by Cynthia Gentit
“Costumes tell a story,” lead Outlander costume designer Terry Dresbach has said it over and over, costumes tell a story – or at least they should. We’ve already discussed Roger’s costume story in a previous blog and now it’s Ian’s turn and let me tell you, Ian’s season 4 costume story is a mighty complex one – Cultural Amalgamation.
Ian’s story is not the typical European meets American Indian tale. That’s usually Acculturation – one culture eliminating the culture of another but Amalgamation is the blending that comes when two cultures contact and connect with one another.
Think of it as a cultural fender bender, it’s contact that doesn’t permanently damage either car – but there’s going to be some paint transfer….on both sides.
So let’s take a good look at wee Ian, shall we? If you do you’ll see several differences between where we began in episode 401 and where we will end in ep. 413 (which as of this writing hasn’t aired yet.)
What you’re seeing, visually, is Cultural Amalgamation, paint transfer if you will and it’s been going on all season – and not just with Ian.
Our introduction to the “story” is in ep 402 we meet John Quincy Meyers, frontier man, and we get our first taste of amalgamation, “paint transfer” from Cherokee culture to European. Here we see him wearing a neck knife in a sheath decorated in dyed porcupine quills, possibly also beaded and obviously American Indian. We also see the necklace above the sheath made of animal teeth, bone and probably hand bored beads made out of shell. It makes for quite the funky lanyard.
After meeting the Cherokee in episode 405, Ian is awol from several episodes, supposedly out hunting and visiting with the local Cherokee. It’s not until ep. 409 that Ian returns to the screen and we see this emerging amalgamation. So, let’s break it down, shall we?
Ian now has a neck knife, it’s a plain leather sheath, holding a short knife with a wooden handle. (This is not a new sheath for Ian’s pre-existing knife, this is a second, shorter knife worn Cherokee fashion.) It’s also Cherokee → European Amalgamation.
Here’s a little background on neck knives. Shortly after the Europeans arrived in the early 1600s they realized that there was money to be made trading cheap goods for valuable furs. One of the standard trade items were metal knives of assorted sizes. Most of these were sold with a cheap wood handle (like Ian’s.) The Cherokee and other tribes quickly adopted neck sheaths to keep these short all-purpose knives handy. These became objects of art as well as function as the tribes decorated them with quill art or beading personalized to the owner, tribe or clan. You can so some of the patterns and symbols in the examples above.
Here’s a close up of the quillwork from another Cherokee costume piece. This is an American Indian art form, the patterns are made from dyed porcupine quills. All the intricate quillwork you see on the show was handmade by the Outlander embroidery team – now that’s dedication!
The sheath Ian wears is an example of Cherokee → European transfer but the knife itself is amalgamation in a different direction, European → Cherokee. In fact many of the items we see the Cherokee wearing are also examples of this cultural amalgamation. Look again at the two Cherokee costumes above, the red fabric in both also came from the English, this is “stroud cloth,” a cheap trade fabric that was exchanged for Cherokee goods.
Another example of European → Cherokee Amalgamation is this blue rifle that showed up in ep. 406, Blood of My Blood.
They are blue to indicate that they are trade goods. The First Nations actors were impressed that this detail was included in the show.
And let’s not forget this scene, as Claire and Adawehi share their respective cultural information about medicines and healing, it’s more paint transfer of the best kind – helpful, healing knowledge that will benefit both cultures. It’s also two-way amalgamation. I don’t know about you but I loved this scene.
Back with Ian, we see these decorative rings on almost every costume. When they first appeared I wondered what they were. Did they signify a brave act? A person killed? A life saved? And then they showed up on Ian – what were these things? The short answer is that they are “trade rings,” another type of cheap British trinket used for decoration (although I still prefer to think they mean something more sinister :D) But the long answer is that they’re an example of circular amalgamation – the Cherokee took English goods and adapted them into their costume/culture, but when Ian adds them to his costume he sees it as adopting Cherokee custom and culture so the British goods becomes Cherokee decoration which is adopted by the British man, so cool. It’s a complex concept contained in a simple thing and the Outlander costume department captured that flawlessly.
These little rings were valuable to the Cherokee because before the arrival of the Europeans copper was the only metal available in their territory. The novelty of silver made them a desired item. And all of that leads us to….Ian’s silver armband.
Again we see European → Cherokee → European cultural transfer. The Cherokee take the silver and adapt it as jewelry, adding symbols of their tribe or clan to make it their own and Ian takes the finished product as a symbol of the Cherokee culture he was adopting.
Here’s another shot of that armband as well as the two bags Ian uses. One appears to be woven fabric with quill decoration and one is leather, possibly with beading. Cherokee → European amalgamation. It also seems to me that Ian is rocking a tan in these later episodes, a visible reminder of his new outdoor lifestyle?
Lastly, we see that Ian has also changed his footwear – boots exchanged for buckskin leggings, decorated knee ties/garters, and leather moccasins.
We know by pictures from episode 413 that the transformation is not yet complete. Ian will continue his amalgamation until it is complete (and with a very significant change still to come.)
The visual story these costumes tell is a rich one, and one that I feel Terry D and her crew need to be recognized for. Any designer can create a costume but it takes a very special one to tell a story while doing so. Kudos to her and her team.
CYNTHIA GENTIT – Cynthia is a guest Sassenach Sisterhood blogger whose love of Outlander began with the show and quickly spread to all things Outlander. When she’s not an Obsassenach she’s tracing her own Highland roots, enjoying the beauty of north Georgia and finding/selling unique antique and vintage items. Find her on FB @AToBVintage, on Etsy under A Thing of Beauty Vintage or at www.CherishTheOld.com