Our recent post discussing the costumes in S2E2 of Outlander has generated some interesting conversation on the topic of one outfit in particular. No, it’s not the red dress. Nor is it the 1940s-Meets-1740s Dior-inspired dress. Nope, it’s this dress that appeared for all of a hot second on screen:
Seems that not many of our readers/listeners were aware that this is actually based on a certain fad in the 18th century for “Vandyke” dresses. The dress that Claire is wearing seems likely inspired by the following portraits by English artists John Vanderbeck and Thomas Hudson:
Vanderbank and Hudson were capitalizing on a trend for 17th-century costume that had taken hold by the 1730s. It’s in interesting topic to delve into, and one that seems terribly modern if you look at it in the same sense that contemporary fashion looks backward constantly for inspiration (in other words, 1960s = 1920s; 1970s = 1930s; 1980s = 1950s; 1990s = 1960s-70s; 2000s = 1980s; 2010s = 1990s… Everything is derivative! Nothing is new under the sun!).
So what portraits were these artists referencing, you ask? Probably this one by Peter Paul Rubens of his wife in the 17th century:
However, in its weird way, the fashionable people of the 18th-century referred to this style of dress as “Vandyke,” after, of course, the 17th-century Dutch Master, Anthony Van Dyck. And Van Dyck painted a number of portraits from the first half of the 17th century that seem to have inspired elements of the styles seen 100 years later:
Now, obviously, if you compare the Vanderbeck and Hudson portraits and the Rubens and Van Dyck portraits side by side, you can see there’s a lot of differences between them. In case it’s not obvious, the reason is that they were taking a 17th-century silhouette and translating it using an 18th-century aesthetic. So the differences in proportion will make it seem like we’re talking about two distinct styles, but we’re really not. Honest. The Van Dyck costume was totally A Thing in the 18th century — they just weren’t interested in recreating an exact replica.
You can see reference points in a number of other 17th-century portraits such as this Netscher portrait from about 1650:
There’s also this Rubens self-portrait with his family:
This trend seems to have continued throughout the 18th century. In the 1780s, we see George Romney repeating the look in his portrait of Lady Milnes:
And again, in his portrait of Isabella Hamilton:
Now, whether or not these gowns were actually worn in real life, or if they were merely relegated to the status of “fancy dress” (i.e., costumes) or were allegorical (i.e., imaginary) is debatable.
I fall on the side of “probably not worn for everyday wear,” as there seems to be a bit too much “retro” compared to the contemporary mid-18th century fashions. It would be a lot like you or I lounging around in our houses in Victorian clothing. Short of being a Victorian fetishist, it’s not going to be something the vast majority of 21st-century women would be doing. So, it’s one thing to have your portrait made wearing an antique style of dress, but it’s another to wear it out and about.
At any rate, I hope you enjoyed this little art historical detour from our usual snarky discourse.
I’d like to thank Trystan for her help in compiling this little collection of Vandyke dress portraits. She’s sort of obsessed with this style and assures me that eventually she will get around to writing a research paper on the topic.