The Real Deal on Tartan, Kilts, and Outlander Costumes

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Frock Flicks note: Today we feature a detailed review of the costumes in Outlander by Brenna Barks, an expert on Scottish dress and 18th-century fashion (and a Frock Flicks reader!). As soon as Kendra met Brenna and heard the words “studied Scottish dress as part of my master’s degree,” she said “REVIEW OUTLANDER FOR US!” For more on Brenna, you’ll find a bio at the end of this post. We’re excited to bring you such a detailed review written by someone who really knows her stuff.

As the only student in my class of the (Art) History, Theory and Display taught programme at the University of Edinburgh looking at dress and textile history – material culture more generally – it’s really not a surprise that the majority of papers I wrote that year were on tartan and Scottish dress. What started as a curiosity and an “easy” topic to research and use as the basis for a truly terrible virtual exhibition project has grown into a driving passion.

Wanting to do something different, I wrote my thesis on colonialism and the exotic other – specifically the influence of India on British dress, textiles, and society – research that has influenced my subsequent, though unpublished, research on Scottish dress and material culture. I’ve long thought I wanted to do a PhD examining Scottish dress as the romantic and exotic other, a perception that is pervasive and still very popular — as a recent article for Jezebel expounding false myths about tartan’s origins and uses proves. Unfortunately, the current economy has meant that funding for such a project is sparse if non-existent. I’d recently decided that I would instead write a book, when the magnificent Kendra and I began talking about costuming in “Outlander” at the Costume Society of America, Western Region, Symposium back in October.

I as yet hadn’t watched the show, and she mentioned my taking the costuming apart from the Scottish angle for Frock Flicks. Having loved the blog for quite some time, I was quite keen. As it also meant spending an entire weekend binge-watching Jamie and kilts followed by immediately getting my inner snark on, how could I possibly say no?

Promotional shot #1

We’ll start with a disclaimer: I do, technically, have Scottish heritage. However, this is a recent discovery made by my father within the last few months of his genealogical research, not something passed down to me by parents or grandparents. I feel this is an asset, actually, because I do not have a vested interest in preserving or destroying any attitudes or ideas. My lack of “Scottish-ness” meant I could take things as I found them: Fascinating insights into the history of a topic I truly love.

Second, a word on terminology. In the United States, plaid and tartan are interchangeable. Not so in Scotland – one of many problems I found in the above-mentioned Jezebel article (we’ll get to the others in time). In Scotland, a “plaid” is simply a long length of fabric or a blanket. This means that when someone is referring to the wearing of a plaid, it could be a woman’s arisaig, or it could be the long end of the kilt that is often looped up in a brooch, or it could, quite frankly, be a plain blanket with no patterning whatsoever. Tartan is the pattern. Tartan is always a twill weave. And the change in patterns comes from the different “setts” or groupings of lines of color. You can see two different setts below in the tartans for the (Royal) Stewart and Macdonald of the Isles tartans – two families that had a huge rivalry which resulted in subsequent attitudes toward the Highlanders as traitors and savages and not to be trusted – for more information, I highly recommend BBC Scotland’s “A History of Scotland” episode 4, and not just because host Neil Oliver is easy on the eyes.

Royal_stewart

Stewart Tartan

Macdonald tartan

Macdonald Tartan

Now on to the important bit. The first problem was that from the sheer perspective of male Scottish dress of the 18th century, I had very little to snark about. Especially not after the mid-season premiere opened with Jamie giving a very, very accurate portrayal of how a Highlander wore his kilt. I’m sure your hearts bleed for me and my having to watch and rewind, and watch and rewind in order to capture the screencaps below. This may have happened more than strictly necessary; I neither confirm nor deny anything.

Screencap 5 Screencap 6

What this opening sequence does in a better way than I could describe is demonstrate how the 18th-century (and 17th and 16th and possibly 15th – but probably no sooner) Highlander got dressed in a kilt. A plaid is laid out, pleated by hand, then the man lies down on it, wraps the ends round himself, buckles his belt, and the remainder of the plaid is draped around the coat and pinned to the chest of the jacket.

Screencap 7

See, how am I supposed to snark about something they get SO RIGHT? Le Sigh.

This was not the first instance where I was shocked at the accuracy – or at costume designer Terry Dresbach’s subtle defiance of the mythological expectations? – in the show.

I was piqued after the “ghost of Jamie” scene, which seemed to show exactly the right silhouette and attire for an 18th-century Highlander (does anyone else hear an echo of “there can only be one” whenever they read that word?). As you can see in the screencap below, there is the long kilt – again for reference about what a short kilt is, see “A History of Scotland,” specifically episode 9 – with the plaid looped over a frock coat and pinned in place, and he is clearly wearing a tam, which does appear to be blue. It’s straight out of Dr. Johnson’s history of his travels in the Highlands.

Screencap 1

This was further brought home in the scene in the hut immediately after Murtagh’s rescue of Claire. We see an array of tartans, many of which seem travel- and sun-bleached. This is appropriate because the Highlands were not wealthy. They were downright poor. At the first conference I attended and spoke at, a fellow Scottish dress historian shared her research into the post-Culloden Highland dress. She had done this through combing through funerary records and often a single kilt/plaid was all the clothing a Highlander wore. Thus, Angus and Rupert’s kilts looking more than a little weather-beaten is absolutely accurate. More so is Dougal’s wearing of “trews” or trousers.

Screencap 2

There is rather a lot of debate within Scottish dress studies about which was more popular, the kilt or the trews. There is even a full Jacobite suit on display at the National Museum of Scotland (below) which is often used to underscore this question. The suit was commissioned and worn by an English Jacobite, Sir John Hynde Cotton, Baronet, and altered a lot throughout his life because of his love of food. Sir John specifically requested trews as the “more accurate” Scottish dress. However, you must admit – and the travel journals confirm – that the kilt was more unusual and thus more remarked upon. 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. Trust me on this – I made the mistake of going on a trek up Arthur’s Seat before the jet lag had worn off, there was a falling and not getting prickly bits out of my sweater or jeans for a week incident. 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.

Sir John Hynde Cotton’s suit
© National Museum of Scotland

My personal belief is that this was more sport and hunting clothing than standard garb – see my favourite portrait of Sir Mungo Murray by John Michael Wright (1683) below – or that worn by foot soldiers. I just can’t imagine someone wanting to ride a horse for miles and miles in a skirt without underpants. That sounds … uncomfortable to me.

Lord Mungo Murray, ca. 1680 – 1683 John Michael Wright Oil on canvas © Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Lord Mungo Murray, ca. 1680 – 1683
John Michael Wright
Oil on canvas
© Scottish National Portrait Gallery

However, the above screenshot of Dougal and “the boys” is a wonderful compromise. It shows kilts of various tartans and degrees of wear, but Dougal is also wearing trews, and a waistcoat that would have been quite fashionable, thus showing that there was a variety of choice.

This was confirmed later, during “The Rents” episode (#5) when young Willie is being harassed by the other men. Willie clearly wears trews – and more specifically, Willie’s trews are of a completely different tartan than anyone else’s.

Screencap 8

This is why I find it hard to attack Ms. Dresbach’s portrayal of Scottish dress. Is it 100% accurate? No. But she has producers, stylists, and audience expectations to contend with. I will get to the things that go wrong and which sort-of irk me shortly, but for the most part, she and her team have done their research. I would kill to work with them.

Most of all, what blew me away were the tams (hats). This is the ONE aspect of Highlander dress that is irrefutable. People may argue about kilts versus trews. They may argue about tartan. But the tams are everywhere. And Dresbach has them everywhere. Look at the comparison between the screencap from “Sassenach” below with a photograph of evicted Highlanders during the Clearances. Taking into account the change in styles over 120+years, she gets it darn correct – as you will see in the portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie later.

Screencap 3 Screencap 4

Clearances Image

Evicted Highlanders during the Clearances:
St. Kilda Parliament
Photograph by George Washington Wilson
late 19th century

At the risk of infuriating more than a few people, to counter the BIGGEST problem with the Jezebel piece  – and to reiterate what I put in my Worn Through column of a few years ago – allow me to tell you that there is NO SUCH THING AS CLAN TARTAN.

Okay, that is not strictly true. There is definitely clan tartan. There is even an official register for it. However, the idea of clan tartan predates the American Thanksgiving celebration by a decade to 25 years. And American Thanksgiving, as the Smithsonian American History Museum blog revealed a few months ago, is basically Civil War propaganda designed to try and give the Union and Confederates common ground.

But this idea that there were people going out after the end of the Acts of Proscription to “collect” the “ancient” clan tartans for the register is completely bogus. The Acts of Proscription were enacted by Parliament in 1746, post-Culloden, to try and prevent a further uprising. In fact, it was cultural genocide designed to successfully wipe out Highland culture. And it did. Remember that.

This was largely because Bonnie Prince Charlie got really, really close to taking London and that frightened the Hanovers. He will remain for time and all eternity a “might have been.” As well as banning the Gaelic language (because you can totally police what people on the islands and in the Highlands speak when they know you’re not around), the Acts included the Dress Act, which banned the wearing of tartan and Highland dress. There was a misperception that tartan and Highland dress were the marks of Jacobite sympathy. They weren’t – it was the white cockade you wore in your hat (blue tam) as seen in the portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie below.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 - 1788. Eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, ca. 1750 Wiliam Mosman Oil on canvas © Scottish National Galleries

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720-1788. Eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, ca. 1750
Wiliam Mosman
Oil on canvas
© Scottish National Galleries

In a way it backfired and tartan became a symbol of resistance. So much so that a young advocate (lawyer) named Walter Scott would use it in his novel, Waverley, which would not only reinvent Scottish Highland culture, but give it to the world, and get young Walter a baronetcy.

Sir Walter Scott, Bt., 1822 Henry Raeburn Oil on canvas © National Galleries of Scotland

Sir Walter Scott, Bt., 1822
Henry Raeburn
Oil on canvas
© National Galleries of Scotland

In his novel – a novel so seminal that the main train station in Edinburgh is called “Waverley,” not “Edinburgh” – Scott made tartan and clan tartan a staple of Highland life. It had an “ancient” and long tradition.

Except it didn’t. There is no evidence of tartan as we know it until the late 15th to 16th centuries at the latest. Archaeological evidence supports the blander fabrics such as the shepherd’s plaid/tartan below as far back as the third century of the Common Era – but simple check patterns are not what we think of as tartan.

Nevertheless, the now Sir Walter Scott’s imaginings – designed to counteract the demand for a voter-reform act that would come in 1832 through a bizarre nostalgia, wishing for a feudalistic world of loyalty and acceptance of “one’s place” that probably never existed – were popularized first through his novels (publishing began anonymously in 1814, but the secret did not remain so for long), and were cemented when he acted as stage manager and master of ceremonies for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. As the Keeper of Scottish History for the National Museum of Scotland told my class once, George IV was desperate to be loved by someone and he certainly wasn’t going to be loved by his wife … so he came to Edinburgh. This very public royal approval of Scottish life made Sir Walter Scott’s attitudes permanent. And quite frankly, who can blame the Scots? Highland life had been intentionally and all but completely obliterated. If a Scottish lawyer wanted to give them back their culture and their dignity, they would accept it with relish.

The current clan tartans are, quite frankly, brilliant marketing. No doubt Sir Walter Scott got his idea from the Black Watch regiments, all of whom wear the same tartan. But then again, as a military unit, they would. In fact, the Black Watch regiments were commissioned by George II in 1725 or so following the 1715 rising (led by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father, unsuccessfully) to patrol the Highlands of Scotland. The Hanoverian “clans” signed up in droves. The government commissioned Wilsons and Son of Bannockburn to design a tartan for the regiment and thus the first permanent sett was created.

Until Black Watch, tartan setts were vague and varied, as you see in the below screencap of “The Gathering.” You picked the design you wanted, and you paid for the colours you could afford.

Screencap 10

This is where it gets tricky, and where I start to make a puckered-lip-disapproving face at “Outlander.” All – and I do mean ALL – of the accounts basically describe the Highlanders as peacocks. They liked bright colors, reds and particularly blues. And the 18th-century portraits portraying tartan bear this out. You wore your wealth to advertise your status – thus if you could afford red either from China or South America, or blue in the form of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, you bought it and had it woven. You didn’t bother to prove clan loyalty through fabric, you did so through the very brooch that Jamie threw away before his “oath” at the gathering. Why? Because it was not HIS clan insignia and motto. Or if you could not afford the silver – and many could not – you did it through a “clan” herb or plant, such as a white rose or white fabric cockade in your bonnet, to prove your loyalty to the Jacobite cause.

Screencap 11

But, Scottish people of the 19th century had read their Sir Walter Scott novels and wanted to know what their clan tartans were. There was no “collecting” of them – as the Jezebel article and multiple others suggest. Instead, quite frankly, you walked in, asked for your tartan and Wilsons of Bannockburn plucked a sett at random off the wall and put your name on it. From there, it has become more formalized. And 200 years in, there are absolutely clan tartans. You wouldn’t claim that there is no United States because it wasn’t here 5,000 years ago. But this idea that something must be millennia old to simply exist, that if it’s not depicted in “Outlander,” then somehow the show is wrong, or that your clan tartan doesn’t exist — this is a denial of the present Scottish culture. A culture that has endured cultural genocide and remade itself and did so with eyes wide open but redefining itself without outside influence, expanding what was given it into the present day tartan industry and register. A living, breathing, modern culture that thrives and moves with the times, and which is not denigrated simply because the inventions of Sir Walter Scott did not really exist in 1743 Scotland.

But I digress.

Wilsons of Bannockburn order: 1825 Letter to William Wilsons & Son of Bannockburn ordering a length of ‘LESLIE, HUNTING’ tartan © National Museums of Scotland

1825 Letter to William Wilsons & Son of Bannockburn ordering a length of ‘LESLIE, HUNTING’ tartan
© National Museums of Scotland

This desire – expectation, really – for “clan tartan” is evident in the show during “The Wedding” (#7), but here it is not the fault of the costume design team but of the story. The story calls for Jamie to demand to be married in Fraser attire. That this would have meant his insignia, not a specific tartan is immaterial. Costume design exists to further the story, so Ms. Dresbach and her team complied with the story rather than the history. That is their job, after all.

Screencap 12

The problem is that this resembles a dulled version of the Fraser hunting tartan.

Fraser Tartan

Fraser Tartan

Fraser Hunting Tartan

Fraser Hunting Tartan

Though again, this is catering to probably a combination of producer and artistic director ideas about the show’s general aesthetic and a public misperception about which colors were available. And it underlines what I find distracting about the fabrics in the show with my personal background. The tartans are all too modern. They are subtle and in keeping with modern ideas about taste and sophistication, and about what life was like in the 18th century. Though it is hard to fault a costuming team for complying with what the audience wants to see. The movie/television industry is out to make money, and people pay more for what meets their expectations and demands.

Promotional shot #2

All of the historical accounts of tartan mention it as a fabric that is bright in color, as you can see below in an account of Highland dress from 1600:

… the habite of the Highland men … is stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane … A jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is made of; their garters being bands of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuff than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads.

Other accounts specify a penchant for red and blue – those being the most expensive dyes after purple.

Yet as you can see, the tartans in the show are subtle, not bright. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were no subtle tartans, I must admit. Only those who could afford them would have tartans in reds and blues and bright colors. Everyone else had to make do with the local vegetable dyes. And visitors would only notice what was really, really obvious. Like the kilts and the bright colors, giving us perhaps a skewed historical perception of what was worn.

See what I mean about it being very difficult to get snarky about the costumes? Ruined my whole plan.

The actual setts might be too modern as well. Most people painting tartan in the 18th century didn’t really know what they were doing. But as you can see in the two portraits below, they tended to be far blockier and less subtle than seen in “Outlander.”

Sir Robert Dalrymple of Castleton, ca. 1920 Artist unknown Oil on canvas © Family of Major Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, Bt.

Sir Robert Dalrymple of Castleton, ca. 1820
Artist unknown
Oil on canvas
© Family of Major Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, Bt.

John Campbell of the Bank, 1749 William Mosman Scottish Oil on canvas © National Galleries of Scotland

John Campbell of the Bank, 1749
William Mosman
Scottish
Oil on canvas
© National Galleries of Scotland

A portrait of Flora Macdonald from the Scottish portrait painter, Allan Ramsay, shows the fabric in more detail. Even here, though, the sett is far bolder than anything seen in the show. But again, I do understand the costuming team’s need to balance historical accuracy with audience expectation. People don’t seem to realize that there were trade connections between Britain and Afghanistan at the time Stonehenge was built, let alone in 1743.

Flora Macdonald, poss. 1749 Allan Ramsay Scottish Oil on canvas

Flora Macdonald, poss. 1749
Allan Ramsay
Scottish
Oil on canvas

There’s also the fact that tartan, essentially an expensive fabric, is used to line Claire’s cloak. You don’t hide fabrics that expensive – at least not in Highland culture, which was rather flamboyant.

Screencap 13

So basically, the mixture of trews and kilts, the mixture of tartans is all absolutely right. Even if I, personally, find much of what Claire wears “too modern.” After all, just because we DON’T have the records for subtle tartans at this point doesn’t mean they weren’t there. There is a constriction to provable use within the re-enactment/academic fields that film, television, and stage costuming don’t have.

And quite frankly, I love the subtle rebellion against the popular misconceptions that Ms. Dresbach and her team snuck in in the form of different, if subtle tartans; the mixture of trews with kilts, etc. It shows that they know their research, know what the audience wants, but are still quietly going to get as much historical accuracy as Hollywood will allow in where they can.

Screencap 9

And then there is the 1970s to early noughts knitwear. Oh em gee. Distraction, distraction, distraction. There was indeed knitting happening. There is even an entire department at the University of Glasgow’s textile history department dedicated to the history of Scottish knitting. But it was not done on chunky needles using chunky yarn. Knitting needles were tiny – literally needles – at this point.

But again, they are catering to a general aesthetic for the show, and trying to use some history to further that aesthetic and the story, and probably ensure that Caitriona Balfe doesn’t freeze to death on set. Or Graham McTavish for that matter.

Screencap 14

As you can see in the image above, McTavish as Dougal is wearing cuffs knit in stockinette in the round with a garter-stitch border under his frock coat and shirt. I’m a knitter, so I know what I’m seeing here. The stitches are too big, etc., for the time period as far as I know. But it does make me wonder… mid-18th-century frock coats DID have those large, open cuffs. That’s a lot of room for cold drafts to sneak in.

I lived in Scotland for a year. I did my internship in an 18th-century, north-facing seat of an earl. It gets really, really cold. So staring at those cuffs in the above scene from “The Garrison Commander,” I found myself wondering what they did do to keep their wrists and necks warm.

Even if it’s not completely accurate, it inspired a research question – and that’s not really a bad thing, is it?

So, where next?

We meet the Earl of Sandringham on Saturday. Who may or may not have shared Sir John Hynde Cotton’s Jacobite sympathies – but is definitely too subtle to wear a flamboyantly tartan suit, even if he is flamboyant in, ahem, other ways. What will he be wearing? There are also, from the teaser images, suggestions of Jamie wearing trews. Why the shift? Also, why do men’s legs look skinnier in trews than they do in a kilt? Seriously.

All I know, is that as someone who has dedicated my research life to Scottish dress, I can’t wait to see what Terry Dresbach and her team have in store for the rest of the season.

Recommended Reading

Bank, Jeffrey and de la Chapelle, Doria (eds). 2007. Tartan: Romancing the Plaid. Rizzoli: New York.

Cheape, Hugh. 2006. Tartan: The Highland Habit. National Museum of Scotland: Edinburgh.

Finlay, Victoria. 2004. Color: A Natural History of the Paintbox. Random House: New York. (for dye histories)

Grange, R.M.D. 1966. A Short History of the Scottish Dress. Macmillan: New York.

Reid, Stuart. 2013. Scottish National Dress and Tartan. Shire Library: Oxford. (for sterotypes)

Thompson, J. Charles. 1981. So You’re Going to Wear the Kilt: A Handy Guide to Wearing Scottish National Dress. Paul Harris Publishing: Edinburgh. (for larks)

About Brenna Barks

Brenna Barks is a dress historian and material culturist who completed her MSc in History, Theory, and Display at the University of Edinburgh in 2010.  She is the Managing Editor at Worn Through, has contributed to a forthcoming encyclopaedia of American fashion history, and was recently published in Jane Austen Knits 2014. Her current research interests focus on clothing and material culture and their social implications from circa 1740 onwards, particularly that of Scotland, India, and the British empire. She has also been known to moonlight on the topics of social and cultural history between 1910 and 1940, and on the clothing and culture of Japan — the latter having been the focus of her undergraduate studies.

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171 Responses

  1. Al

    Yes yes yes yes yes! This was a lovely read, thank you. Also, as a Fraser, I have always been slightly amused that they didn’t use our big bright red tartan, and figured it was probably just too jarring on the eye. There is a fabulous Fraser wedding dress from the late 18th century that displays our lovely and glaringly ugly fabric of choice: http://fripperiesandfobs.tumblr.com/image/95846025182

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Ha! You gotta love the eye-bleedingly-bright combination of tartans once Scottish nationalism starts being a thing. PILE ON ALL THE TARTANS.

      Reply
      • brenna

        Can I just say Romantic-era fashion tartans? The more hideous, the happier I am.

        Reply
        • Proinsias

          Nice piece but some of the dates you mention need to be examined. Firstly, the belted plaid/Féileadh Mór did not exist before the early 1600’s. It died out shortly after 1750 being replaced by the short kilt/Féileadh beag. This gives it a ‘shelf life’ of only about 150 years. Before 1600, the Highlanders dressed as the irish in a Léine, Brat and Ionar. This had been the case for a lot longer than 150 years. Incidently, the origin of the Féileadh Mór is the Irish Brat.

          Proinsias
          Gaelic attire.com

          Reply
    • Kathryn Schultz

      Terry has said that Ron absolutely hates bright red tartans and wouldn’t allow one on “his” show, also that he was very specific that the Redcoats could not be “cherry red.”

      Reply
      • terrydresbach

        Actually, Ron didn’t hate bright red tartans, just the red used in many films on redcoats. 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 the time necessary to achieve those colors to wear in daily life.
        That does not say they did not exist. There is a magnificent example of brilliant red tartan in Edinburgh, obviously belonging to a man of great wealth and station. There are a lot of paintings of wealthy men wearing brilliant tartan. Though one could have oneself painted in anything, it is not the same as a photograph.
        But why would ordinary crofters spend their time trying to create vibrant colors, in a freezing, smoky croft, inhabited by ten people and a few large farm animals? What would the goal be? (We did add more color at the Gathering, as that seemed an appropriate place to do so.)
        So we decided that OUR Highlanders, and OUR crofters would be less concerned with fashion, and more concerned with survival. It still took time and effort to weave those intricate patterns. We did want to honor that tradition, even though there is evidence that says that every kilt or plaid, was not made of tartan, and was often made of plain cloth.
        And we kind of had to stop there, as the clock was ticking. We created a world that worked for our story, that feels right to us, and does not modernize history.

        Brenna is also right that although we wanted a world without “Clan Tartans”, the story locked us into that damned Fraser tartan, and there was no way around doing that one.
        Oh well, win some, lose some. THAT is the business.

        Reply
        • Tricia Gavin

          Seems like Diana got it right in the book, where Jamie wore a red fraser tartan for his wedding. Pity they didn’t stick to the story!

          Reply
          • terrydresbach

            Yes, there is the trick about adaptations. They adapt the book, not recreate it. Things written on a page don’t always work onscreen. WE put red into the Fraser tartan to honor the book, but understand that for many it will still fall short. Thank goodness Diana likes it.

            Reply
  2. La Couturière Parisienne

    “thus if you could afford red either from China or South America, or blue in the form of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, you bought it and had it woven. ”
    Erm, what? You don’t have to go to China or south America for red dyes, and you don’t dye fabrics blue with lapis lazuli. That’s what madder and woad are for. They may not grow in the highlands but definitely in Europe.
    And why did you leave out all the female clothing? That’s where the show is disgustingly inaccurate.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I’ll let Brenna answer this for herself, but I think the reason she didn’t deal with the female costumes is because it’s been hashed to death here and elsewhere. However, not much has been said about the men’s costumes and giving credit for the fact that they’re a really good “Hollywood” depiction of 18th century Scottish Highland male costume.

      Reply
    • Brenna

      I focused on the men’s costumes for precisely the reasons both Sarah and Trystan outline — the women’s costumes have been talked about rather a lot, but the men’s seem to simply be looked over.

      You do make an excellent point about the local dyes, though. I thought about addressing them a bit more in-depth, but was worried the post was getting overly long already. Woad and madder would have been cheaper and more readily available, and there are indigenous herbs (which I can’t look up at the moment since I’m answering this away from home) which would have produced blue. But woad, madder, and those local herbal dyes do not produce as bright or as colourfast a red or blue as cochineal do.

      Reply
      • Kristina

        You can absolutely get a bright red from madder. Shifting the pH, temperature, WOF ratio, the way the madder is prepared, and the length of time spent mordanting and in the dyebath all impact the color you get.

        Reply
          • brenna

            Yay! I didn’t get everything wrong! I do find the many myriad ways we’ve learned to dye things bright colours fascinating, and am so glad there are so many people willing to share their expertise with me here, but when I was in Scotland madder never came up, only cochineal. Now I know why!

            Though now I’ve added “why was there a preference for cochineal over madder” to my list of research questions…

            Reply
            • Carolyn Richardson

              Brenna, I can’t find the comment here now (I got a notification) but there is a book out on the cochineal trade which I think is called “A Perfect Red” by Amy Greenfield – I can’t locate my copy of it at the moment, but it’s a great read. One reason the Scots were so crazy for cochineal in that era was that so was the rest of Europe. Cochineal is very similar to kermes, which was a color used by the Greeks and Romans to make red dyes, but seemed to be hard to find later in Europe. Once cochineal was discovered in Mexico, it was a big hit in the Old World because it gave such a deep rich red color, and was fairly lightfast both in paints and dyes.

              Reply
              • brenna

                Thanks, Carolyn, I had wondered if it wasn’t a “fashion” thing in the sense of popularity and conspicuous consumption.

                I think “A Perfect Red” is already on my never-ending to-read list, but I’d forgotten about it after being slightly disappointed by Simon Garfield’s “Mauve”. Clearly “A Perfect Red” needs to be moved up on the list!

                Reply
            • Allan Thomson

              Some interesting points. But for someone who claims to have studied extensively the costume of Scotland and who has considered military uniform you make the glaring error of refererring to “English trouser wearing soldiers” – The many lowland regiments such as The 1st (Royal Scots), The KOSBIES, The Cameronians, as well as the number of Scottish Cavalry Regiments who would have worn Breeches and later trews who would take issue with your suggestion that they were somehow English…..

              Also whilst I agree with your points about the idea of clan tartans being a fallacy and the idea of standardised tartans being a military originating 18thC concept plus your point that the idea of clan tartans being an acceptable evolution of Scottish culture despite not having a true historical basis pre 19thC (except for in the forces) you claim that tartan only dates from the 16th – so how do you explain those european mummies found wearing Tartan Clothing in China from long before this?

              Reply
        • brenna

          Kristina, I stand corrected! Thank you for explaining, I really appreciate it.

          Reply
          • Kristina

            Peter is right, though about the tartans being cochineal. (This got me curious so I did some poking around.) Anita Quye (Who is an academic specializing in historic dyes. She’s done a bunch of stuff with the Dyes in History and Archaeology conference.) did a long term study of tartans specifically, and her findings were that almost all of the samples were dyed with cochineal. There is a summary available in this newsletter from the Glasgow Colour Studies Group here: http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_232030_en.pdf

            I would think that other items of everyday dress were likely dyed with madder and other native plants (there were in earlier time periods), but but this is out of the date range I usually study, so could be off base there.

            Oh and Brenna, I really enjoyed your post- well written!

            Reply
            • brenna

              Thank you, Kristina! For both your kind words and the information about Anita Quye, and historic dyeing in general. My knowledge of the historic dyes is sorely lacking, so I really value these resources and appreciate you and everyone else for sharing them with me.

              Reply
    • Gina Annette (@eclectic_techie)

      How is the show “disgustingly inaccurate” when it comes to female clothing? Terry has been a stickler for accuracy in her costuming. I could agree that there may be a piece here and there that is “disgustingly inaccurate”, but female clothing as a whole? I would love to have examples citing the inaccuracies.

      Reply
    • brenna

      Okay, I am home now and I can’t believe I didn’t remember this. According to Hugh Cheape (Tartan: The Highland Habit) they predominantly got a dark blue from Indigo which became available in the late middle ages. The local dyes were predominantly heather, heath, onions, bracken, and local herbs like Ragwort — flowers and stems for different colours. I would have sworn I’d read in Victoria Finlay’s ‘Color: A Natural History of the Palette’ and a couple of other places that lapis lazuli could be used as a dye, but I may have misremembered. Thank you for the correction.

      Reply
      • Hilary

        According to Wikipedia, thanks largely to the efforts of the remarkable Eliza Lucas Pinckney, indigo became the second most important cash crop of colonial South Carolina (after rice).
        Lapis lazuli was an important pigment source for Renaissance painters–if you had a wealthy patron, it was your preferred source for the celestial blue of the mantle worn by the Virgin Mary.

        Reply
        • brenna

          Hi Hilary, Thanks for checking on that. Hugh Cheape says that Scotland had access to indigo as early as the late middle ages, so I will have to re-read that chapter of the book and see if he mentions where they got it from. I did now that it was a major crop in one of the Carolinas, but didn’t know which. I have a post-it reminding me to look this up that I can now throw away. I suspect I may be making a trip to SC now. I must have misremembered about the lapis lazuli, I really appreciate your looking this up! I’m trying to reply to comments around preparing for the class I’m teaching next week, and you know, normal work. I confess this is waaaaaay more fun and thus far more likely to get my full attention. ;)

          Reply
          • Carolyn Richardson

            Victoria Finlay’s book, as I recall, concentrated on color origins as they were used in paints more than as dyes. Lapis lazuli isn’t suitable as a dye – being ground up stone, you can’t grind it too fine or you lose the brilliant blue color. I’ve used it as paint and it’s pretty grainy when you look at it closely. Given the grain size, it would be like trying to dye your clothes with sand. While it’s finer than a lot of sands, it’s still grainy. Indigo would give a brighter blue than woad does (I think). Cochineal would only produce red but was a New World dye which the Spanish kept pretty tightly controlled for at least a century after they colonized South and Central America. I don’t recall the exact dates when the British & Dutch finally managed to grow their own bugs and break the monopoly.

            Reply
          • brenna

            Hi Carol, I was pretty sure last year that I had misremembered the passage since it’s been six years or so since I read “Color”. What’s more, I am sorely lacking the sort of practical experience you have. Your paint work sounds fascinating, and the way you describe working with it I imagine it would create a wonderful texture, too.

            Thanks for the correction!

            Reply
    • Spinderella NewBrunswick

      Woad does grow in Scotland – the Picts used it to paint themselves blue too. The Highlanders may have gotten blues from lichens. Indigo was used to dye blue, the best indigo comes from India, there is a second type which comes from Japan. Only the richest people could afford to buy madder root and indigo, hence only purples were worn by royalty, as a means of displaying their wealth.

      Reply
      • brenna

        Thanks for the clarification, Spinderella! It is very clear that I need to improve my dye history knowledge. But I am very grateful to you and others who have shared what you know here to get me back on the right path. At least I got the social implications right: you used red and blue as conspicuous consumption.

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          We did a fair amount of research into dyes. My essential premise, is that if I was going to add, or remove something, I need to research it enough to back it up. Nothing is absolute, of course, there is nothing that can apply to EVERYONE. Anyone, or anything can be an exception to the rule, within reason. You CANNOT have zippers, but you can move around pretty freely in the world of available dye colors.
          Since we are a show about characters, and people, we have to place them in circumstances, and then create supposition about how they lived.
          The capability was certainly there in 18th century Scotland to create just about any color, either by using local plants, or by purchasing imported dyes. But our job is to interpret our characters lives. Where do they live, how remote is it, what are their financial circumstances?

          As I said earlier, I personally found it hard to believe that a crofter who dyed textiles for themselves or others in their community, would spend the required amount of time in a smoky one room croft with an entire family and some farm animals, trying to perfect the perfect shade of red. It just doesn’t read true to me, especially in the context of the story we are trying to tell. Life was hard, the climate brutal. Seems to me like you are going to be more worried about food and shelter in difficult conditions, than achieving brilliant textile colors. I could be wrong, because as I said, there is always an exception to any rule, and by nature we as humans achieve what seems impossible, all the time. Art is created out of all sorts of circumstances.
          One of the items I saw during my research, was a peddlers pouch. It informed a lot of my design. I always imagined the peddler who traveled through the countryside as driving a peddlers wagon. Probably based on an episode of Bonanza or some othe subliminal reference.
          But this pouch was the object he carried with items for sale in relation to sewing. The pouch was about 6×4″, and inside it were three or four needles, maybe 20 strands of thread, and a dye packet that was maybe an an inch x an inch big.
          It was window into scale, for me. How much money did a Highlander have? That peddler carried what he thought he could sell, and no more. Did they pop down to the 18th century version of Joanne’s and buy 10 spools of thread, 2 pks of needles and 5 boxes of RIT dye? No, they bought a needle that probably lasted a lifetime. And that packet of dye, maybe imported, would have been way too expensive. Perhaps the local Laird could afford that dye pack, but exactly how much material would it color??
          That is why our show is the palette it is. When we looked at the Fraser tartan, which is red in the book, we decided that a few of those tiny packets might be enough to create a thin scarlet line in the plaid, but not the entire thing.
          Our show is set in the Highlands, not in the Vatican, or the English Court. You try to support a STORY with the use of color, and the world you create with it.

          Reply
          • brenna

            The peddler’s pouch you describe is exactly the sort of object that fascinated me so much I chose to focus on material culture rather than “high art”!

            I am very curious to learn how prevalent reds and blues were. We know that some people in the Highlands took the trouble to dye them because we have the travellers’ and other accounts but they won’t tell us how prevalent something was only what caught their eye enough for them to write it down. And of course there’s the big question of WHO the travellers were mixing with. Were they mixing with your average crofter or were they mixing with the lairds?

            My research pursuits aside, I definitely feel the palette chosen for the show works to further the story. As I’ve said, I really liked the contrast between Dougal and the redcoats in “The Garrison Commander” — it created a visual cultural barrier between the them as well as a behavioural one. And while I hadn’t caught the line of red in Jamie’s Fraser tartan the first time through, I had seen the red line in Willie’s trews and it made me think that Willie must be higher up in the Mackenzie hierarchy than those teasing him. Then the mid-season premiere showed that to be the truth.

            Reply
            • terrydresbach

              I do love subliminal messages. A lot of good costume design is felt, not seen. If any of us try to remember what someone we know was wearing yesterday, it would be hard to do. But we “know” what they look like and could easily describe the kinds of clothes they wear.
              In film we try to find subtle ways to tell stories, and create unconscious feelings in the viewers.
              I will be curious as to the reactions to Geillis’s costumes, now that her secret has been revealed.

              Reply
              • brenna

                Oh Geillis! Since I’d read the book I already knew who she was and where she came from. I would be curious to see what people’s reactions are who didn’t know what was coming! I missed this weekend’s episode because I was in LA to see an exhibition (which I really should be writing the review for, but this is more fun). I definitely need to play catch-up this week.

                Reply
                • Terry dresbach

                  So when we are dressing her in weird shit that no one can figure out, there is a method to the madness. She does her own thing, she is a radical of the late 60s. She wears whatever she damn well pleases, and refuses to be bound by society’s conventions.
                  There was a time when we all watched television without the ongoing dissection, recaps, analysis and discussion on the Internet.
                  Asking the audience to be patient and to let us take them on a journey, is almost impossible.

                  Reply
                  • brenna

                    Her clothes was odd which emphasized her oddness as a character. She clearly doesn’t care what other people think and is doing what she wants, which fits her character. Kendra did a post here that pointed out some of the oddities in Geillis’s garments and her observations were about the character as much as the clothes which made me laugh out loud because I know she has read the books. It was like we were in on the inside joke: “Geillis dresses differently but it’s only going to get more interesting from here!”

                    I have a love/hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand, I get some amazing research tips and leads through people who read this post, connected with it in some way and then shared things they knew. On the other, the pace of the internet doesn’t always allow for reflection, if you will. I know people who live-tweet/Facebook their favourite shows, or books, or conferences they go to. I actually find that distracting sometimes. I would rather read a longer blog post where they’ve taken the time to reflect on what they’ve seen, read, etc.

                    Reply
      • Peter

        The process to extract blue from indigo, woad etc., is a protracted process and it is unlikely that the Picts were painted indigo blue, the dye doesn’t work that way. Rubbing the leaves on skin will give it a greenish-blue. I know of no lichen that gives a blue dye.

        Purple as a dye for royalty is based on the use by the Romans of Tyran Purple, which is a cotton dye, was extracted from a whelk. Whelks in Scottish waters alsomgive the same colour but it’s not as strong. It wss not used for tartans, the main sources of purple were cochineal (yes, it gives other colours than just red), indigo with a cudbear top dye, or imported Logwood.

        Reply
    • brenna

      You’re very welcome, Terry. Thank you for creating the best depiction of pre-Culloden Highland men’s dress I’ve seen thus far!

      Reply
      • terrydresbach

        It matters a lot to designers when academics understand what we do as costumes designers, the good and the bad.
        What you have seen in the first half of Outlander, was created in seven weeks, that includes the installation of electrical outlets, walls and equipment.
        “Hollywood” not only does not care about any kind of accuracy or authenticity, they do not want it, and expect costumes to be “contemporized”. Designers have to be willing and able to fight against that pressure, which we did.
        It is no small task to research indigenous plant dyes, and Scottish historical costumes, in incredibly short time periods, as well as getting your lead actors 2 weeks before shooting, negotiate budgets and shooting schedules, build a few hundred extras costumes, and finding crew to do all that where there is none available.
        Costume design for screen is very, very different from making one, or even ten historical costumes.
        I completely understand and empathize with designers who have no desire to add to their impossible tasks, to undertake the exhausting battle it takes to not make “modern history”. We decided to fight that battle. Is it perfect, or close to perfect? NO. There is absolutely no way we could pull that off in the time and circumstances we are all given.
        One day, I hope to get a year to prep a TV show or film, with all the money and crew I need, with months set aside for research and making things by hand. But in todays market, that is becoming increasingly unlikely.
        But I stand by our work and am incredibly proud we chose to stand our ground.
        So your review matters a lot. It is incredibly fair.
        Thank you.

        Reply
        • Samantha Hickle

          I wholeheartedly agree with Brenna. This is the best depiction of Highland dress I have ever seen, especially given the Hollywood standards of today. I deal with designers for stage and screen on a daily basis and the one recurring theme seems to be the difficult fight for historical accuracy. Bravo Terry Dresbach!

          Reply
        • brenna

          You’re very, very welcome, Terry. I also, after being asked about using “production constraints/audience expectations” thing to excuse errors have reassessed my approach and realized that I don’t go into a film/TV series/play expecting 100% accuracy for two reasons. One, it is unattainable. I’ve been avoiding all of the costume debates/discussions because I wanted to write my honest opinions uninfluenced. I just looked at the American Duchess post about the wedding dress and it brought home way too visually that you CAN’T be 100% accurate, because you are dressing 21st-century bodies, not eighteenth. The waists and torsos on those court gowns are impossible to achieve today. And would be really, really distracting visually even if you could.

          This is the second part, and it’s where my art history training rears its (possibly ugly) head. You are telling a story. I fully recognize that you may have to make compromises on historical accuracy in order to communicate something visually — the staid colours of the Highlanders versus the Dragoons’ uniforms — to further the story. Or that there may be a general aesthetic that was agreed upon before hand because film is an art medium (2005’s Pride & Prejudice is in accurate to the material culture but mimics the Romantic landscapes of the period to a T). Or because you don’t want people distracted to the point of not following the story. You don’t want someone missing important dialogue or plot points because they are staring at a 100% accurate tartan with red and yellow and green and blue in the sett going “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, what is he wearing?!” I may purse my lips when I’m wearing my “what is accurate or inaccurate” hat, but I also recognize film is an art form. The little touches like the men wearing full court suits, and men wearing Highland dress, or men just wearing what they have that is best at the Gathering tell me that you did your research, you put as much of the accuracy in as you could, and as I had no idea what you’d been up against, even with money and research assistants — and more importantly a working sewing room — that would have been enough for me.

          I’ve dealt with the repercussions of Highlander, Braveheart, and Rob Roy for so long it was nice to forget I was supposed to be pursing my lips and just fall into the world for a wee while. :)

          Reply
          • Sarah Lorraine

            Beautifully put, Brenna. My not-so-inner art historian does understand that accuracy can only go so far. Even as a reenactor, it’s impossible to get 100% historically accurate because at the end of the day, we are 21st century bodies in a 21st century environment using 21st century materials to replicate the look of a particular place in time that has totally vanished. There’s no there there when it comes to true historical accuracy, no matter the context.

            That’s not to say I can turn the critic off, particularly in cases like “The Tudors” where they just chucked the actual history out the window to make it a show about people with the same names as Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, etc. who do stuff loosely based on history but now with 110% more sex and violence. Or with “Reign” where it’s Barbie, Queen of Scots, in her Valentino gowns. I get way more bent out of shape when shows take what is already a gripping and fascinating section of history and say “Nah, no one will want to watch this if the actors are in period clothing and the script is based on history.”

            In many ways, shows like “Outlander” and “Wolf Hall”, which are historical fiction but treated with an eye to authenticity with tons of research going into them, are the savior of the historical costume genre.

            Reply
            • brenna

              “Barbie, Queen of Scots, in her Valentino gowns” — this is why I love you. I can’t even bring myself to watch any of the show because she is portrayed precisely as what you describe. I don’t even like Mary, Queen of Scots — her martyr complex gets up my nose — and I get actively angry at what they’ve done with it from simply the stills.

              And I definitely think that when there are things like ‘Reign’ and ‘The Tudors’ and any number of other things Netflix thinks I should watch because they are ‘period’ on screen you shouldn’t keep your inner critic quiet. I could have a field day with Braveheart. Shall we just start with the hair? Leaving the whole hot-pink-stretch-crushed-velvet gown aside, and the things they are claiming are kilts, let’s talk about the hair. “We’re poor and Scottish and thus it’s totally okay that we have mullets that were cut with weed-whackers.” GAH!

              And I don’t mind snarking when it’s fun, like what I see here. For example, I admit that 2005’s P&P is definitely looking to the Romantic era landscape paintings and getting them dead on. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t nearly pull something during Snark Week over the “five sisters, not a comb between them!” There are things that need snarking. NEED.

              Reply
        • PCOTT

          Terry – Your depiction of Highlanders riding in kilts is right along with practices of Scots in America 30 years later wearing breech cloths and leather leggings as the Natives did in the forests and for travel. When Daniel Boone’s daughter was kidnapped by Indians, he and the other men immediate persued in their dropfall breeches but immediately sent a young man back home to get their breechcloths and leggings so they would be more comfortable in the forest and could make better time. My husband has ridden in a full dragoons uniform and as a frontiersman in breechcloth and leggings. He assures me that the pants are not as comfortable as the breechcloth and leggings – which would compare to the kilt and boots.

          Reply
          • brenna

            This is why I love consulting historic costumers/re-enactors/living historians. Sitting at my desk or in a library I can look at old travel drawings, paintings, read accounts and think “that *sounds* uncomfortable”, but I don’t know. Whereas having made and worn the things you do and can tell me whether or not it is. Like Trystan’s accounts of Scots re-enactors pleating their kilts by hand every morning, or Terry’s account of the actors who have a specific way they want to wear their kilts. These are insights that I would not have otherwise and are extremely valuable. Thank you for sharing — I may look into that leggings and breech cloth comparison with the kilt.

            Reply
            • terrydresbach

              It all makes perfect SENSE. But at the end of the day, isn’t it all just conjecture on all of our parts, historians, re-enactors or costume designers. Seems we all have to weave a tapestry of research, art, and logic. But without photographic evidence we cannot really KNOW what the vast majority of people wore.

              Reply
              • brenna

                There’s also the fact that we are looking at this from the 21st century, and we cannot change being from our own time period. I can look at something and think wearing it might be uncomfortable, but if you’re a poor Highlander who can’t afford trews, it might not even occur to you that riding a horse in a kilt is uncomfortable because you don’t know any other way of riding a horse. You might think wearing a corset or stays every day is uncomfortable when you haven’t been trained to it from childhood. I think this is why I stick to “social implications” of dress — way easier to pin down that Highland dress became national Scottish dress after Sir Walter Scott’s novels were published because we have verified historical records on that. That doesn’t mean something can’t turn up out of an as-yet-undiscovered family archive to alter that theory, though. Thus is history.

                Reply
        • Carolyn

          As a vegetable dyer since the 70’s (Arrowmont School of Crafts, Gatlinburg, TN) and as a knitter and crocheter, and more importantly, a LOVER of Diana’s tale since the 1980’s (Best historical romance time traveling story I ‘ve ever read!), I applaud you, Terry, your crew, and your husband, Ron, for doing all you have done and continue to do ( remarkably with the time and enormous amount of costumes) to bring this story to us visually and to have us enjoy it as much as the images we have conjured in our heads while reading the original books. It’s amazing to me the vision you all have and the talents to make this series happen!!! Forever a fan!!!!

          Reply
  3. Cassidy Percoco (@mimicofmodes)

    “Though it is hard to fault a costuming team for complying with what the audience wants to see. The movie/television industry is out to make money, and people pay more for what meets their expectations and demands.”

    The trouble with the principle that it’s all down to audience expectations – which I’ve come across a lot – is that as far as I know, there’s no proof in the form of an audience firmly rejecting a film/show that’s highly accurate because it’s not what they expect. Audiences do embrace inaccurate costuming, it’s true, but they also embrace accurate costuming. They just like costuming. If it’s flashy and bright, they find it fun and entertaining. If it’s drab and dull, they agree that it must be realistic and find that fun in another way. I can understand putting the blame on producers’ *fear* of rejection, but to say that it’s the audience’s fault doesn’t seem supported to me.

    The closest instance I can think of is the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, in which there are definitely inaccuracies (in part to conform to audience expectations, tbh) and which is sometimes criticized for costume aspects that are actually reasonable for the mid-1790s. But it was also a commercial success, as the critics are nearly all in the online fashion history community and are therefore (as is commonly stated) not the audience that’s being appealed to, so it’s kind of an anti-example in a way.

    Anyway. Sorry! This is a great post, and I really wish you had been able to study Scottish-as-the-Other because that would be an AMAZING topic. I just always have a bee in my bonnet.

    Reply
    • Cassidy Percoco (@mimicofmodes)

      By the by, I have to point out that L. R. Stern’s Pictorial/Jezebel article *does* address the difference in meaning between “plaid” and “tartan”. She does use the terms somewhat interchangeably in the first few paragraphs and for the 19th century onward at times, but since she specifically talks about how the meaning of “tartan” bled into “plaid” (and since the terms were largely interchangeable to many people from the 19th century on), it seems a little misleading to just say she uses them interchangeably.

      Reply
      • brenna

        Cassidy, No need to apologize for bees in bonnets! I clearly had so much of one in mine over the ‘collecting’ of clan tartans that I didn’t notice that L.R. Stern did differentiate about plaid & tartan. Thank you for the correction.

        I hope you don’t mind if I reply to both your comments in one.

        I also just don’t generally mind being disagreed with in a forum like this because everyone is polite and it might be a chance to learn something if I am misinformed.

        I honestly do not know how much either audience expectation, producer demands, or budget restrictions influence individual costume changes. And I’ve not followed this saga closely enough to know if it’s been addressed already. You make an excellent point that audiences are just as likely to accept something accurate as they are to accept something inaccurate. This portrayal of Scottish men’s dress as opposed to say, Braveheart, is an excellent example of people accepting both. I have encountered resistance on the part of people who are very vested in their ideas of Scotland and tartan and Scottish dress — not necessarily from an academic but a personal perspective. I have no idea how prevalent they are. So I don’t know how much of it the production team had to take into account. I will have to think about this though — possibly by rewatching things, poor me! — and see if I need to reassess whether or not I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. ;)

        I do think I simply approach these topics differently. I am more of a social historian and my degree is in art history, technically. I don’t have the costuming knowledge that you, or Kendra, or Sarah, or Trystan have. That is a vast base of knowledge that probably gives you an advantage in assessing these things. To a certain extent I fall back on my art history training. It fits the general aesthetic? It must have been a production decision. I don’t demand anyone agree with this approach, it is simply my approach.

        I just know that in my preparation for what was going to be a PhD — and is now going to be a book, eventually, don’t worry, I’ve not abandoned it! — I’ve come across so much that just perpetuates Sir Walter Scott’s imaginings. They don’t even bother to look further. So this was the best portrayal of what it was like in 1740s, pre-Culloden Highland Scotland that I’ve seen recreated. I may just hang out with the wrong people. But there it is.

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          Brenna, I would love to be able to call on you, when we go back to Scotland in the show. Someone like you would be a tremendous asset, that were not allowed by time or money at the start of Season One.

          Reply
          • brenna

            Would I get to come with you to Scotland? I might fit in a suitcase. ;) In all seriousness, I would love to help. I adore research and feel I could already answer some of the questions your team had as you’ve described them in the various comments here (why they dyed things blue and red despite the trouble, that there are no paintings from the time period, really, of peasant clothing and why, etc.) I’m trying to find a way to communicate without revealing personal email addresses to the world. You could email me at Worn Through — brenna@wornthrough.com — and I could reply to you from there with my personal email & details.

            Reply
        • Cassidy Percoco (@mimicofmodes)

          Don’t mind at all!

          The men’s dress in Outlander is very good, I’m definitely not saying that you missed things, and I always sympathize with a view to the overall aesthetic rather than specifics (that’s what my Gatsby review pretty much is). It’s just that I’ve noticed more and more frequently – since starting to write about film costuming myself – how often even costumers/reenactors/etc., usually ones criticizing the critique, place the blame on the general audience. They’re too shallow, they’re obsessed with sexiness, they’re unable to comprehend different standards of beauty. Which is very harsh on the poor audience, and there’s also an implied rebuke to the original critic for being so stupid as to think there was a possibility that movie/tv costuming could be accurate in any particular. It’s intended to defend the costume designer, but it ends up letting the producers etc. off the hook and blaming people who don’t actually have any say in the process, which is weird. So it’s started standing out to me more and I’ve started considering the actual examples more, and thinking about how I’ve never heard complaints about accurate costuming being boring or ugly.

          “I have encountered resistance on the part of people who are very vested in their ideas of Scotland and tartan and Scottish dress — not necessarily from an academic but a personal perspective.”

          Oh, I’m *so* not surprised. Like people who want to believe that corsets etc. etc.

          Reply
          • brenna

            You’re right. It perpetuates the insulting Hollywood attitude that the audience is stupid — as Terry discussed in other comments here. And it’s definitely something we should all stop doing. Let the Hollywood executives take it on the chin for a change.

            Oh my gosh corsets… you could write an entire book debunking the myths about corsets and stays.

            Reply
    • terrydresbach

      I agree with you completely. I think people WILL watch period pieces where the costumes do not look like they came from the local mall or most recent runway. Unfortunately, that is not a belief held in our industry.
      Hollywood studios and producers operate under the belief that audiences will NOT watch a period drama that is accurate, “because the audience thinks history is boring”. That is the common and accepted view.
      Sad, really. And why I was so bound and determined to go against that, at risk of getting fired, or not hired in the first place. Could I achieve that 100%? Absolutely not. Just circumstances alone make that impossible, but we certainly did a lot to chip away at the idea that audiences won’t watch what they can’t wear.
      I am incredibly proud of that.

      Reply
      • Debbie

        As an audience member, I find it insulting that Hollywood assumes we do not appreciate accuracy. I’d sure like to know what they base it on. Sounds like an excuse to save money, so they make more money. Thanks to Terry for fighting for us stupid audience members who pay to see the movies/shows. Love her!

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          It is insulting. Ron always says that the audience is too frequently insulted by carting to the idea that people are stupid. (I paraphrase). I suppose it is because Transformers make eighty kazillion dollars, and Marie Antoinette makes nothing (in Hollywood terms)

          Reply
      • Cassidy Percoco (@mimicofmodes)

        I think that on the whole, you did a fantastic job. In a sense, that may have worked against you to a degree – if a show is costumed badly, the people who care about accuracy don’t pay attention, but if it’s above average it’s going to get a lot more scrutiny. (You see the same thing with tv shows that make an effort to be more progressive vs. white, heteronormative sitcoms.) I know I’m guilty of that with quite a few shows.

        I hope they do keep your success in mind when considering what the audience will watch in the future!

        Reply
        • Kendra

          That’s an excellent point. I know I write off stuff like “Reign” or “Sons of Liberty” because I see it’s just utter crap, costume-wise.

          Reply
        • terrydresbach

          That is certainly the hope.Maybe due to Outlander’s success and the very positive focus on our costumes, it may be a bit easier for another designer sell the idea that audiences do not have to see what is in a modern fashion magazine, or what is familiar to them, to find a show interesting. And I also would add, that no matter how good or bad the costumes are, it is usually the STORY that keeps people interested, IF it is a good one.

          Reply
          • Melissa Shaheen

            Thank you so much for caring about our heritage. As a Fraser, I was wondering what had happened to our colors and why they were so muted. At the gathering of the clans in California this past weekend, our clan was discussing the Outlander series and one of the members stated there was some discussion from our Chieftain and the series. I had hoped our red would appear at some point, we are very proud. Thank you for your attention to detail. It is a pleasure to watch. I wear my tartan colors and my crest as a rosette and we are going to get the full uniform for our son when he graduates. Thank you for all the hard work you do and keep fighting the good fight. (Alas, my poor cousin is named Jamie Fraser, he is not happy about it.)

            Reply
    • Trystan

      “If it’s flashy and bright, they find it fun and entertaining. If it’s drab and dull, they agree that it must be realistic and find that fun in another way.” — Wolf Hall is a perfect example of this as well. The costumes are not flashy, they are extremely historically accurate, & the appeal of the series is in the dialog & plot. It was BBC Two’s biggest hit in a decade! Only one ep has shown in the US, but it’s generated a lot of interest so far.

      Reply
      • terrydresbach

        Love that show, and think the costumes are wonderful. They are not at all flashy and feel so perfectly ordinary, which most clothes are.
        I truly hope it is a success in America, as it will help chip away at what is clearly a ridiculous and insulting assumption.

        Reply
        • Lynn S

          I’m curious if the astounding success of Downton, which had mostly accurate (? From what I’ve seen on here, which is basically my historical fashion in tv bible, the ladies are kind to the show) costumes, has helped costume designers to continue the push for accuracy? Then again I’m reminded of a line in Judith Krantz’ Scruples Two, in which Valentine is designing for a historical costume movie, and she mentions honoring the period while not strictly recreating it. (Page 129 if you want the full quote: http://bit.ly/2k9bsrX is a free Google Books copy.) How do you decide what to keep authentic and what to translate into a more modern asthetic?

          Reply
  4. Miri

    Really enjoyed this article! I knew the clan tartans were not historical for the 18th century, but nothing much beyond that. Very interesting observations on the colours (Hah! I knew they didn’t feel bright enough!) and the prevalence of trews vs. kilts!

    Thank you for the great read!

    Reply
    • brenna

      Thank you for the kind words! I really enjoyed writing it. It’s been far too long since I’ve donned my white cockade. ;)

      Reply
  5. cm houghton

    I loved the article, but I think you mischaracterized what the reasoning was behind some of the decisions of the designer that weren’t known to be accurate to the period. Terry said in an interview that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, but when it came right down to it, she had to err on the side of keeping things ‘authentic,’ even if there wasn’t any research to support her choices as being accurate to the period. (Like regarding the knitwear she created for the show.) I’m not sure there were really any expectations that ‘Hollywood’ that would dictate what she should dress people in, it’s more the fact that her decisions are based on what looked good (also any dictates her producer/husband had) and what dyes which were in keeping with the color palettes she decided to use, even if it wasn’t strictly historically accurate. She said she decided to go with vegetable dyes to make the men, tough warriors who at times lived life rough in the heather, wear fabrics that tied them to the earthy tones of the surrounding countryside. This interview was particularly enlightening on her thought processes behind her designs, if you haven’t read it already: http://www.digitalrunaway.com/interview-terry-dresbach/

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      Let me help. I can speak to what my motivations are. Very directly.

      As a side note, I wish sometimes I never did interviews. You speak to reporters for an hour, and what comes back is ten minutes of edited words. Sentences and paragraphs vanish, that expand and enrich thoughts and ideas. That is why I try to write on my blog as much as possible about what we try to do, and what our motivations are. It is the one place I cannot be edited. That is the case with the Digital Runaway interview, as it is with all other.

      Anyway, for the record. Yes I did have to err on the side of “authenticity”, when “accuracy” was not possible (for many reasons).

      What “Hollywood” dictates, meaning studios, networks, producers, directors, marketing people, publicity people, and producers. What they think and want, is the number one expectation that we costume designers work to. I think many would be shocked to know just how often the choices and the knowledge of costume designers is disregarded, and that they are told to do things differently, and usually inaccurately. They do it or they don’t work.
      I am in the incredibly lucky position to be married to the executive producer on Outlander, who is looking to make it as realistic and accurate show as possible. That is the only reason that Claire is not in some McQueen knock off.
      The only dictate my husband gave to me was that the color of the redcoats not be candy red, and that the costumes looked worn and lived in, that nothing look brand new, and spanking clean.

      I rarely make choices just because they look good, unless the story dictates that. I am not a stylist, I don’t pick out really cute clothes for a living. My job is to help tell a story, and to assist the audience to believe in the characters and the story they are part of. To look at the costumes for only the time that is needed to establish who they are, what is happening, and then to move on to the story being told.

      We did not use vegetable dyes. We did the research about what plants/dyes were available in the area of Scotland our story takes place in. I believe Sam Heughan said once in an interview that we used the actual plant dyes, and that is where that came from.

      Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        Hi Terry, thank you for your great commentary here on the ins and outs of being a professional costumer!

        I know we have a reputation at Frock Flicks for being snarky heartless bitches, but I want to clear the air and say that we are ALWAYS on Team Costumer. At the end of the day, the amount of influence the costume designers have on shows and movies is eclipsed by directorial vision and budget constraints.

        So, please keep drawing back the veil and being accessible to answer questions. It’s not every day that we get to directly ask someone involved in a popular show why things were done the way they were.

        Reply
      • brenna

        “McQueen knock-offs” were what I was expecting, I admit, because while I hadn’t read the hullabaloo about women’s dress I was aware of it — so what was on-screen was such a lovely surprise. I also feel I should take this point to clarify that when I’m sighing about ‘Braveheart’, ‘Reign’, ‘Highlander’, etc that I’m not attacking the costume designers, though re-reading things it does come off that way. I didn’t know what you’d been up against with this show, so I certainly have no idea what their pressures and expectations were. I suspect a number of them were told to do things a particular way or face the sack. What I am sighing over are the very Hollywood contemporization pressures you mention and which I see in so many films about Scotland. Watching ‘Rob Roy’ you can clearly see the hand of the executives catering to what they think the audience wants to see. Which denies the fact that an audience might very well not mind having these expectations “challenged” with more historically accurate portrayals especially if done through a good story.

        I was absolutely terrified writing this piece — not just the usual ‘if I get one thing wrong the other academics are going to shred me’ terror — but because I knew that one, I was coming down on the minority side of the “accuracy” debate on the show. How bad would a backlash be? Two, I knew there would be fans who felt I was being unfair to you and here was just another academic attacking the show even if I tried to do so with the caveat that I knew you were juggling executive/producer/director demands with historical accuracy and budget constraints. Three, I was going against some very sound advice from a museum professional I admire who told me following my passion for Scottish — and particularly Jacobite — history and dress history was ‘career suicide’ because ‘Scotland has been done and no one wants another book on this topic.’

        Instead, I find myself in the bizarre, surreal situation of being emailed by friends who work in Hollywood social media to tell me that a group of complete strangers, all part of some Sam Heughan fandom collective, are talking about me and my post on Twitter. I genuinely thought I was going to be being vilified because that’s my usual experience with Twitter. Instead, everyone is quite lovely and nice. Even if they disagree with some of my conclusions, they are kind about it. This is a very surreal experience that proves my fears unfounded and that I should clearly continue to avoid the advice I was given. ;)

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          Oh, I get it. Things got pretty nasty after the show came out. Lots of academics and fashion historians spent a lot of time making sure I knew exactly how “disgusting” my costume design was, and what a complete moron I was. it is pretty hard to take.
          I never comment about another designers choices, because I know from experience, how brutal their job is, how little time, and money they have, and how much pressure there is to recreate history. And Costume designers have bills and children, and house payments just like everyone else.
          I am also too aware of how hard it is for women in this business. Women in this business get paid considerably less than men, and get worse conditions, and less respect, both personally and professionally. It is a very, very hard life.
          On top of that, art is subjective. I know there are some who hate that kind of statement, but that is what we do, hopefully. We work in the arts, and our job is to tell a story, not to make documentaries.
          And so, there are a lot of different things that motivate costume designers. Attacking, insulting, or deriding them, is something I just don’t understand. But I don’t understand doing that to anyone.
          I was incredibly grateful to Lauren at American Duchess for turning things around. Everything changed after that piece she wrote. There are no doubt still those who think I am an incompetent idiot, but they don’t seem the feel the need to follow me around telling me that anymore.
          And thus the dialogue opened up and now there is some understanding growing.
          The fans are amazing. I think it is predominantly because they are women. I’ve dealt with fans before, usually men, and they can be brutal. Though I once had a women threaten to shoot me. I’m sure she is still somewhere on the internet plotting against me.
          Your piece has been tweeted and retweeted for 2 days. It is not a slobbering love fest. It has both positive and negative things to say about the costumes, and that is completely fair, and to be expected. The fans are smart enough to see that and accept it, and to appreciate that one can criticize respectfully.
          I am just thrilled to bits to read something written with the acknowledgement that this is a complicated and difficult job, and that we designers are not omnipotent with all the time. money and fabulous conditions needed to create museum level costumes.
          Thank you for that!

          Reply
          • brenna

            The fans have been absolutely wonderful. I have gotten absolutely no pushback — from them or costume historians — which is quite a relief.

            I am all too familiar with the personal attacks. Disagree with my conclusions, offer new lines of enquiry, by all means, but the personal attacks are just beyond the pale. I made the mistake of criticizing fashion once on Worn Through — boy did someone make sure I personally regretted that.

            And thank you for the compliment about the article. To have so many people share it and to tell me they found it fair, that something about history was not only readable but enjoyably so is incredibly rewarding as a writer.

            Reply
      • cm houghton

        Wow, thanks for the long reply. I know you’re not just a stylist, that wasn’t really what I meant. In this reply you covered what I was trying to say better than I had attempted to anyway.

        And thank goodness you’re not a stylist, or we would have gotten costuming like what they did for A Knight’s Tale. **shudders**

        I’m not anywhere near as knowledgeable about this as you, but did work in theatre and the Costume Design Center at Colonial Williamsburg when I was younger (not quite the same as the show is currently), so I know you must be busy. I appreciate you clarifying things.

        Being a long time TV fan, I had heard horror stories about what the network execs can do to scripts for TV series, so I guess it isn’t surprising they can micromanage the costume designs too. (And I think it was something that Sam said in an interview about the vegetable dyes, you’re right about that.)

        I adore the costumes for this show. You guys are awesome. Can’t wait to see what you’ll do next year with the fashions from the French royal court.

        Thanks again.

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          Oh, thank you! I didm;t mean that YOU were saying any of that, more of a general response to what many often think. We are struggling our way into Season Two.. Enormous season. The French Court!!!! A dream and a nightmare.There are fewer resources, less money, and we have to make choices that I know are going to paint a red target on my back. But there is nothing to be done about it. Anyway, thanks for your kind words!

          Reply
          • Anastasia

            LESS money? Good grief, I’d have thought your budget would get bigger considering Season One’s success. French Court on a tight budget – ouch.

            Reply
            • terrydresbach

              It is a complicated thing.
              One usually doesn’t get more money to do a period piece than you get to do a contemporary piece, where you can buy ready made, and extras bring their own clothes.
              Everything is done on a template. THIS is how much a show, any show, costs. It doesn’t really matter too much what kind of show. That is why there have not been very many period shows, because they cost so much. (UK tax breaks are why you are suddenly seeing an upsurge)
              So maybe you get a little bit more now, as a nod to it being period. I remember that my budget on Carnivale/HBO was based on the budget for Six Feet Under, and I had to dress 5000 extras in period clothes.
              But the people who make the budgets don’t necessarily read the scripts, or know ANYTHING about period costumes, and certainly don’t know the difference between 18th century Scotland and 18th century France, let alone the French Court.
              So, even though you might get a little bit more, there is NO WAY, you have enough. So you have to get very, very, very creative.
              If you are lucky, as I am, to have an incredibly supportive group of producers, who have to figure out how ALL the departments are going to pull off the French Court, you will have a lot of support to pull off the impossible, and they will allow you to get creative and find unusual solutions.

              We have to make over 1000 costumes for season two. It is like squeezing through some crevasse in between two rocks. Insanely tight.

              I cannot begin to tell you how much easier and cheaper it would be, to buy modern fashion, and justify it as a cool, modern, interpretation of history. Most studios/networks won’t even let you try to do anything else.

              So, when ripping apart costume designers for being talentless hacks, there is a lot more to the story than most people know. I am trying all the time to pull back the curtain, and shed a little light, maybe create a little bit of change.

              Reply
          • PCOTT

            One costuming source (for times other than the French court) that might help with your budget for costuming extras is the Living History community. SOME ( not all) are quite accurate and would arrive with costuming already worn and looking “lived in”. They would just have to be carefully screened. If the show goes a third and fourth season ( and I do hope it does) we can be very helpful and help your budget.

            Reply
            • terrydresbach

              We have used some here in Scotland. Many of our Highlanders are from their ranks.
              Unfortunately there are many reasons it will be too difficult for Paris. We shoot in different locations, in different countries. May be great when we get to America.
              By then of course, I will be able to costume an 18th century city! LOL

              Reply
  6. Anastasia

    I’m surprised you don’t at least mention the idea that it’s possible that is NOT, in fact, how the great kilt/breacan-an-feileadh was put on (or at least, not the ONLY way it was put on). Two webpages on one site talk about this here: http://www.tartansauthority.com/highland-dress/ancient/ and here: http://www.tartansauthority.com/highland-dress/ancient/the-belted-plaid-2/ discusses it, and I do find the argument compelling.

    At the very least, we can say for certainty that not every great kilt was put on with the man having to hand-pleat and lay down upon the floor, because there is physical evidence and written accounts stating otherwise. I’m a medieval and renaissance historian (I’ve my MA in History) though fashion and textiles were not my areas of expertise. It would seem a detail worth pursuing, to find out if there are more written accounts and even, possibly, more physical evidence out there waiting to corroborate the idea.

    Certainly by the time of Outlander in the mid 1700s, I find it far more likely that many wearing the great kilt would be employing loops of some sort, to make getting dressed faster and more efficient. Employing belt loops (which, if sewn onto the cloth itself, wouldn’t negate it’s ability to be used as a single large blanket, while still allowing it to be gathered up and belted in place) seems like something they surely would have come up with, as it’s simple and efficient, and the majority of us humans do tend towards practicality whenever possible (the very wealthy are the exception to that tendency, as they can afford not to be, both in terms of money and time). The pleats wouldn’t be as precise and pretty, but one wouldn’t have to lay down on a cold (and likely dirty) floor or patch of ground (possibly wet and muddy) to put one’s clothes on.

    I can’t help but wonder if such would be more likely to be employed – not by the fashion-conscious as the article states because the very wealthy could afford the extra time to have a servant hand-pleat, etc. – but rather by the everyday Highlander, who had chores and other duties to be getting on with, and would be more likely to not want to spend time piddling around with his clothes.

    Obviously, the little scene looked cool for the opening credits, but I’m left thinking it far more likely that someone like James Fraser was exactly the sort of man to have had loops on his kilt to make it possible to just whip that thing around his waist, buckle it up, and get on with his day.

    I’d love to see someone do more research on this, and it seems like something right up your alley.

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      I am pretty sure there would have been loops, if it is not documented, one could easily suppose that they existed, and yes Jamie Fraser might have had them. But it probably would have been less dramatic and interesting for the audience. If our sole goal was to inform the audience of exactly how things were done, and not tell a dramatic story, then we might have made that choice.
      Most viewers are really fascinated by the idea that kilts were put on in the way finally shown, and we know was accurate for many. It has spurned an interest is Highland culture and engaged the audience in a way that is very exciting.
      And there is the very real and practical situation on our show and on any show. We don’t have the time or the budget to research all the details in a way that we would love to.
      When you walk into an empty space with no walls, no electricity, no sewing machines, and no lights, seven weeks before shooting, you have no choice but to pick and choose the prettiest children.

      Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        Granted the bulk of my research on kilts is twenty years old at this point, but I thought that “wrap-n-wear” kilts were more of a Victorian invention (along the lines of the Little Kilt with its pleats stitched in place and buckles).

        Personally, I was thrilled to see Jamie pleating the kilt in the show.

        Reply
      • Anastasia

        Oh, absolutely – there’s no doubt the scene of the donning of the kilt looks great as part of the opening credits. Very visual, very compelling. I guess as an historian, it tweaks my nose a little that so many take what they see as the ONLY truth, instead of digging deeper and learning more.

        And while it seems to have spurred an interest in Highland culture, a lot of what I’m seeing is sadly, people only looking at superficialities and not taking the time to read the actual history. A perfect example of this is a recent discussion where someone brought up Alasdair Mac Colla and, instead of wanting to read actual historical accounts of his life, everyone gravitated immediately towards the historical romance written about him. Which – there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read historical romance (Outlander is such, obviously), but boy, it would have been nice had they wanted to read the actual history itself. :)

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          I have no way go gauging how must interest we have or have not generated in terms of the depth of interest in Scottish culture. I think that getting people to read more about history of all kinds is a very complicated, multi faceted issue, one that I as a costume designer can only accept so much responsibility for.

          I love history, think it is tremendously valuable, and that we as a culture know as much of as possible. I have done my best to contribute to that as much as I can, by striving to represent it as accurately as I could, given time and budget constraints, and to resist the trend to make history contemporary.

          I will continue to endeavor to work to as high a standard as I possibly can.

          Reply
    • Trystan

      Well, the ‘hand-pleat & lay on the floor’ thing can be pretty quick when you’re used to it. When I did Scots reenactment, I saw men whip this on themselves in minutes! Modern people are used to pulling on jeans, so we forget how many layers of clothing people used to wear & how many fastenings with lacings & pins people wore up until the 20th century.

      Reply
      • terrydresbach

        Some of our actors do it every day, by choice. They have THEIR own particular way of wearing their plaids, and it has become part of their characters, something we LOVE. They get in them VERY fast.

        Reply
        • Anastasia

          As an actress (as well as someone who did a wee bit of work in theatre wardrobe and did an internship in a small Equity costume dept just out of high school), I can say with 100% sincerity and appreciation that any time I was acting, the costume was vital to getting into character.

          Reply
        • Trystan

          Another good point about each person wearing it their own way — hand-pleating shows this how stitching & even loops won’t. Period images show that kilts are kind of all over the place w/their pleating, every man did it a little differently :)

          Reply
      • Anastasia

        Sure it can be quick relatively speaking – but as those articles point out, there’s also the space required that is a constraint. Not to mention, there are times when you don’t want to have to spend several minutes putting on a single article of clothing. The webpages I linked to mention that there is indeed written record of loops being used, as well as at least one kilt where these inner loops can be seen. Could that be the one and only kilt that had them? I suppose, but I rather doubt it. :)

        Reply
    • brenna

      You are correct, this is right up my alley and I would love to look into the how prominent those kilts with loops and those without were. I did not know about those articles, either, so I very much appreciate your sending them to me. I sense an entire chapter or more will be dedicated to this in the book if I can get it written and published.

      The reason I didn’t address the loops is quite frankly, because I forgot. I no longer live in Scotland, other obligations and being somewhat isolated as an historian on this topic in rural California mean I have not kept as up on the latest research as I would like to have done over the past five years. When I was at Edinburgh I don’t even think the articles you provided existed. And I was writing this in the wee hours of the morning and didn’t thoroughly go through all my notes and texts. This was lapse of me. I do remember reading about the looped kilts now you remind me, but despite those articles the laying out of the kilt, hand-pleating it, and then buckling it round yourself DID happen. As the actors Terry works with and the re-enactors Trystan describes do daily. And showing it happening — because it is one way to do the long kilt — is both visually interesting for the show and educational. I concede that people will probably assume that because they saw that scene that is totally how the kilt was ALWAYS worn. I also admit that I do not know how prevalent one method was versus the other.

      I do think that there is also a misconception about how people got dressed. Yes, laying the entire thing out and hand-pleating it as the opening sequence shows would have taken a lot of space. But I dealt with large lengths of fabric and pattern pieces and sewing implements in my miniscule studio apartment in San Francisco. I also hand-washed and blocked my knitted garments in my extremely tiny sink and my even tinier room at Edinburgh. You can work with a long length of fabric in a small space. It doesn’t have to be word for word the way people describe it — or exactly as those scenes depict it — in order to happen. People adapt. Then there’s Terry’s point that the actor’s like to wear their kilts in different ways. Laying it out yourself is how you can achieve that. There is so much that goes into these things you really can’t deal with it all in a single blog post.

      There is also the misconception that they were changing daily. My colleague whom I mentioned as doing post-Culloden research went through lots of funerary records. Many Highlanders only had one suit of clothes. And they were buried in it because it was so worn that it wasn’t saleable so it just had to go into the ground. If you only own one plaid and one shirt and one jacket, you don’t just wear them during the day, you probably sleep in them. Jamie changes clothes a lot because the story requires it, but if you look at Rupert, Angus, Willie, and to a lesser extent Murtagh they always look the same. The subtext here is that they are sleeping in their clothes.

      All of this aside, I really do love the articles and think you raise a good question. How prevalent was one style or the other? I now aim to find out!

      Reply
      • Anastasia

        I’ve generally assumed that, unless they absolutely MUST, people do not tend to sleep in their clothes – you take them off (at least the outer layers) and set them aside until you get up in the morning. I can definitely think of times when people would sleep in their clothes: if you’re living rough or out on the road (say, for example, on a military campaign or if you’re an outlaw) or if it’s cold enough that frostbite or freezing to death is a real possibility? But if you’re going to a home or an inn, by and large I’d think people would be removing at least the outermost clothes? You’d know better than I on that though, as again, my focus wasn’t in that arena.

        Particularly if its your only set of clothes, I’d think you’d be doing your damndest to take as good care of them as possible as best you were able, to make them last as long as possible?

        These days, self-publishing is a viable path to take if you want to write a book. So I saw write it – I can guarantee you at least one sale, as I’d surely buy a copy. :)

        Reply
        • brenna

          Even with my background, these are all aspects of things I would definitely need to look into way more thoroughly. Funerary records only give you one angle of the story, so I may have a skewed perspective from having read that research. It’s also specifically post-Culloden when a lot of them would have had outlaw status and been living rough. That also skews things. I have written each of these individual questions on a post it and put them in my research notes as things I need to look at specifically. There is so much here to explore since you’ve shown me those articles. But that’s the fun bit!

          It’s good to know that I have at least one sale made, already!

          Reply
      • Kendra

        Yes, and damned if you do, damned if you don’t — if Outlander had shown Jamie putting his kilt on using loops, then everyone would think THAT was the only way to do it. There’s often a myriad of options, and at some point you have to pick one!

        Reply
        • terrydresbach

          Yes, there is always the damed if you do, damned if you don’t. You do the best you can, with hopefully the best intentions.

          We assumed that our Highlanders mostly slept in their clothes unless they were at Castle Leoch. They might take of their coats. But one of the features of the plaid was that you slept in it. You used it as a sleeping bag. I live in Scotland, it is freezing and wet. That garment is pure genius at keeping one warm and dry.
          It is a utilitarian garment.
          Our Highlanders ARE outlaws. they are on the run for a large portion of our story. Even Jamie changes very infrequently. We mainly kept him in one costume. Dougal the same, with a bit more variation. Angus, Rupert and Murtagh never change.
          But at a certain point we can end up splitting hairs, slicing everything very fine.

          I think we did a pretty decent job.

          Reply
  7. PCOTT

    Allow me to join the chorus of thank yous to Ms Barks for a wonderful detailed and well researched article and to Terry Dresbach for being as accurate as possible in a complicated business. The clothing of the working and poor classes were not preserved so we will never know some of these details. A question about the portrait of Flora Mcdonald. What is she wearing? Is that a bodice over a chemise? In the American living history community we have eliminated the bodice as historically inaccurate but I’m wondering if it was worn historically in Scotland?

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      One of the most frustrating aspects of our research, was exactly what you point out. Almost no clothing of poor and working class people. So you have to rely on the romanticized painting of the Victorians, or later 18th century French and English paintings. I don’t remember coming across one single painting done in the 1740s of poor Scottish people.
      No doubt there is something, but we didn’t find it.

      Reply
    • brenna

      The portrait is complicated. Even though I used several, I am rather distrustful of portraits because they often made up the clothing their sitters are wearing. However, I chose this one because I a) love Allan Ramsay — his treatment of northern light is ethereal and delicate, b) he does a really good job of getting the details of tartan, simply because he was good at getting details, and c) Flora in a roundabout way is connected to Outlander because she is the most famous of the Jacobite women.

      That being said, I can tell from the painting that Ramsay is intentionally obfuscating on the subject of her attire. However, because we have a preliminary sketch by Ramsay (link below), you can see that she was probably wearing a caraco — someone correct me if I’m wrong, menswear is more definitely my thing. However in the resulting painting she does seem to be wearing a bodice, though the flowers and the plaid obscure much. The sketch is a bit of a mystery. Since we know he did a portrait, it’s clearly something they did while he was preparing but is completely different in every way from what he ended up doing, so we don’t know how long they were in contact.

      Still, there might have been minor cultural differences between what American women and what Scottish women were wearing. It might be possible that American fashions or Scottish were behind the times, simply because of the nature of how long it took for these things to be disseminated.

      https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/r/artist/allan-ramsay/object/flora-macdonald-fionnghal-nighean-raghnaill-ic-aonghais-ig-1722-1790-jacobite-heroine-pg-1665

      Reply
      • Kendra

        That’s a weird jacket. I wouldn’t call it a caraco (that term is mostly used from the 1780s on, and mostly in France), but I would say it’s a jacket… but it doesn’t look much like 1740s-era jackets worn in England or France, anyway! So it makes me think it was something romanticized. The wide sleeves, in particular, read very 17th century to me.

        Reply
        • brenna

          This is why the only women’s wear I’m allowed to do are Kashmir/Paisley shawls and a limited number of accessories. I do not know how often I have looked up jacket versus caraco and I’m still like, KENDRA SAVE ME! Thanks for clarifying. This, apart from my inability to always sew a straight seam, is why I couldn’t do costuming. I’d have to cross-dress.

          I would readily believe the whole picture (portrait and sketch) are simply more romanticization of Flora. She was already considered an icon what with the Duke of Cumberland visiting her during her imprisonment and people paying for admission to see her in jail. I believe it would be a more accurate portrayal of tartan as a fabric, based on surviving examples, but the rest of it? Who knows.

          Reply
        • terrydresbach

          And now you are very much in my territory. This is the kind of research we had, and this painting is a great example. One of the few of a “Highland” woman, not done by the Victorians. What IS she wearing? What IS that jacket? It does look like a caraco jacket, which is mainly a French garment. But Flora McDonald was not a poor crofter, she was something of a celebrity. Claire Randall was not a poor crofter either, so you take this painting, and ones done by the French and the English, because one can assume those both had tremendous influence, and you start designing something that feels real, and authentic to our world.
          You have to start with the understanding that a lot of what you do will be based on forensics and supposition.

          Reply
  8. Elizabeth Hostetter

    as someone who has both dressed her husband and herself in great kilts (11 yards of macDonald-of-the-Isles for him, 9 yards of Wallace for me), i LOVE that the show – haven’t seen it yet, but read the first book years ago – showed the rolling of the kilt. Need to find that clip to see how he did it by himself; can’t see m’lord managing it, but he’s twice the girth. i know my wearing it isn’t strictly correct, but i enjoyed it. And the picture under the Frasier hunting tartan looks very much like what i recreated after research of what Scots or Pict women may have worn in my period of history (prior to 1000 AD; m’lord was a Tudor Scot – always a peacock!). i’ve now changed persona and switched to 6 yards of sari fabric and a choli – but still liking the flexibility of a continuous length of cloth! i can verify that a great kilt is wonderful to use as a blanket and pillow, with little straightening-up needed the morning after.

    Reply
    • brenna

      I know, no sporrans! Though they wouldn’t be necessary with this group since they all have waistcoats and frock coats which would have pockets. Which is a pity because there are no badgers. There are also no truly hideous tartans, but we can’t have everything.

      Reply
            • brenna

              Sporrans are absolutely hilarious. There is one that goes with an 1822 suit for someone from the Ross family that is made of AN ENTIRE DEAD ANIMAL. This is why I am distraught at having completely missed them in the show. How did I manage that?

              Reply
          • Marie

            The sporrans in the show are great – essentially a drawstring leather pouch that attached to the belt. Little touches like this add to the experience and lends authenticity to the show.

            Terry/Outlander might well have a much-needed positive influence on Scottish cultural dress as a lot of what’s available hasn’t changed since the 70s. The costumes on the show, even modified for modern tastes/economy/convenience, would surely be popular in the mass market. Expect a demand for the kilt-with-boots combination!

            Reply
          • fitheach

            ‘sporan’ in Gaelic is a purse, in the sense we use the word in the UK – a money pouch. Any purse or money pouch, whether attached to a kilt or not. Thinking in terms of a kilt sporran is rather like thinking in terms of clan tartans.

            Reply
  9. Heather S

    This is fascinating! As someone who believes about 90% of television/movies are just mindless crap, I am IN LOVE with Outlander. ( of course, I was in love with the book series first). The accuracy/authenticity of costume/set design is certainly a big part of that. Really a quality show. We are so lucky there are so many dedicated, talented people working so hard to make this production! Thank you, Terry! And thank you for this fascinating article as well, Brenna!

    Reply
  10. Dee

    Wonderful article!

    As a side note, I have seen comments by Diana Gabaldon (you remember her—she’s the one who wrote the story in the first place ;) ) that she is fully aware and was even when she wrote Outlander about the history of the tartan and clans, but she also opted to err on the side of reader familiarity.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Dee, I did not know that! The decision makes perfect sense to me, though. It’s hard enough to sell books, it would be sensible to err on the side of reader familiarity. And it’s a useful piece of information for when I begin looking at Sir Walter Scott and his influence.

      Reply
  11. clio24601

    I read somewhere that the costume designers did, indeed, incorporate the chunky knits to keep the actors warm on location.

    Reply
  12. Adinda

    “Here’s also the fact that tartan, essentially an expensive fabric, is used to line Claire’s cloak. You don’t hide fabrics that expensive – at least not in Highland culture, which was rather flamboyant.”

    A small note on that : I’m re-enacting Iron Age in the European mainland and textiles are my special interest. In this period, the Romans wrote about famous cloaks, “birrus”, produced and exported by certain celtic tribes. The cloaks were known to be of very good quality and water proof. The outside was of a plain colour, rather rough and very tightly woven wool. The cloaks were lined with a finer wool on the inside, and this lining had bright colours and patterns. The celts, as much as the Highlanders, had a reputation of being flamboyant and showing off their bling. Although these types of cloaks might be outdated by the 18th century, for prehistoric times at least there is evidence that brightly coloured textiles were also used to line clothing. Maybe that’s were the designers got their inspiration.

    Reply
    • brenna

      This is fascinating. I would love to see your sources! Terry Dresbach has spoken extensively here about her various design inspirations, but I’ll let her answer this one because I can’t speak for her or her team.

      You’re right that there are precedents for “hiding” expensive, flamboyant fabrics. My understanding is that there have been many fashion trends European clothing that called for say a doublet in two fabrics: one more expensive and flamboyant than the other that was sewn in underneath the less expensive material which was slashed to reveal the more expensive one underneath. It was a power statement — I have so much money that I can take this fabric and hide it under a less expensive one.

      That being said, I was speaking to this particular point in time and its portrayal on the show. I’m not actually even entirely sure about how many women in the Highlands would have had a cape, according to many sources the arisaig was more likely (like what Claire is wearing in the second promotional shot I included), but I’m not absolutely sure about one or the other.

      The idea of looking back to the celtic tribes always makes me nervous because they are Celtic, not Scottish. Though I’m not keen to dismiss the link entirely as I’ll explain.

      Scotland (despite the myths) was actually first formed through the combination of Pictish and Gaelic culture around 889 AD, and it can be very hard to pick out exactly what within Scottish culture and dress can be traced to Gaelic or to Pictish or to early British (ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish) culture. There’s also which tribe was exporting the birrus. “Celtic” could be from Gaul, parts of Spain, etc. and not necessarily the British Isles. That being said however, the Highlands are far more likely than the Lowlands to have held onto those celtic roots simply because the Highlands and the Islands were the territory of the Gaelic lords and people who came over from Ireland, and their isolation — due to landscape and to the Macdonald/Stewart rivalry I mentioned — would have meant those roots were more likely to survive up there. They were still actually functioning as a mediaeval feudalistic society while the Enlightenment was happening down in Edinburgh and the Tobacco Barons were building business empires in Glasgow.

      The nature of the Highlands in the 1740s and both cultures being “flamboyant” rather piques my interest, which is why I’m not willing to dismiss the idea. Lots of cultures are flamboyant or staid depending on time period and cultural shifts, but it is still a link. It is definitely something I will explore. Thank you for sharing!

      Reply
      • terrydresbach

        Again, as a costume designer, I do my forensics. Were there cloaks at this time? Not really, as far as I can tell. They are more of a later part of the 18th century. Claire would have probably been given an arisaid.
        But that would not be very practical for us, and what we needed. We needed a garment that would keep our actress warm and healthy, and that she could ride in easily. Knowing that it wasn’t really period correct, we chose to make it feel authentic by making it out of heavy wool, and made if feel more like an arisaid by lining it with wool. I have seen some pretty elaborate linings, so felt comfortable that whoever original owned this cloak that Claire was given, had the money to do so.
        This is one of the more fictional garments we have in the show. But fortunately our audience is not mainly made up of scholars, and we have to focus on making it FEEL believable within the context of our story.
        A funny story. There is a scene in the book, where Claire falls into a river, and plummets to the bottom dragged down by the weight of her clothes. She unfastened her cloak and figure out how to sort of bounce off of the bottom to get up to the top for air, before plummeting back down again. I sort of works when you read it, not sure if you could do it in real life.
        We have a scene in the show where Jamie and Claire jump out of the window into the water below. She is wearing a hundred layers of heavy wool, including that cloak. I kept saying to everyone, “at which point she plummets to the bottom and drowns, because she is tied to weights”. We did it anyway, and no one has ever said a word.
        Sometimes you suspend reality.

        Reply
        • brenna

          There is a reason for the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”, after all — be it a movie, a play, a book, or a television show!

          I had completely forgotten about that scene in the book — all I was thinking during that scene in the mid-season premiere when they jump into the water was “oh gosh that’s going to be COLD!” Now you remind me I imagine it would be really heavy and hard to swim, too, if not actually making you sink.

          Now you explain the design process I can definitely see the link between Claire’s cloak and the arisaid, and as you say (and I mentioned above about doublets) there are surviving garments that had some very elaborate linings, why not do one in tartan? When I toss the “academic” hat aside, I have to admit I’m always up for as much tartan as possible!

          Reply
  13. Michael L. McQuown

    It’s my understanding that the kilt didn’t come into Scotland until some time in the 16th century and that a good many of the ‘clan tartans’ were created by two Polish lads named Sobieski, who later styled themselves ‘Sobieski-Stewart.’ During the proscription, the little sticks marked with the colours for each thread in the sett were mostly lost or rotted away, so once the ban was lifted, the only reference point would be actual surviving garments, and probably not many of those. I haven’t seen the series because I can’t afford Starz, or whatever. I’m more a 17th-century guy. Now here’s my big series question: why has nobody ever done Dorothy Dunnett’s superb 16th-century series, The Lymond Chronicle, about a young Border lord who travels from Scotland to France to the Middle East, to Russia and back. The best historical series I ever read.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Hi Michael, You are absolutely correct. There are some minor references to what *might* be tartan in the late fifteenth century, but not to kilts. As the excerpt I cited showed, they were clearly talking about trews!

      As for the Sobieski-Stewart brothers, they did claim to have a collection of clan tartans, which they said they inherited from their grandfather whom they said was Bonnie Prince Charlie. They were very good frauds — actually English, from Surrey, and their last name was Allen, not Sobieski-Stuart! I am trying to find a way to see a copy of their Vestiarium Scotium (their book of made-up clan tartans) to see how it compares to the contemporary Scottish register of tartans. I know that Wilsons of Bannockburn did simply ascribe some tartans in the manner I described, but there is an eighteenth-century wedding dress out of “Fraser” tartan that survives — rather than proof of “clan tartans” as we understand them, I suspect that someone from Clan Fraser found the gown in an attic and declared that sett to be theirs. So it would be interesting to examine how much of the Register of Tartans is based on the Sobieski-Stuart fraud, on Wilsons and other manufacturers seeing a sales opportunity, or on people choosing a clan tartan from an inherited family garment.

      And yes, what information we have is largely from surviving garments or textile fragments and those are few and far between.

      I am new to the seventeenth century and feeling a bit overwhelmed! But it is necessary. You cannot examine how things have been romanticized without comparing it to what was, and I admit I am enjoying the challenge. Especially when it involves my favourite painting of Lord Mungo Murray!

      Last, what is this series you speak of? Why haven’t I read it, yet?! I shall have to see if my local library has it. On the subject of things that should have been made into movies/television series, you should check out Sarah’s post for today where she suggests several Anne Boleyn-alternatives to Hollywood because honestly Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII has been done rather a lot. They’re excellent and it’s a wonderful read!

      Reply
    • Peter

      Catching up on back posting. A couple of points; the kilt developed in the 17th not the 16th century. Tartan was not banned under Proscription and there is no evidence to support the idea that setts were recorded on sticks.

      Reply
  14. Janice Curreri

    Thank you for the information in this article. It’s great to have a historical and academic access; something too hard to come by. Truth is stranger than fiction, and often far more interesting and eye-openning. Thank you for the links for more reading too.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Janice, You are most welcome! Thank you for reading my post. It is precisely because the truth is stranger than the fiction that I absolutely love the research I do, it’s fascinating to follow how things developed and where they came from.

      Reply
  15. Aurie

    A lovely article. I was not able to read all the comments due to time constraints, so I don’t know if it was mentioned, but divers does not mean bright it means various, so the highlanders are wearing cloth of various colors not bright colors.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Hello Aurie, Thank you so much for reading. Here I was afraid no one would read nearly 5000 words about tartan! To answer your comment, no one in the comments so far has mentioned this, but I’m glad you brought it up. I am aware that “divers” is an archaic spelling of “diverse” but you have pointed out a mistake I hadn’t realized I’d made. I meant to include a couple of other quotes — Dr Johnson’s travel diaries, and account by the Governor of the Isle of Man — and then go into the brightness, and clearly forgot to do that and then assumed I had. Thank you for catching it.

      When I think of the quote I did include and its emphasis on the varied colours, I have a tendency to think of the Morier’s painting of the Battle of Culloden, where they are wearing all manner of colours (red, yellow, black, blue) in their tartans. But as you point out they are varied, but definitely not “bright.” This perhaps still emphasizes my point that the tartans in the show are a bit “modern” to me, because they look nothing like the fabric depicted in either the Morier painting or any of the anti-Jacobite, Prince Charlie wanted posters, etc.

      The other sources I mention here do remark on the Highlanders’ preference for “bright” colours, and are closer in time period to the ’45 than the sixteenth-century quote. The problem with all of the quotes, though, is how much of them apply to the wealthy and how much is applicable to the average person, especially since this is a time period when the poor couldn’t even afford shoes. All of which are questions I hope to answer with my research!

      Reply
  16. Am

    I’ve really loved reading this, and the comments!

    Re: how to get into a kilt, I remember a thread on the X Marks the Scot (a great forum about all things kilt-related) mentioning how some people can actually pleat it on an outstretched arm very easily, rather than laying it on the floor. So space isn’t necessarily a constraint.

    Re: kilt colors and brightness. I’m curious what the non-rich Highlanders could afford/would wear. I can see how bright colors would appeal in a landscape that can be mostly brown, gray, and white for months on end. On the other hand, it’d be hard to hunt (or hide from enemies) in such colorful clothes. What would the men who could only afford one outfit choose?

    Lastly, regarding your “peacock” description of taste, is that why arisaids tended to be saffron yellow? Was it more esteemed than tartans? I always figured women’s clothes would either be very dull or matched to their man’s.

    Reply
    • Peter MacDonald

      “Lastly, regarding your “peacock” description of taste, is that why arisaids tended to be saffron yellow? Was it more esteemed than tartans? I always figured women’s clothes would either be very dull or matched to their man’s.”

      Am, just come across your comment. The idea that the arisaid being ‘luchdunn’ (meaning dun or saffron) is questionable. It comes from James Logan’s contribution to McIan’ 1845 work ‘The Clans’ in which the latter depicts his Matheson and Urquhart figures wearing a saffron arisaid. However, eary written accounts state that the garment was variously white with stripes of blue and red etc., or fully tartan. I can find no early (pre-1700) reference to the garment being saffron coloured.

      Reply
  17. Sam

    I really, really enjoyed this article, and learned a lot, although I do wish you would have commented on the historically inaccurate footwear (not to mention the anachronistic presence of beards, etc.). Perhaps those aren’t really your area of expertise, but looking at those boots really irks me…

    Reply
    • terrydresbach

      Uh oh, now I get notifications whenever anyone comments, so I GOTTA respond.

      Here is the thing Sam. We do a lot of research. We know what the Highlanders actually wore. It often was not much.
      One of the things that made have complete respect for how utterly brilliant they were, was that a lot of the time they didn’t wear shoes at all. Not because they were poor, or barbarians, but because they got foot rot if they wore them. Wearing shoes would have been like tying a boat full of water to your foot, as soldiers in WW1 and II found out. A lot of our actors should be barefoot.
      This place has no dust. The whole country is a bog. I live on a farm here, and the ground is NEVER dry.

      On top of that, our actors are not real Highlanders, they are just playing them on TV. It would be a NIGHTMARE for production if they were barefoot, or in the kinds of “shoes” that would be authentic. Foot injuries could stop shooting, and our actors are not toughened to the elements like a Highlander might have been. Stopping production because Sam Heughan has frostbite would be a real problem.

      So we did the best we could. Most of our characters served in the French military, so we supposed they brought their boots home with them, and made reproductions. If you notice most of the other Highlanders are not wearing boots, because they’re not in the trenches like our leads are.

      Sometimes, you just have to be very, very practical, and make the best of it.

      Reply
      • Sam

        Thanks for the response. I definitely understand the practical concerns of production. I just wanted to hear someone actually address it is all, lest people get the wrong impression of what is and isn’t historical.

        And yeah, tell those actors to shave, haha.

        Reply
  18. Anita

    Outlander has been a real mental toybox for me. The narrative is engaging, but the real fun is where it’s led me. I’ve hit genealogy (apparently I’m descended in part from Vikings that invaded Scotland and stayed, which explains rather a lot), I’m scratching a longstanding linguistic itch trying to learn Scottish Gaellic pronunciation (whisky helps), geography (why do the lochs tend to run southwest-northeast?) political history, ecology (no better country for a wetland scientist) and so on. It’s consumed so many hours I should have spent working…

    The costumes are part of it – I tip my hat in newfound respect for what it took to accomplish the costuming for show, but what I saw inspired me to learn more on my own. I’ve had a great time learning about materials and evolution of clothing at the time. It’s fascinating learning not only what they wore, but why what they chose was ideal for the task, climate, budget. I’m looking forward to more next season, but truly, I’m still unpacking this one like a kid at Christmas. Thank you, Terry Dresbach, for your contribution to the story. It’s been a rare pleasure.

    Reply
  19. katejlongo

    I don’t know how I missed this. As usual, late to the party.
    I have just spent the last hour plus reading your article Brenna. What a fabulous and entertaining learning experience. With your Sociological perspective and Terry’s design expertise and perspective, I have learned so much. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Other K (@otherk2say)

      Thanks for that link, very interesting! I guess the result would have been that men were not allowed to wear it (kilt, trews, plaid, coats and the broad “any part whatsoever … of highland garb” all banned) and it’s not hard to imagine that it may have been suppressed over and above what was in actual the law. I love this from the repeal too: “This must bring great joy to every Highland Heart. You are no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander.”

      Reply
      • Peter MacDonald

        That’s right in theory however, there was a number of portraits painted of men in Highland Dress at the height of the ban (c1750-60) so it must have been enforced differently. There is also no evidence of it ever having been applied to women’s dress, presumably because they weren’t fighters.

        Reply
    • brenna

      Thank you for the wonderful article, Peter. I touched on this topic when I was a guest on this week’s podcast, bu I’ve been meaning to give you a proper reply for weeks now.

      I am very much guilty of not explaining the ban properly, as I’ve said before in the comments I genuinely did not think people were going to read 5000 words on tartan (and everyone has proven me wrong) so I skimmed over a number of topics in order to stick to the point – the portrayal of Scottish dress in ‘Outlander’.

      That being said I am going to have to respectfully disagree with the article. One, the ’45 was different precisely because afterwards the Highlands were no longer as remote as they had been. General Wade built the road, and the Highlands were thoroughly mapped for the first time by the British government, and Scotland was “nailed” — as Neil Oliver puts it — to the British Empire with Fort George.

      Two, the article cites paintings as proof positive that people were still wearing tartan. Paintings are a notoriously unreliable source of what people wore. The general style of the garments, yes. The fabrics, and sometimes even that particular garment? No. There are three different versions that I know of of the John Singleton Copley portrait of Ward Nicholas Boylston, each with a different coloured banyan. But Boylston couldn’t afford a banyan, and didn’t even wear one for the portrait, instead Copley created the banyan by draping fabric in his studio and painting it that way. Many of the portraits of people wearing tartan are done the same way. Famously, Colonel, the Honourable William Gordon had himself painted in a “kilt” by Pompeo Batoni while on his Grand Tour in Italy in 1765. He didn’t have a great kilt, so wore plain fabric and told Batoni what the fabric looked like. Which is why it is so fantastic looking and unlike tartan. You can also see it in portraits of Flora MacDonald — Allan Ramsay’s portrait show a much more realistic tartan (he was Highland born), but the more famous ones make it look like buffalo plaid because they had no idea what they were drawing.

      Other portraits are political statements. The portrait of John Campbell of the Bank in 1749 can be read two ways — the Campbells were staunch Hanoverian/Unionists and so this is either a private celebration of his heritage despite playing the political game, or a thumbing of his nose to the Jacobites because he can be painted this way and they can’t because he backed the winning team. Even there the tartan is clunky and unrealistic to me, possibly because the painter was painting from a swatch, not an actual garment that Campbell owned.

      All of that being said, you are absolutely correct that there was not a methodical purge of tartan, and it did not entirely die out. There also was no consistency in how the “ban” was enforced. There are accounts of Edinburgh wealthy and noble women having evening gowns made out of tartan after the ban was enacted and then wearing them to the Assembly Rooms because this fabric they would never have worn otherwise was suddenly exotic and forbidden. We also know that the enforcement of any of the Act of Proscription was more likely to occur in the Gaelic-speaking regions and that the enforcement was much harsher there than in English-speaking Aberdeen or Perth.

      That there wasn’t a purge is evidenced by the funerary records that will show that a poor Highland cattle hand was buried in his tartan great kilt and shirt because they were the only clothing he owned. And that in and of itself probably did more to “ban” tartan than a law. My current theory (and I do tend to look at the social implications of dress and am willing to be told if I have it wrong, is that the British government wasn’t going to strip the poor Highland cattle hand and make him walk around naked, but with no skills outside of fighting and cattle rearing, and being painted as a bogeyman and traitor by society in general, there was no way he could “improve” his lot in life as it were. And as a result, Highland dress was linked in the eyes of the Scottish people and the world with poverty, which made it something avoid in the social climbing world of the late eighteenth century.

      Reply
      • Peter MacDonald

        Brenna, thanks for your fulsome reply. Following up your comments on my paper.

        One – The Wade Roads were principally built between the ’15 and the ’45 so the opening of the Highlands started earlier. The big change post the ’45 were the changes to land ownership and agricultural practices.

        Two – I did indeed cite portraiture evidence of the continued use of Highland Dress simply because they are more visual than trying to interpret the written references which were inevitably written by people would didn’t understand what they were looking at, or had a political/cultural axe to grind; for example, Burt’s Letters.

        You mentioned Ramsay’s portrait of Flora MacDonald and the quality of the tartan compared with that painted by Batoni. I suspect that the tartan in Flora’s portrait, and others by Ramsay, were actually painted by Van Aken. You may find this paper of interest –
        http://www.scottishtartans.co.uk/Early%20use%20of%20the%20Tullibardine%20tartan.pdf

        Reply
        • brenna

          Peter, thank you for yet another wonderful article, especially since Ramsay is one of my favourite Scottish painters for his treatment of the Northern light as a boon instead of a hindrance. The only one I love more is Raeburn.

          I clearly misremembered when Wade’s roads were constructed, and had completely forgotten he’d been up there between the ’15 and the ’45.

          I still take portraiture with a grain of salt because of the various notes surrounding so many of them that indicate they were not painting extant garments, but I agree with you 100% that the written records are more often than not completely unreliable and tinged with bias.

          I think I may need to seriously reconsider what I was taught during my masters year after this discussion, and re-reading your articles (and others on your website). I also recall something the Keeper of Scottish History said about the 1822 visit of George IV, he said that the Highland nobles were able to “take their tartans out again”, which means they still had them and implied less an enforced ban and more a shift in fashions similar to the shift in land usage that would eventually lead to the Clearances.

          Would it be presumptuous to ask if I could contact you for advice/references as I (slowly but surely) get to work on my book?

          Reply
          • Peter MacDonald

            Breena, my all means contact me if you have any question. You’ll find my email on my website.

            Regarding the 1822 visit, this is another area of a certain amount of myth. The chiefs had been urged to submit specimens of their ‘clan tartan’ to the Highland Society of London as early as 1816. The trouble was that as there was no such thing as a clan tartan in the 18th century they were a bit stumped. Most supplied a piece of what they were wearing at the time, the vast majority of which were designed and woven by Wilsons of Bannockburn. Some of these had been adopted during the highland Revival which others, MacLaren and MacPherson for example, were straight of Wilsons’ shelf so to speak.

            Reply
  20. Elizabeth

    Also late to the game here, but I must say that this whole comments section has been illuminating and educational far and away beyond ANYTHING else I’ve read in other comments sections. The original article was great, Ms Dresbach’s responses were great and I felt people had so much to add to the whole conversations – too bad we can’t all do this over a glass of wine together (or two)!

    Anyhow, this has been so fascinating to me – keep up the good work, everyone!

    Reply
  21. Lois Wallace

    so, tell me, if they were as accurate as they could be, why is Charles Stewart wearing what is so clearly the Wallace tartan in the Prestonpas episode.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Hi Lois, thanks for reading the piece! I can’t speak for the show’s design team’s choices. However, Sarah, Kendra and I actually discussed this in the podcast looking at the season 2 finale! Sarah and I both think the inspiration for Charles Edward Stuart’s tartan suit is the William Mosman portrait from circa 1750. If you look closely at that portrait, you can see that the costume design team did an excellent job of recreating what Bonnie Prince Charlie is wearing in it, and the tartan in that portrait does resemble what we now think of as the McQueen tartan.

      As I said in the piece, clan tartan only came into being with the novels of Sir Walter Scott 60+ years after Culloden and the portrait. Thus the Mosman portrait that the design team referenced for the costume doesn’t show Bonnie Prince Charlie wearing Royal Stewart Tartan.

      Many of the clan tartans we recognise today weren’t attributed until the 19th century. Peter MacDonald, an excellent tartan historian who has commented here (his website is scottishtartans.co.uk) has shared that when the Tartan Register began registering tartans, they would write to the clan chieftains asking for their clan tartan. The chieftains had no idea what the Register was talking about and so either sent them what they were currently wearing or something from their attics that an ancestor had worn.

      I believe Sir Walter Scott got his inspiration for clan tartan from Blackwatch and other regimental tartans, because a clan tartan is very similar to a military uniform. And as Scott was from the Borders – as far from Highland culture as you can get in Scotland – he based his historical description in Waverley and other novels on what he could see that had survived: the military regiments. When what had actually happened was that the British military had altered Highland and Scottish dress to help it (and the soldiers wearing it) fit with the rest of the military.

      I don’t feel any of this invalidates the current culture – cultures change with their people.

      Something I have learned since I wrote the piece last year is that Conscription was not nearly as well-enforced as I had been taught in grad school. It wasn’t flouted entirely – I strongly believe that especially in the Gaelic speaking regions – but it wasn’t quite the tidal wave I originally thought. If it has been, there would have been no tartan examples, old or new, for the chieftains to send to the Register at all.

      Reply
      • Peter MacDonald

        Breena, thanks for the plug, if I may join in and clarify a couple of points.

        In the run up to George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 Scott was certainly a promoter of the clan tartan idea but the impedes was a few years earlier and was brainchild of Col. David Stewart of Garth, a leading figure in the Highland Society of London (HSL). Garth seems to have been inspired in turn by Andrew Robertson who suggested that Garth might take on the job of preserving the “Tartans, Plaids, and Banners”. Roberson was Secretary to the HSL and between the two they wrote to the various asking them for a certified specimen of what they considered to be an authentic sample of their own tartan. They were not wholly successful and several of the chiefs admitted that they had no idea what their ‘traditional’ tartan was (because there had never been such things) but that did not dissuade them from submitting a specimen. These the HSL collection survives and I have been able to examine and photograph it recently.

        Proscription, rather than Conscription, was enforced with vary degrees of efficiency and the application differed in different areas. Those districts that were strongly Jacobite seem, unsurprisingly, to have suffered worse. The level of enforcement also faded over the duration of the dress ban as the Jacobite threat receded and by c1770 it and other controls on the Highlands had pretty much done their job in destroying the threat to Government.

        Reply
        • brenna

          Peter, your input is always valued and welcome. I’m glad you mentioned George IV’s visit. I had started to, but rethought it, and you brought up much better aspects than I would have done. Also, thank you for catching my typo Proscription not Conscription. Gah!

          Reply
      • Lois Wallace

        The only problem was…I did see the portrait they used, and it does not show the yellow stripe. I saw only black and red. And if you look at the wax figure that Claire looks at in the museum…it IS wearing the Stuart plaid. They should have seen more than the one portrait to ascertain what he wore. I did…and only that one portrait could possibly be misconstrued as it was. And as I said…I saw no yellow stripe. The least they could have done was consulted with the Stuarts before going ahead with the filming. Why show it correctly in one scene and have it incorrect in the rest? I did read your bit about there no having been “clan” tartans at the time,but it bothered me to see it throughout season two. It IS a work of fiction but with historical notes and those historical notes should not offend all the Stuarts and the Wallaces, even IF it was based on a portrait. They should have used more examples even if to have continuity to the portrayal of the Prince later in the season in the museum.
        Accuracy should have been used on such an important character. It’s one of those things, that once seen cannot be unseen.

        Reply
        • brenna

          Thank you for pointing that out about the portrait! I confess that I had not looked at it too terribly closely in a while, but when you pointed out the lack of yellow I went out to the National Galleries of Scotland and re-acquainted myself with it. I stand corrected – both on the tartan portrayed in the portrait and the one used in what I lovingly call the Biscuit TIn Suit. Again, I am not comfortable speaking for the design team as I have no association with them and when I wrote this piece season two had not aired yet, but I can say it looks very much like they based the top half of Charles’s costume on the Mosman painting. Peter MacDonald often does portrait analysis, and then recreates the tartans he sees in the image. I can’t recall if he has discussed the Mosman portrait, but I definitely recommend that you check out his articles here: http://www.scottishtartans.co.uk/research.htm

          From a cultural/social/dress historian perspective, I felt that having Charles Edward Stuart in one tartan, and then having his mannequin in another — especially coupled with Claire’s comment that they’d made him taller than he actually was — was an interesting visual portrayal of how the man became a myth. That message, though, might not have communicated quite so well across the screen, especially with all the other story lines converging in that episode.

          All of that aside, I do understand your frustration. First, the inconsistency is a valid critique. I think that to a certain extent the production company is in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation. On the one hand they are telling a very well-loved story and are trying to be as accurate to the books as they can. They are also trying to be as accurate to the actual history as their source material allows. I have not read ‘Dragonfly in Amber’ so I do not know if Charles Edward Stuart’s suit is described, but I do know from things Ms. Dresbach has said that she will often reference the book when designing for the characters. However, once you have begun with clan tartan (Jaime wears a pale version of the Fraser tartan) it is far more visually consistent to continue with it. So I see your point. At the same time, I very much liked the concept of contrasting the myth and the man visually. That is just my aesthetic opinion though, it is not founded in anything else than personal preference.

          I also understand to a certain extent from things Ms Dresbach has said that she does feel she should show as much historical accuracy as the story and the budget (and dressing 21st-century bodies as opposed to 18th-century ones) allows. NOT having clan tartan is historically accurate, but clan tartan is expected and established by the story. I still do not feel comfortable explaining anything they have done, as I am not part of their team, I just see a certain logic and understand their methodology because she has shared so much here at Frock Flicks.

          I, personally, have many frustrations with how Bonnie Prince Charlie was portrayed in the entirety of the season. On the topic of what he wears, I don’t think he would have been in a great kilt – all the contemporary depictions of him show him in trews, not a kilt. While Scotland was the staging ground for the rebellion, it’s purpose was to restore the Stuarts to the BRITISH, not exclusively the Scottish, throne and the records from the expatriate Jacobite court show that James (VIII & III posthumously) raised Charles to be more English than the English, thus trews over kilt seems likely to me. At the same time the contemporary portrayals of Bonnie Prince Charlie wearing trews are essentially anti-Jacobite propaganda or Wanted posters. So, they must be taken with a grain of salt. Also, relying essentially on his upbringing in Italy (after he ran from Culloden, it was said one of the Jacobites reading the letter exclaimed “how’s that for a damned Italian”) is possibly inaccurate because the Jacobite court was often a place for Scottish Jacobites to run to — so he would very likely have seen a great kilt and/or been instructed in how to wear it. We will never know. What he wore is so covered in the mythology that we simply cannot sift through it all to answer the question.

          I also just feel strongly that the portrayal is based too much on who he became AFTER Culloden — not who he was before or during. I have been told it is not how he was portrayed in the novel, but I haven’t read it so I don’t know for sure. However, the comments thread of a blog I do not own is not really the best medium for me to explore these things.

          You do make valid critiques. And I take away from this exchange the fact that I really need to get off my tucchus and finish the launch of my own blog where I can discuss research and not feel like I have to walk on eggshells. Until I do, I heartily recommend Peter’s site for the tartan history.

          Reply
          • Peter MacDonald

            ‘Peter MacDonald often does portrait analysis, and then recreates the tartans he sees in the image. I can’t recall if he has discussed the Mosman portrait,’

            In the case of the PCE portrait I have extracted the tartan but I haven’t looked in detail at the Mosman portrait but have looked at some of his others. They are steeped in political messaging and one can see similarities in some of the clothing of different sitters but the tartans are different, albeit principally red because of the colour’s social status. This one, and others of PCE at the time were done to emphasise his Scottish roots and thus legitimate claim to the British throne via his direct descent from James VI/I.

            Reply
          • Lois Wallace

            I have enjoyed this blog and your insights. It took forever to find anyone who could talk about this. You understand Scottish pride, so I think you understand that a person of the family of one of Scotland’s biggest TRUE heroes (Not Jamie Fraser) would not want what is essentially a representation of that heroism (tartan pattern) to be muddied. I was surprised last week on Scottish Fashion on Facebook when someone wrote that the Wallace and Stuart tartans were similar. I said, no, not at all and was puzzled. After watching Outlander, I finaly figured outwhy they thought so. They had seen the Outlander show, lol. I am going to Scotland next year and will be visiting Stirling as well as Edinburgh, so am currently researching a lot.

            Reply
  22. Lois Wallace

    Thank you both for treating my comments with respect and going back to check on this subject. I found myself in love with this series and couldn’t find much to fault it until this point. I have read all the Outlander books and am now up to date via Amazon on all the episodes.
    I am a bench jeweler/watchmaker with 42 years of experience, so if there are questions you might need answered of that sort, let me know. I also make Steampunk jewelry and am currently working with some 18th and 19th century fusee watches. I have a friend who is very knowledgeable about those. I dress up in Steampunk fashion for my shows, but the nice thing about that is we don’t have to be historically correct, lol.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Lois, I’m going to reply to both your comments here, if that’s okay.

      You are very welcome for the responses – this is why I love Frock Flicks. I get to interact with folks who share my passion and even if we disagree, it is respectful. That and the snarking, which is always fun (I will be in full-on snark mode myself when we cover Braveheart at some point).

      Thank you, by the way, for the information on the Scottish Fashion Facebook page (I must join this IMMEDIATELY!).

      I envy you your trip to Edinburgh and Stirling!! And should I get to jewellery and brooches in my research once the blog is up, I will let you know!

      Reply

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