Thursday, September 4, 2014

Brown Bonnets Over the Border


Those who love history, and I do, usually have an uneasy relationship with how it is treated in movies and television.  We long to see the past brought to life on the large or even the small screen.   On very rare occasions the visual media have done this extremely well.  But more often than not we history lovers are disappointed to see the past manipulated and misrepresented in the name of entertainment.  Sometimes, though, the way the “entertainment industry” treats the past is not only annoying, but also puzzling and ultimately ridiculous.  When I first saw photos from the new television series Outlander, my initial reaction was a disgusted, “Typical.”  My second reaction was, “Huh?” And my third was a very enjoyable chuckle. 
 Set in Scotland during the turbulent 1740s, the series’ production design seems to have been done by folks who have little knowledge of the historical dress of that time and place beyond what can be gained by visiting a Renaissance Faire or a pub concert by a Scottish folk rock band. 


Worse still, the designers religiously follow the ironbound Hollywood rules for creating a proper historical “look,” including my personal favorites:

1.  Your hero must always wear boots, even though they were never used during the era and culture in which your film is set, and even when your hero wears a skirt.

2.    The hero must avoid wearing any kind of headgear that might distract from his handsome head of hair, even though everyone else around him does.  If he absolutely must cover his hair, the headgear has to be rakish, and never mind that it wasn’t worn in your hero’s era.

3.    Take every opportunity to use shiny leather for historical clothing because it looks so “period,” and never mind that this kind of "chrome tanned" leather wasn’t  invented until 1858.

4.    Eliminate as much color as possible, and also white, from the production design of historical films.  This makes it look so much more “olde tyme.”  


Despite the fact that the historical evidence shows that the Highlanders loved to dress in brightly colored, even garish, plaids, this formulaic approach was followed almost religiously by the designers of Outlander, which is why my first reaction was “Typical.”


What made me say “Huh?” followed by a chuckle was the fact that colors are so suppressed in the Highlanders’ wardrobes that their famous “blue bonnets” appear in murky shades of brown or grey.  These are also huge, floppy “Tam o’ Shanter” caps, a style much in favor today, rather than the more modestly-proportioned Highland bonnet of the era.


But were the designers ignorant of the fact that blue knitted caps were the proud emblem of the Jacobite cause?  Have they never heard Sir Walter Scott’s rousing lyrics?

England shall many a day, tell of the bloody fray,
When the blue bonnets came over the border.[i]

Perhaps. As I noted in an earlier posting on this blog, costume designers and art directors are usually not historians.  It's more likely, though, that entertainment considerations overruled historical authenticity.  In many ways, this is similar to how movie makers often rewrite history generally or create new dialogue, plots, characters and endings to classic fiction.


Ultimately though, the director is responsible when an historical film’s production design actually defeats history.  John Mollo, the respected and well-published military historian and one of the most knowledgeable costume designers in the business, faced a similar situation when he worked on the film, Charge of the Light Brigade, released in 1968.  As he tells it, the dream project of a lifetime quickly turned into a nightmare after the director, Tony Richardson, told him that he was tired of seeing British infantry in historical films dressed in red coats and wanted them to be blue instead.  No appeal to history or references to the “thin red line of heroes” made any dent in Richardson’s creative inclinations.  Only by taking a veteran production staffer’s advice to do a test film with men in both red and blue coats surrounded by lots of smoke, as on a battlefield, could Mollo convince Richardson that red coats showed up better on screen than blue.  For this and no other reason Mollo was allowed to go ahead and use the authentic color.


A. Publicity still from Outlander, on the Starz Network.  These and all other Outlander images are from the series’ official website:
B. The Scottish “Medieval Rock” band, Saor Patrol.  Notice how similar this band's use of floppy, oversized Tam o’Shanter caps and the boots worn with belted plaids is to the costumes of Outlander.
C. An incident in the rebellion of 1746, by David Morier, was painted shortly after the battle of Culloden and is considered to be an authentic representation of Highland dress of the era.  Image from Wikipedia:
D. The cap shown in this portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart – “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – is made of satin rather than knitted wool, but otherwise its color and shape are correct.  Portrait by William Mosman, c. 1750.  National Galleries of Scotland:
E. Early 18th century Highland bonnets excavated in Scotland. Image from the 74th Highland Regiment website:
F. Photo from the 1968 film, The Charge of the Light Brigade, from The Guardian website:

[i] Though not an actual song of the 1740s, All the Blue Bonnets are Over the Border does highlight the importance of this cap as a Scottish patriotic symbol. The complete lyrics may be found on Darachweb Celtic Music and Flags:  Youtube has a stirring rendition by the Corries:


  1. The idea that making everything dark, faded, and dirty is like "authenticity in a can" - spray on and you're set...though I think it better than the gaudy and really bright - colored costumes of the mid 20th century (that kind of color only modern chemicals produce, plus what I'm pretty sure is some fault of the cameras they used back then), Hollywood just decided they wanted something different, not because of accuracy or anything like that. Sure, there are plenty of areas where dirt, faded, dark shades are correct - but you can include a good blue or red (or other colors) in there, just don't make it a modern bright shade that is the product of the Industrial Revolution.

  2. I'm an illustrator and I also studied costume design in college, so I understand the uses of a limited palette for setting the mood and just for making a picture beautiful to look at. But sometimes the manipulations become clumsy and obvious. The red-coated band in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" had to be dulled down to a brick color in order to fit the film's palette, for example. I consider that going too far. What I'd rather see is designers on historical films deciding what actually has to be seen in their proper colors, or close to them, in order to be, I don't know, _historical_, and then building a palette around those.

  3. Would some members of the French Army at the time be wearing similar boots? As this is the background for the use of boots for the main character. As for the color of the bonnets, in some scenes the bonnets clearly come across as blue - shades of blue, blue.gray and gray. In the climate, natural light has shone to make a vast difference in the way colors are perceived on camera. I personally like the fact that the design team chose the more appropriate use of colors based on actual dyes available at the time. I'm sure brighter colors were available for special occasions but the women responsible for dying, spinning and weaving had enough to do to keep their families clothed. I believe that all efforts were given to use local artisans to create the fabrics, materials, accessories, down to the molding of 'fake stones' to match actual ones. Much thought went into the colors and tartan designs. As an expert, it must be difficult for you to enjoy something meant for entertainment. The millions of fans around the world appreciate that the production has chosen to keep as true to the books as possible. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  4. Hello Debra,
    I'm sorry not to have replied sooner. The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur getting ready to travel to England. Now that I'm here, I have some time to catch up.

    Since I haven't watched the "Outlander" series (though I did read the first book, I didn't know that they offered Jamie's service in the French army as justification for his wearing boots. I seem to remember seeing photos from the production in which other Highlanders wear boots, too. Whatever, the French infantry of the early-18th century wore shoes and stockings and perhaps canvas gaiters, but not boots. And even the light cavalry wore quite different boots from these. The boots worn in this production do not look in the least like they're from this period.

    Going on to your next point, I'm glad to hear that the blue bonnets sometimes appear to be actually blue. As an illustrator, I know that light affects how we perceive color, but I don't think that is the reason here for the abundance of brown and grey. Blue, if anything, looks even bluer in low, grey light.

    And as for spinning and weaving, I believe the plaid clothing worn by the Highlanders was predominately made from imported cloth, and at any rate, appear in the best eyewitness pictures and descriptions to be vividly colored, not muted. But I'm glad you're enjoying the production. Many of my friends are, too.

    Best wishes,