Outlander 409, Brianna

Look of the Week: the connections between past and present styles on Outlander

Contributed by
Jan 27, 2019

Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!

Rules for time travel are not set in stone; the vessel can range from a DeLorean to a purpose-built machine, or, as is the case in Outlander, a mystical rock formation acts as a portal to another century. In Season 3, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) made a specific outfit equipped with secret pockets and layers of clothing for the journey. Nicknamed the “Batsuit,” Claire used modern materials to create a look suitable for the 18th century.


Credit: Starz

This ensemble served her well in the drama-filled journey across an ocean, though she never expected her daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) would embark on a similar adventure. Meanwhile, Bree had to figure out her own time-travel wardrobe, as there is no packing list or manual for traveling back nearly 300 years.

Outlander 407, Brianna
Emmy-nominated costume designer Terry Dresbach has delivered an array of stunning period looks from the very first episode of Outlander, weaving between two very different centuries. The Season 4 finale is her last episode, so this a celebration of her awe-inspiring work via the many looks of Brianna as she ventured from 1970s Boston to 18th-century Scotland and North Carolina.

On the surface, the fashion of the not-so-distant past and the clothing of the mid-1700s share very little. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t connections between Brianna’s two wardrobes; even style trends going that far back can mirror contemporary looks. Besides, Bree is going to naturally lean toward clothing reminiscent of her own. She is not the only character who has echoed contemporary fashion while she is flung out of time.

Paris is a city that has long been renowned for fashion and glamour; one particular Season 2 costume was inspired by Christian Dior’s iconic New Look collection, which debuted in 1947. Fashion designers often link the past and present through clothing; Dresbach’s research revealed a strong visual connection between 18th-century riding suits and the signature nipped-in waist and exaggerated shoulders of Dior’s New Look.

Claire’s Paris clothing was unlike anything we had seen her wearing prior to this point — in both her time and the one she is now living in. The New Look debuted the year after she first went through the stones, but this sartorial nod is significant in revealing how everything old is new again when it comes to fashion.

For Brianna, the links between the ruffled shirts with exaggerated cuffs, mini dresses, and the boots she wears in the 1970s are visible in the attire she wears at Fraser’s Ridge.

Outlander 410, Ian and Brianna
Boots have been switched out for deerskin leggings; her dress has been replaced by a belted patchwork shirt. The fabric bag she carries through the stones — Dresbach found this Guatemalan bag on Etsy — remains her constant. It is period-accurate for the 1970s, but it doesn’t stand out as being from another time in the 18th century. Dresbach’s Outlander-focused Twitter account goes into detail about the costumes, as well as the research that informs these choices. It's a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes costume design information, including sketches, which note the similarities between the costumes of different time periods.

This is a TV show, so it can’t always reflect clothing practices of the past, but Dresbach does strive for authenticity, including how clothes are handed down and repurposed; it is why Claire spent so much time in the same costume during Season 3. When Dresbach spoke to SYFY last year, she explained, "I watched Sex and the City like everybody else, and the clothes were so much fun. But we can't do that. If Claire is on a ship, and every few minutes she has a new outfit, you'd be, 'Where is she getting that from? Is there a store down there?'"

An endless supply of new clothes doesn’t reflect the period. Fast-fashion is a long way off — these characters are not going to Marie Kondo their closet. Instead of sparking joy, clothing is kept until it is no longer fit to wear, and even then any material that can be salvaged is reused.

In Scotland, Brianna unknowingly wears her mother’s clothes; at Fraser’s Ridge, she wears Young Ian’s (John Bell) garments. When Jamie (Sam Heughan) carried Claire over what had been built of the threshold to their new home, she had also taken it upon herself to wear a pair of Young Ian’s breeches.

Out in the wilderness, a woman doesn’t have to adhere to the gender clothing rules. In these moments Brianna looks a little Woodstock, a little New Romantic. The shirts and waistcoats mirror the ones she wore in college. Brianna always retains some sense of self through clothing, even when the circumstances don’t look like anything she has ever experienced.

Outlander 403, Roger and Brianna
Pregnancy changes this, as well as the temporary move to River Run. Here she is subject to more hand-me-downs and new dresses she bristles at wearing. These styles are unlike anything she would find in her own time. Her great aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) acts as the Chris Harrison of an 18th-century version of The Bachelorette, and a gold brocade dress conceals her condition to her potential suitors.
Outlander 411, Brianna on stairs
The fabrics are floral heavy, bows adorn gowns and cloaks. In 2019, bows are very much on trend from the hair of royalty to the Paris Couture Week runway — Givenchy is taking an unsubtle approach.

Capes offer a form of concealment and protection; while they are often associated with superheroes, they are also the outerwear of this period. When Brianna goes to see her rapist Stephen Bonnet in prison, it is a moment of both strength and resolve — the cape’s function is symbolic and practical.

Outlander 412, Brianna


Costume design is also both symbolic and practical; it informs the audience about character and place. Brianna’s Season 4 journey has seen her cross centuries and an ocean. Despite all she has been through in a wildly unfamiliar location, she has retained a sense of self in the same way her mother did when she embarked on this unusual adventure. Terry Dresbach’s costume design has been a vital part of this vision. And from a personal perspective, as a Fraser myself, Outlander and Dresbach’s work helped me feel connected to my own family and self in a moment when I needed it most.

Clothing tells a story; it can unite past with the present. Thankfully, this kind of time travel doesn't require a trip through a mystical rock formation. An excellent costume designer will do.  

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