Outlander: Finally, We Can Talk Geillis!


If you’re not up to date on watching Outlander on Starz OR haven’t read the first book, don’t read this post until you’re caught up on one or both, because I’m going to talk about something major that was just revealed about the character Geillis Duncan. Unless you don’t care about spoilers!

I’ve been biting my tongue through the whole first series to really get into discussing her character, because, of course, if you’re up to date then you know … Geillis is really from the future, just like Claire! 1968, in fact. In addition to being a Wiccan (or adherent of some other form of chaotic-neutral witchcraft), and obviously slightly odd, we now know she too is a time traveler. Why and how did she come back to 1740s Scotland? More will be revealed in the future, but at least now we know WHY she’s always stuck out like a sore thumb among the other Scots.

Sometimes Geillis dresses quite normal (although she wears her hair down an awful lot for a married woman), but then other times she lets her freak flag fly. Costume designer Terry Dresbach wrote about designing for Geillis on her blog:

“I designed Geillis as if she was always playing dress up, always playing a part. That is why not of her costumes connect as if they belonged to one person. There only theme would be that they make people slightly uncomfortable, but they are not entirely sure why.”

On the one hand, Geillis is obviously doing a whole lot to blend into 1740s Cranesmuir (the small town in which she lives): She married an important and well-to-do man, she’s got an important lover (Dougal MacKenzie), but she’s kept him on the downlow, and in some ways she’s key to the lives of the townspeople by providing them with medicines and charms.

2014 Outlander

When we first meet Geillis, she looks relatively average, although she wears a shawl/shrug thing slightly weirdly…

2014 Outlander

…Instead of putting her head through the hole cut out in the middle, she wraps it around herself, so there’s a big hole around her shoulders.

Outlander 2014

Just two average Scottish housewives, up to nothing.

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Costume designer Terry Dresbach writes of this outfit, “This costume is her Fiscal’s Wife costume. She comes to the castle looking ‘respectable.'” I think this may be the ONE time Geillis wears her hair up!

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Here’s another shot of that same outfit.

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Here she’s looking pretty average, minus the hair down.

Outlander 2014

Again, just your average everyday small-town Scotswoman.

On the other hand, she clearly doesn’t give a rat’s ass about seeming weird when the mood strikes her. She cultivates the image of a witch (even going so far as to TELL Claire that people call her a witch), assuming that her well-placed husband will shield her from any negative ramifications. And when she knocks him off, it’s because she’s pretty sure she has an even more powerful husband lined up (Dougal) … except events interfere, and as soon as she’s unprotected, the chickens come home to roost.

Here are some of Geillis’ weirder looks:

The “monkey fur” jacket:

2014 Outlander

It’s some kind of felted fabric, and the actress decided to wear it backwards, again to indicate Geillis’s “off”-ness.

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Worn with bright red shoes, which I swear I saw a flash of as Geillis was being dragged out of the courtroom in the most recent episode. Apparently these shoes were lurking in the costume stores, too small to fit anyone, when Lotte Verbeek found them and discovered they fit.

It’s interesting that she wears this in the privacy of her own home, away from judging eyes.

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Probably her weirdest outfit is the one she wears to the Gathering. Now in contrast to the previous outfit, Geillis has chosen a SUPER public, SUPER formal event to really let her freak flag fly.

2014 Outlander

The ethereal, lightweight fabrics are seriously “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The fabric looped over the shoulder represents an arisaid, a woman’s version of the kilt. Anita Quye and Hugh Cheape write of the arisaid that “It usually consisted of a large rectangle of fabric, coloured or of tartan, worn over the shoulders, fastened with a brooch and hanging low towards the ankles” (Rediscovering the Arisaid).

Geillis wears her arisaid in the manner that is seen at Renaissance faires across the country — over one shoulder — although most of the (very few) historical images I’ve seen show it being worn more like a shawl:

A Lady in the Highlands of Scotland, engraving by James Basire, about 1760

“A Lady in the Highlands of Scotland,” engraving by James Basire, about 1760.

Claire wears her arisaid in a manner that looks much more like the period imagery:

2014 Outlander

Back to Geillis’s arisaid, why the white? Quye and Cheape write that arisaids were usually striped, sometimes checked. On the other hand, they provide a few different sources that mention white arisaids. For example, in 1793, Reverend John Lane Buchanan describes the comparatively out-of-date dress worn by Highland women on the islands. He mentions the arisaid as being out of fashion, but says that when it was worn, “The ladies made use of the finer, while common women used coarser kinds of flannel, or white woollen cloths.” However, it is unclear whether these “white” arisaids are actually to a solid white color, or a tartan woven in a white ground (which would still be quite colorful; here’s an example).

Nonetheless, Geillis’s pale color scheme makes her look ethereal, moth-like, and completely different from everyone else at the Gathering:

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Where’s Geillis … OH RIGHT, THERE SHE IS.

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Totally blending. Nothing to see here. Move along.

An oversize “lover’s eye” brooch completes the weirdness:

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What’s interesting about the brooch is that it could represent Geillis’s hidden romance with Dougal (this could be a literal image of Dougal’s eye). Although HOW hidden is it really? Geillis is clearly not going to wear an image of her husband’s eye, so I’d think most people would look at that and think, “Yeah, not your husband’s.” Furthermore, it also calls to mind an omnipresent watcher and/or a third eye. I don’t know about you, but I find that giant eye staring at me to be unsettling.

Now on the one hand, part of me says, “Geillis is pretty smart. Why wouldn’t she try to blend in more?” On the other, see again the whole idea that she WANTS to be the weird one, the witch, the semi-crazy one. And she’s from 1968. The summer of love. Hippies. There’s a reason I made a Stevie Nicks joke in reference to Geillis! I HAVE read the books, I did know where they were going here. She’s bringing her super Wiccan flower power vibe to 1740s Scotland.

And, in fact, she wears only this “arisaid” and brooch for her late-night spell casting in the woods:

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Not cold. Not at all.

The other super bizarre outfit that Geillis wears is her mourning/widow’s dress, which she has on when she gets tried for witchcraft. Costume designer Terry Dresbach writes on her blog,

“I was in a fabric store in London, and this fabric got up off of the shelf, and said, ‘HEY!!! I am Geillis’s widows weeds’ … It looks like feathers … I knew I wanted it to be the most outrageous mourning gown one could imagine. And I knew I wanted white in it. Lots of it.”

2014 Outlander

The choice of black and white is very appropriate, even if the fabric texture is very crazy. The main research I have read on mourning clothing in the 18th century focuses on France. In her article for the research journal Costume, Kimberly Chrisman-Campell argues that in France, 18th-century mourning clothing was quite analogous to what the heavy rules applied in the Victorian era. Now, granted, France had official court mourning, which wouldn’t be applicable here. Nonetheless, both black (for the first stage of mourning) and white (for the second) were worn to indicate ceremonial mourning. We can look at Barbara Johnson, a middle-class English woman whose album of fabric swatches representing the clothing she bought across the mid- and late-18th century, as more representative of average (and British) wear. She had a dress made in black “stuff” (wool or linen/wool) to wear for mourning for the Prince of Wales in 1751, and another similar fabric for personal mourning (her father) in 1756.

Barbara Johnson's album, Victoria & Albert Museum

Barbara Johnson’s album, Victoria & Albert Museum. She noted that the top left swatch is from “a black stuff short sack Mourning for my Father 1756 14 yards, a shilling a yard.”

But despite her wearing of conventional colors, ain’t NOTHING sad or conventional about Geillis in this dress:

2014 Outlander

One footnote to make — although this dress appears to be a black dress over a white petticoat and stomacher, yes, we’ve got a back-lacing bodice. This is not how such a dress would have been made in the period (although clearly, that wasn’t a goal with this character):

2014 Outlander

Color totally lightened to add definition. You can see it better when Claire and Geillis are talking in Geillis’s stillroom, but I can’t find a screencap of her from the back.

As I always do when I see back-lacing 18th-century dresses, I wonder, why? I assume it has to be for ease in dressing — that way, you can sew the stomacher into the dress and not have to put multiple layers onto the actress. If it’s for adjustability, then that’s silly, because the whole POINT of a front-opening, over-a-stomacher gown is that you pin it on, and that is ultra-adjustable.

One final outfit worth mentioning is her out-in-the-woods jacket:

2014 Outlander

Super warm and rustic and practical, and yet totally elfin and witch-like with that pointy hood!

Terry talks on her blog about how this is a reinterpretation of an extant 18th century jacket, and I think it’s pretty much a genius adaptation:

French jacket, 1760s, from Les Arts Decoratifs

French jacket, 1760s, from Les Arts Decoratifs.

Clearly the original would be WAY too fancy, but again, I think that pointed hood is the kind of subtle clue that works perfectly for Geillis’s witchy woman persona.


So, what did you think of Geillis’ desire to stand out of the crowd, sartorially? Does it work for your read of her character?


Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. “Mourning and La Mode at the Court of Louis XVI.” Costume 39, no. 1 (2005): 64-78.

Quye, Anita, and Hugh Cheape. “Rediscovering the Arisaid. Costume 42, no. 1 (2008): 1-20.


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

28 Responses

  1. terrydresbach

    Me, me, call on me!!!!!! hehe

    Okay, so I can explain the thinking on every point you make.

    The arisaid, is not supposed to be worn the way a women actually wore them, in Geillis world, it is meant to be worn the way many men wore it, in solidarity. It is a Geilis dress up costume, her revolutionary kilt.
    I grew up in Berkeley during the student uprisings and demonstrations, and I can remember how young political “revolutionaries” dressed in supposed solidarity with the Black Power movements, Cuban revolutionaries, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutionaries, etc. The “costumes” of various revolutionary movements, and of third world peoples in general. It was always a bit like watching kids play dress up, since most of these “kids” came from white, middle class homes, and eventually became the lawyers and stockbrokers, that their world of privilege expected them to be.
    Anyway, Geillis is one of those “kids”. She is not a hippie. She is a revolutionary of the 60s counter culture, and she has adapted a costume.
    Sometimes one can wear a historical costume that is done exceedingly well, with great historical accuracy, and sometimes it can miss the mark completely. Often, it is done with strange or unusual fabrics. But it is a costume, not a historical reproduction, so different rules can apply.
    So Geillis makes her costume in an ivory linen, with a sheer arisaid, because it is a costume, not “real” clothing. She is playing a part.
    And no, the eye is not Dougal’s. And yes, it is too big, because it is part of a very strange woman’s costume.
    I am trying to remember when I when to my First Renaissance Faire. I am pretty sure it was THE FIRST Ren Faire. I think it was in 66, maybe 67, but I was a little kid. You parked your car a zillion miles away, were bused in on someone’s old school bus. No one was allowed in without a “costume”, and if you rode a horse, you got in free. It really was hippies dropping acid in the woods. And “costume” was a VERY loose definition. (Lots of back laced dresses, gypsy costumes, kimonos, everything under the sun)
    Once again, Geillis’s generation. Anything goes.
    But FYI, we did find a back laced gown in Nancy Bradfield’s Costume In Detail. Given, it is later period than our story, but sometimes we do have to fudge those lines (Claire’s cloak!).
    But even if we hadn’t found that reference, we still would have done it.Sometimes you do those things in theater.

    Geliis’s choice of black fabric for her mourning gown, had absolutely nothing to do with historical accuracy and if anyone wore black when someone died, and everything to do with what people did in the 1960’s. Not sure how much access Geillis had to 18th century costume research, in the 60’s. I know she couldn’t do much in the way of Google searches, or looking on Pinterest Boards. She might have done bit, if she really gave a shit. Given her somewhat impetuous nature, and the impetuous nature of her counter culture brethren, I kind of doubt she did much. To Geillis, when someone dies, you wear black. Another dress up dress.

    But at the end of the day none of this mattes, because it is a very immature, probably emotionally unbalanced woman dressing up in costumes of her own making. Rules and accuracy mean nothing…unless we give her velcro. She couldn’t have even brought that in her backpack.
    (We did really cheat on what is no doubt a synthetic blend fabric, but mea culpa, I just couldn’t help myself!)
    Glad you liked the little faery coat. That is one of my favorite pieces in the show.
    I’m starting to enjoy Frock Flicks!
    Hang onto your hats (wigs), we will continue to push buttons, I promise. Wait till you see what we do with Season Two!!!!

    • Kendra

      Cool! Thank you so much for weighing in, Terry! It’s been very fun to try to guess where Geillis is going, and I’ve been sitting on my hands so that I don’t spill the reasons WHY she’s so weird.

      Re: the lover’s eye — damn, not Dougal! I liked my theory! ;)

      I can’t WAIT to see what you do with season 2, although I admit I’m also nervous for you — there’s no way they gave you enough budget to do the French court right. I promise to cut you some slack for the things you need to fudge!

      Okay, and since you’re reading — WHY the back-laced bodice? Is it a character decision? An easier-for-the-actress-to-wear decision?

      • terrydresbach

        You are right Kendra, there is no way we get enough money to do it right, according to Frock Flick standards. But I think it is going to be very, very difficult for most people to tell where he’ve had to cut corners. Yes, you, and many of your readers will be able to find the holes, but the vast majority will not, I hope! And we have done it with the goal, as always, of making it look and feel as authentic and accurate as possible.

        Back lacing. Well, first of all it is Geillis, so no rules. She doesn’t worry about such things. Keep that one in mind going forward. Most of us would not necessarily worry about being super precise, and would take liberties where we could, if they wouldn’t get us burned at the stake.
        Anyway. To my eye, it is the dress that cheats in a way I am the most uncomfortable with, because it uses synthetic fabric. I can argue for felting, I can argue for knits, but I can argue for man made fabrics. So lacings, help keep the period feel alive, for an audience who is not made up entirely of costume historians;)
        On top of that, this dress gets torn off of her, and we needed to be able to rig it. Having the back laces helped us to manage that.

        It is a complicated thing, costume design for screen, never just about accuracy. But I firmly believe that if you keep that as your goal, the audience will engage in a way they will not, if you figure that accuracy and authenticity don’t matter to them.
        If you can get ALMOST there, with all the money and crew shortages, time limitations, and story demands, it’s a damned fine feeling.

        • Trystan L. Bass

          “this dress gets torn off of her, and we needed to be able to rig it. Having the back laces helped us to manage that.”

          THIS. I can totally see this working! If you need it to be ripped off the front, yeah, back lacing makes perfect sense. Tho’ ripping off the back (say, if a character is getting dragged along by a horse rider; it could happen!), then a front-pinning gown would be useful (& bonus, historically accurate).

    • brenna

      Since the only reason my dress knowledge goes as far back as the 1740s is the ’45 uprising, I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see season two!!

  2. Trystan L. Bass

    Random comment — I’ve always LOVED lover’s eye jewelry, so the bigger the better, heh. And she’s crazy, so sure, crazy eyes! It works.

    • Barbara

      I’ve done some research on Mourning Jewelry and the eye was very symbolic of the lost of a loved one and the pearls around the brooch represented tears

  3. Carolyn

    Ok, I haven’t watched the series yet because I don’t have cable, it’s not on Netflix, I’m in Canada, blah blah blah. And I only read the first book (so I know about Geillis’ secret – and honestly, it gave me shivers when I read how Claire discovered it). I will watch this series when I am actually able to and have no doubt I’ll enjoy it – costumes and all. I can give costume designers for film, TV and theatre A LOT of slack. Ironically, the deeper I’ve gone into formal dress history scholarship the easier I’ve gotten on costume designers, rather than the reverse.

    Anyway, so this preamble is just to preface that I can’t help being facetious on two points – totally just for fun. One – in the book, if I remember correctly (it *has* been several years) the date 1968 is given no context. We don’t know if that’s the year Geillis “travelled” or the year she was born, or what. So making it the year she travelled from is taking a stand rather than maintaining the mystery. Two – where and when did Geillis learn to handsew whole garments? Did she apprentice with a mantuamaker? Most women in the eighteenth century did not make their own clothing – regardless of their social status. Garment textiles were too significant an investment to trust cutting it yourself at home. Those farther down the social ladder also relied heavily on the second-hand trade (Beverly Lemire was my MA supervisor *wink*). So just how did Geillis obtain such crazy clothes – and crazy fabrics?

    Again, being just totally facetious here. From the visuals I’ve seen I really love how Terry Dresbach has dressed her character!

    I do just wish the back lacing wasn’t needed. It hurts a little, 18th century dressmaking was so much cooler than that.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      My totally tipsy theory (WHAT, TRYSTAN AND I HAD A STAFF MEETING) is that Geillis is actually a Wiccan costumer from the 1990s. That’s how she knows how to sew.


      • Pierced Wonderings

        LOL except we find that isn’t true in Book 3?

      • terrydresbach

        She can’t hire a local seamstress? She has money. Though I do think she does the felting herself.
        I have read the books a lot, and do know the context. Actually, I probably did a big ‘ol spoiler in my earlier post. oooops

        • Carolyn

          Well, if there was spoiler in there it was lost on me, lol. I guess I took your statements about Geillis “making” her clothes, to mean you had the idea that she, personally, literally made them herself. I’d find it highly entertaining to see the look on a mantuamaker’s face when Geillis told her what she wanted made and how she wanted it to look, lol.

          • terrydresbach

            I highly doubt there was a mantua maker in the village of Craensmuir. I kind of figured there might be a local woman who earned a bit of money now and then, making clothes for those who could afford it. I am sure she looked askance at Geillis’s unconventional choices, but probably not enough to turn down the money.
            We also felt that Geillis’s strange behavior, odd clothing, and suspected sexual liaisons, probably didn’t help much at the trial.
            Not a beloved member of the community. No one coming to HER rescue, as they all suspected she was a whore and a witch, anyway.
            I certainly understand the perspective of historical costume afficianados, but we do not share the same goals at all.
            Once again, achieving historical accuracy and authenticity are a huge part of my goal as a costume designer, but my primary goal is to serve the STORY. The onscreen story, not even the book story, which pisses off a lot of fans. No doubt there are British Army fans somewhere annoyed at the metal used in our uniform buttons.
            Win some, lose some.

        • Trystan L. Bass

          Just like there are no spoilers in history, I firmly believe that there are no spoilers in anything based on literature! (Being a HUGE Tolkien fan, I had so many arguments about this w/ppl when the Lord of the Rings movies came out ;-) ).

  4. Stephani

    You folks are so damn entertaining. I love reading these posts and the comments.
    I have read the first Outlander book (and boy was that emotionally draining; so much so that I haven’t been able to plunge into the next one yet), but I haven’t watched any of the series yet. It’s in my Amazon queue, so I will eventually. Really looking forward to watching it with all the commentary on the costuming in mind.
    From what I’ve seen of TV stills and previews online, the look and feel created by the costuming, despite its HA shortcomings–and this is after all theater, not a historical re-enactment–really achieves the goal of immersing the average viewer in the time period and creating a sense of the characters’ personalities, backgrounds, loyalties, stations in life, etc.
    Really enjoying all the back and forth! Keep it up!

      • Stephani

        The comments here are just as awesome as the posts themselves! I love the discussions that are carried out.

    • terrydresbach

      Thank you Stephani. You have very eloquently stated the job of a costume designer!

      “really achieves the goal of immersing the average viewer in the time period and creating a sense of the characters’ personalities, backgrounds, loyalties, stations in life, etc.”

      • Stephani

        Well, as much as I appreciate and agree with concerns about historical accuracy in purportedly “historical” film and TV–because it’s important to represent history as realistically and truthfully as possible–I also think it is important to remember that a theatrical costumer has a very different set of goals from a costumer for historical re-enactment. And also that this is a work of historical FICTION.
        A glaringly wrong element really can damage the illusion for those in the know. But when a costumer has made intelligent and thoughtful choices in all other aspects of a production, even a glaringly wrong element–however jarring to see–if it serves the story and characterization, should be given a pass. In those circumstances, it’s pretty fair to assume that the thing was probably not perpetrated as an act of ignorance, but was intentional and possibly even necessary.
        For myself, whenever I watch a film or show, I find it easy to suspend my disbelief of pretty much anything, as long as my willingness to do so isn’t being abused by bad acting. Or stupid directorial decisions.

      • Kathy Gustafson

        Off-topic, Terry, but I just wanted to say Claire’s wedding dress was the most exquisite thing I’ve ever seen on screen. I was ready to chuck the whole rest of the story and just have the camera pan around and zoom in for the next half hour. Thank you!

      • Joanne Renaud

        I admit, I’m not a fan of the books, and I haven’t watched too much of the show, but your costumes are really beautiful. There’s so much thought and care put into them. Claire’s wedding dress was especially gorgeous. My hat’s off to you, Terry!

  5. Loren

    Even though I’ve only seen one episode (and only ready the first book) I’ve been enjoying seeing all the costume pictures here and on Terry’s blog. I have to say, I really love fantasy-tinged historical costumes, so I’m really digging Geillis’s costumes. The black feathery fabric on the mourning one is so cool and odd, but the lover’s eye one is my favorite, it’s ethereal and pretty and eerie all at once.

  6. Kathleen Norvell

    I have not read any of the books, but I binge-watched the entire Season 1 a month or so ago. As an historical costumer and historical re-enactor who portrayed a Jacobite woman for about 15 years, I did my research into 18th century Highland clothing. By the time I finished the binge-watch, I wanted to throw rocks. First of all, no Highlander would have ridden a horse in a kilt! Not if he wanted to procreate. If a Highlander was rich enough to own a horse, he would have worn trews (tight tartan trousers that look like leggings). And no boots unless he wore them with said trews. If Highlanders wore hard shoes, they wore typical 18th century buckle shoes. If not (probably couldn’t afford them), they wore (deer)hide shoes that they shaped and tied around their feet.

    And don’t get me started on the women! There was nothing right about the women. If the story was taking place in 1743, why were Clare and Geillis wearing 17th (not 18th) century clothing? Bumrolls? Detachable sleeves? And what’s with that woolen shrug? And shawls? Most women wore airsaids, which like the kilt, wrapped around the body, was held on with a belt or tie of some kind, and could be drawn over the head or pinned/tied on the shoulder to make a big for carrying things or children. 18th century English accounts describe Highland women and wearing a shift and an airsaid (not even a petticoat) and no shoes — and this was in the city. A woman of certain status, like a chieftain’s wife, might wear French clothing on formal occasions, but not all the time. If the costume crew was aiming for historical accuracy, they failed. If they were aiming for fantasy, then….

  7. Ian Moone

    I cannot access the link at the
    “However, it is unclear whether these “white” arisaids are actually to a solid white color, or a tartan woven in a white ground (which would still be quite colorful; here’s an example).”
    What picture is provided?

  8. sita

    I watched the serie but haven’t read the books (yet)… when I saw her performing a ritual I was like “whoever wrote the story is an idiot this is clearly a wiccan thing and there was no wicca in 18th century Scotland they probably think wicca is the Old Religion etc …” until I found out she is from the 20th century :D I was relived .

  9. MaeJay

    Just dropping by to say I love, love love! that lover’s eye brooch. So ethereal! So creepy! I also love it in combination with that gauzy fabric.

    Question: In the books do they ever mention how Gellis wound up in 1740s Scotland? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this episode so I don’t remember if they mentioned it.

    Love this blog, btw! Long time lurker.