Producers of historical dramas often find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure, and not just because of the common misconception that much of history itself is a terribly dull subject. The fear of low ratings is nothing compared to the potential wrath of outraged historians, whose pride in an accurate representation of yesteryear can be cause for some serious backlash.
#Outlander is a show not only steeped in a rich and proud culture, but a narrative based around real events that took place in 18th century Scotland, among other places. Furthermore, it's a show that was based around a series of novels written by Diana Gabaldon, who, despite her impressive credentials (she has a PhD in behavioral ecology), isn't technically a historian herself.
Granted, Gabaldon's experience as a university research professor is evident in her books, and she's been praised for her fantastic portrayal of Scottish life in the 1700s. But when a novel is adapted to a more visual medium, a whole other can of worms is opened up, as well as a new audience to critique every last detail of the show.
And critiqued it has been. While some things are obviously fantasy— such as the magical standing stones that transport protagonist Claire Fraser 200 years into the past— the show prides itself on its close proximity to the truth. Nevertheless, there have been countless impassioned arguments made for and against the accuracy of Starz's Outlander; And due to the gaps in our documented knowledge of history, there's still so much that's being contended.
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Breaking It Down
So what's the verdict? Is Outlander a masterpiece of historical accuracy, or yet another terrible example of mere fiction dressed up in a pretty 18th century frock? Let's break it down:
The team behind Outlander go to great lengths to research Scottish history and tell that story through clothing— just ask the cast and show's costume designer:
Despite the thousands of hours of work that go into hand-making every single garment, it's still the part of the show that probably receives more criticism than any other. So where have they missed the mark?
The most obvious discrepancy between Outlander and authentic Scottish culture is the color of the tartan plaids. The muted but natural tones of the Highlanders' garb matches those dreary grey Scottish days. Don't get me wrong— I love any color palette that looks like it took direct inspiration from a dark forest. And it's definitely a fitting aesthetic for a show so steeped in tragedy and misfortune.
But as cohesive and pleasing to the eye as it may be, those dull shades are a far cry from the bold red hues of the real, traditional Fraser tartan. Why would the show deliberately misrepresent such an important element of Scottish culture?
The answer is simple: it's not aesthetically pleasing. Responding to a blog post criticizing this choice, costume designer Terry Dresbach expressed her disappointment that the show writers decided that it was better to irritate historical textile enthusiasts than to offend the eyes of the less-informed viewer with a few garish red kilts. She also explained the logical reasoning behind the tamer color scheme, arguing that skint Highlanders in rural Scotland would most likely wouldn't be prioritizing expensive fabric dyes over practicality and other necessities.
The same goes for knitwear. As pointed out by traditional Scottish dress expert Brenna Barks in that same blog post, the stitching on the mitts and scarves is far too chunky and therefore contemporary to be authentic. But hey, I know I'm keen to get my hands on one of those toasty cowls. And knitwear certainly would have been a practical defence against those icy winds.
As for the men's brooches? They were most definitely a way to identify with a particular clan and flaunt your family pride, and a common artefact of the time.
- The Ritual Of Dress
They may have failed in the tartan department, but one thing the show was bang on point with was the not-so-simple act of getting dressed. The show's depiction of Jamie carefully laying out his plaid, pleating it by hand and then lying down on top of it in order to wrap it around his body was perfect. The same goes for the rigmarole of getting Claire into her many layers— "bum roll" and all. Flaunt those hips, girl!
Plaid arguments aside, can we just talk about Claire's stunning wardrobe? Throughout Season 1, she sports a minimal but well-matched array of Scottish attire, as any bonny but practically-minded lass would. As mentioned above, the use of the "bum roll" (pannier) exaggerates the hips— quite the opposite of what today's fashion sets out to achieve, and a surprising detail to be included for modern audiences. Even her wedding dress, which was far more ornate than the rest of her modest collection, was based on the 18th Century robe de cour.
And if you've noticed a few mistakes in Geillis' wardrobe, rest assured that it was intentional. As Dresbach clarifies on her own blog, "She is always playing dress up, never the same Geillis twice. Geillis is always wearing a costume."
Jamie and Claire's sea change in Season 2 brought more than just an exciting new location. Modesty was thrown out the window in favor of the Parisians' preference for wild, opulent colors. Dresbach told Jezebel that the team studies the documented costumes of the time dilligently, saying, "I don’t think there’s an 18th Century painting left that we haven’t looked at".
However, Claire's French fashion choices have still been met with criticism from purists. Dresbach is well aware of this; because like Geillis, it was an intentional decision. Remember, Claire is a woman who comes from 1940s America. As much as she tries to fit in, she still maintains a sense of familiarity from her own time, and that extends to her wardrobe as well.
The same applies to rugged Scots Jamie and Murtagh. Sure, they're trying their hardest to impress the dandy king of France. But can you really picture those boys in pastel pink satin coats?
- The Jacobite Rising
When Claire gets transported back to 1743, she finds herself in the midst of more than just an unlikely romance. She's taken in by a group of Highlanders who she soon discovers are involved in the last Jacobite rebellion. Being from the future, she knows their mission to take the throne back from the English is doomed, and that the Battle of Culloden will end in bloodshed and defeat.
Apart from the time travel, Outlander's war between the English and the Scottish is quite accurate. Prince Charles led the Jacobite insurgence against the British, with little success. In fact, Gabaldon told National Geographic that one particular anecdote from the 1746 Battle of Culloden inspired her account of Jamie's survival after the battle:
"I was reading a book for research called the Prince in the Heather, by Eric Linklater, which described what happened after Culloden. It said that, following the battle, 19 wounded Jacobite officers took refuge in the farmhouse by the side of the field. There they lay for two days with their wounds, unattended in pain. At the end of that time they were taken out and shot, except one man, a Fraser of the Master of Lovet's regiment, who survived the slaughter. And I was thinking that if I expect Jamie to survive Culloden then his last name better be Fraser."
Outlander's own historian, Dr. Tony Pollard, reads over every script to ensure historical accuracy. According to an interview with British Heritage, the French were financially involved with the Jacobites to a degree, though weren't the most reliable of investors, as is hinted throughout Season 2.
- Witch Trial
Geillis and Claire's trial after being accused of witchcraft was a gripping episode; After all, many women throughout history lost their lives after similar claims were made against them. Geillis' death at the fiery stake was one of the show's most tragic moments.
However, the last witch trial in Scotland occurred in 1727, with the last "witch" being sentenced to death in 1706. That's decades before Claire ever set foot in Geillis' cottage.
When it comes to characters, Diana Gabaldon took a similar approach to her writing as Vikings, another historical drama series. Many of the names in both stories are notable figures from history, but their adaptation to fiction is more inspirational than biographical. So just how many of the show's characters are based on real people?
- James Fraser
The Scottish heartthrob may have been the product of the raunchiest depths of Gabaldon's imagination, but he's not entirely a work of fiction. As mentioned above, she was inspired to shape his character after the exploits of a brave survivor from the Battle of Culloden, who had the last name of Fraser.
- Charles Stuart
Bonnie Prince Charlie was just as infamous in real life as he is in Outlander. His actions on screen are basically identical to what actually went down in history; He led the Jacobites against the British in an attempt to take his rightful place as the ruler of England and Scotland, but was disgracefully defeated.
- Louis XV of France
The flamboyant French king in Season 2 of Outlander may have the show writers to thank for his rather embellished personality, but the show does touch on some element of the truth. In real life, Louis was indeed a young ruler, becoming king at the age of five.
As for the uncomfortable situation involving Jamie being invited to an audience of the king on his chamber pot? Accurate. A select group of privileged individuals would be invited into the king's chamber to engage in Levée, which involved watching the king get ready for his day. Quite the honor!
- Geillis Duncan
Geillis Duncan was inspired by a 16th Century woman called Geilis Duncane mentioned in 'Daemonologie', a historic book on necromancy and the occult from the same era. Geillis (or Gillian, as she was originally known in the 1960s) took inspiration from the accused witch's tale when inventing her new identity after she herself passed through the standing stones.
- Mother Hildegarde
The no-nonsense French nun was inspired by the German Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century Christian composer (among many other talents) who was eventually sainted. Mother Hildegarde's namesake was also in charge of an infirmary and was a keen student of medicine.
- Comte St. Germain
There's more than one notable figure who could have served as inspiration for the spiteful and threatening French nobleman we see on screen. There's the odd and imaginative Count of Saint Germain, an adventurer of unknown nationality who was hired by King Louis XV. There was also a French general called Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, who was also appointed by King Louis XV.
But most intriguing of all was St. Germain, an accomplished 18th Century alchemist who was a devoted practicer of the occult. Unfortunately, none of these figures seem to match the scorned assassin from Outlander, so it's safe to assume that the inspiration was limited to name only.
- Louise de La Tour
There actually was a French noblewoman called Marie Louise de La Tour d'Auvergne, and she absolutely had an affair with Charles Stuart. She fell pregnant, but lied and claimed the father was her husband in order to avoid further scandal and social ruin. She then ended the affair, which outraged a heartbroken Charles, causing him to make quite the scene. Looks like Outlander was spot on with that story!
- Village Life
In Episode 5 of Outlander Season 1, Claire is asked to join a group of village women as they drink, sing and soak wool in their own urine. Um, what? It may sound like one of those wild misconceptions about 18th Century peasants relieving themselves wherever they please, but it's actually quite accurate. Urine was often used as "lye" in order to remove grease and ensure a bright, strong color.
But for Gabaldon, who didn't originally write the scene in her novels, the show writers' first attempt to have Claire bond with the locals was written a little differently. She told Scotsman that the script initially had Claire exploring a quaint cobblestone village before being invited for a cup of tea and a game of bridge by a townswoman. Gabaldon, however, knew that this is something that just wouldn't happen in Scotland in the 1700s:
"There were no villages like that, with cobbled streets. People were living in thatched houses and crofts with no streets at all and they wouldn’t have had cards - people thought it was a sin to play cards well into the 20th century in Scotland. They wouldn’t have had tea. More importantly, the women wouldn’t have been goofing off in the middle of the day. It was a very hard life, the women worked dawn to dark just to survive, so they must have been doing chores."
And that's how one of the show's most disgusting moments was written.
As the show's historian, Tony Pollard had to ensure the necessary details were correct. And when it comes to portraying historic battles, you can't afford to make mistakes.
He advised the producers on everything from set design to weaponry, and told British Heritage that he "had a good chat with the armourer about swords":
"When I pointed out that the British army’s infantry at Culloden were not carrying the swords that were normal for the time, he was delighted as it saved him money!"
Historically accurate and thrifty? Now that's a winning combination.