jamie's wedding attire. Terry Dresbach says of his costume, “This is the first time we see the Fraser tartan. Since we had made the decision not to do the Victorian “clan tartans”, I felt that we still needed to honor the book and put in the red (and gold). It was important to me. The Fraser tartan is similar to the McKenzie, being from the same area, but still needed to be set apart”.
Pictured on the left, is Jamie's Outlander Fraser wedding tartan from “The Celtic Croft”, and on the right, is Fraser hunting weathered tartan. So you can see how close these two tartans are.
Here's Gordon's digital Fraser tartan design taken from the Scottish Registry, pictured on the left. And on the right, is the ancient Fraser hunting heavyweight tartan of Norman origin.
Jamie wears this lovely velvet frock coat the first time we've seen him in any real color, and a blue-green waistcoat. Terry Dresbach said that this photo is misleading, “His coat is not green, it is blue, much closer to the color of his waistcoat, though it does tint a bit to the teal”.
The wardrobe team chose a diamond stock pin for his cravat.
And Dresbach’s set did the most exquisite embroidery on the cuffs of his shirt, just to get a little glint of metallic to pick up his pin and Claire's dress.
In Episode 12, Jamie swaps out his tartan cloth coat for this leather tailcoat, trews, and a black waistcoat. The coat originally belonged to his father Brian Fraser.
Here's an example of a British Royal Navy uniform, double-breasted frock coat circa 1748. You also see the double-breasted feature on many of the British redcoats, but none of them are cutaway like Jamie's.
Here's another coat from the Metropolitan Museum. This one's French from later in the century. It's still not quite right but it has the turn-back double-breasted feature that we see on Jamie's coat and the tails in the back.
Of dressing men and leather in the 18th century, Brenna says, “My other minor pet peeve is putting men in leather jackets and trousers. Leather tanning is a long, labor-intensive, extremely stinky process at this point. Not to mention that to get the leather supple enough to make trousers and jackets at the time would have been prohibitively expensive. Some examples do exist of leather coats, but they are the exception, not the rule”.
Here's Jamie's final look from Season 1, as he and Claire sail off to France.