If you’re not up to date on watching Outlander on Starz OR haven’t read the first book, don’t read this post until you’re caught up on one or both, because I’m going to talk about something major that was just revealed about the character Geillis Duncan. Unless you don’t care about spoilers!
I’ve been biting my tongue through the whole first series to really get into discussing her character, because, of course, if you’re up to date then you know … Geillis is really from the future, just like Claire! 1968, in fact. In addition to being a Wiccan (or adherent of some other form of chaotic-neutral witchcraft), and obviously slightly odd, we now know she too is a time traveler. Why and how did she come back to 1740s Scotland? More will be revealed in the future, but at least now we know WHY she’s always stuck out like a sore thumb among the other Scots.
Sometimes Geillis dresses quite normal (although she wears her hair down an awful lot for a married woman), but then other times she lets her freak flag fly. Costume designer Terry Dresbach wrote about designing for Geillis on her blog:
“I designed Geillis as if she was always playing dress up, always playing a part. That is why not of her costumes connect as if they belonged to one person. There only theme would be that they make people slightly uncomfortable, but they are not entirely sure why.”
On the one hand, Geillis is obviously doing a whole lot to blend into 1740s Cranesmuir (the small town in which she lives): She married an important and well-to-do man, she’s got an important lover (Dougal MacKenzie), but she’s kept him on the downlow, and in some ways she’s key to the lives of the townspeople by providing them with medicines and charms.
On the other hand, she clearly doesn’t give a rat’s ass about seeming weird when the mood strikes her. She cultivates the image of a witch (even going so far as to TELL Claire that people call her a witch), assuming that her well-placed husband will shield her from any negative ramifications. And when she knocks him off, it’s because she’s pretty sure she has an even more powerful husband lined up (Dougal) … except events interfere, and as soon as she’s unprotected, the chickens come home to roost.
Here are some of Geillis’ weirder looks:
The “monkey fur” jacket:
It’s interesting that she wears this in the privacy of her own home, away from judging eyes.
Probably her weirdest outfit is the one she wears to the Gathering. Now in contrast to the previous outfit, Geillis has chosen a SUPER public, SUPER formal event to really let her freak flag fly.
The fabric looped over the shoulder represents an arisaid, a woman’s version of the kilt. Anita Quye and Hugh Cheape write of the arisaid that “It usually consisted of a large rectangle of fabric, coloured or of tartan, worn over the shoulders, fastened with a brooch and hanging low towards the ankles” (Rediscovering the Arisaid).
Geillis wears her arisaid in the manner that is seen at Renaissance faires across the country — over one shoulder — although most of the (very few) historical images I’ve seen show it being worn more like a shawl:
Claire wears her arisaid in a manner that looks much more like the period imagery:
Back to Geillis’s arisaid, why the white? Quye and Cheape write that arisaids were usually striped, sometimes checked. On the other hand, they provide a few different sources that mention white arisaids. For example, in 1793, Reverend John Lane Buchanan describes the comparatively out-of-date dress worn by Highland women on the islands. He mentions the arisaid as being out of fashion, but says that when it was worn, “The ladies made use of the finer, while common women used coarser kinds of flannel, or white woollen cloths.” However, it is unclear whether these “white” arisaids are actually to a solid white color, or a tartan woven in a white ground (which would still be quite colorful; here’s an example).
Nonetheless, Geillis’s pale color scheme makes her look ethereal, moth-like, and completely different from everyone else at the Gathering:
An oversize “lover’s eye” brooch completes the weirdness:
What’s interesting about the brooch is that it could represent Geillis’s hidden romance with Dougal (this could be a literal image of Dougal’s eye). Although HOW hidden is it really? Geillis is clearly not going to wear an image of her husband’s eye, so I’d think most people would look at that and think, “Yeah, not your husband’s.” Furthermore, it also calls to mind an omnipresent watcher and/or a third eye. I don’t know about you, but I find that giant eye staring at me to be unsettling.
Now on the one hand, part of me says, “Geillis is pretty smart. Why wouldn’t she try to blend in more?” On the other, see again the whole idea that she WANTS to be the weird one, the witch, the semi-crazy one. And she’s from 1968. The summer of love. Hippies. There’s a reason I made a Stevie Nicks joke in reference to Geillis! I HAVE read the books, I did know where they were going here. She’s bringing her super Wiccan flower power vibe to 1740s Scotland.
And, in fact, she wears only this “arisaid” and brooch for her late-night spell casting in the woods:
The other super bizarre outfit that Geillis wears is her mourning/widow’s dress, which she has on when she gets tried for witchcraft. Costume designer Terry Dresbach writes on her blog,
“I was in a fabric store in London, and this fabric got up off of the shelf, and said, ‘HEY!!! I am Geillis’s widows weeds’ … It looks like feathers … I knew I wanted it to be the most outrageous mourning gown one could imagine. And I knew I wanted white in it. Lots of it.”
The choice of black and white is very appropriate, even if the fabric texture is very crazy. The main research I have read on mourning clothing in the 18th century focuses on France. In her article for the research journal Costume, Kimberly Chrisman-Campell argues that in France, 18th-century mourning clothing was quite analogous to what the heavy rules applied in the Victorian era. Now, granted, France had official court mourning, which wouldn’t be applicable here. Nonetheless, both black (for the first stage of mourning) and white (for the second) were worn to indicate ceremonial mourning. We can look at Barbara Johnson, a middle-class English woman whose album of fabric swatches representing the clothing she bought across the mid- and late-18th century, as more representative of average (and British) wear. She had a dress made in black “stuff” (wool or linen/wool) to wear for mourning for the Prince of Wales in 1751, and another similar fabric for personal mourning (her father) in 1756.
But despite her wearing of conventional colors, ain’t NOTHING sad or conventional about Geillis in this dress:
One footnote to make — although this dress appears to be a black dress over a white petticoat and stomacher, yes, we’ve got a back-lacing bodice. This is not how such a dress would have been made in the period (although clearly, that wasn’t a goal with this character):
As I always do when I see back-lacing 18th-century dresses, I wonder, why? I assume it has to be for ease in dressing — that way, you can sew the stomacher into the dress and not have to put multiple layers onto the actress. If it’s for adjustability, then that’s silly, because the whole POINT of a front-opening, over-a-stomacher gown is that you pin it on, and that is ultra-adjustable.
One final outfit worth mentioning is her out-in-the-woods jacket:
Terry talks on her blog about how this is a reinterpretation of an extant 18th century jacket, and I think it’s pretty much a genius adaptation:
Clearly the original would be WAY too fancy, but again, I think that pointed hood is the kind of subtle clue that works perfectly for Geillis’s witchy woman persona.
So, what did you think of Geillis’ desire to stand out of the crowd, sartorially? Does it work for your read of her character?
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. “Mourning and La Mode at the Court of Louis XVI.” Costume 39, no. 1 (2005): 64-78.
Quye, Anita, and Hugh Cheape. “Rediscovering the Arisaid. Costume 42, no. 1 (2008): 1-20.