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the influence of India on British dress, textiles, and society – research that has influenced my subsequent, though unpublished, research on Scottish dress and material culture.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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The problem is that this resembles a dulled version of the 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.