How Outlander’s ‘Nipple Dress’ Came Together

Kimberly Smart, as Madame Nesle de la Tourelle, had her nipples cast for prosthetics for the swan nipple rings. Photo: Ed Miller/Starz/Sony Pictures Television

After all the wool clothing and drab fashions of 1743 Scotland, Claire’s world in Outlander becomes far more colorful once she goes to France. And the women in the French court are more forward-thinking in ways she couldn’t have imagined, especially when it comes to beauty’s sometimes-shocking accoutrements — from genital waxing to nipple piercing. Still, Claire’s got to try and fit in if she hopes to make headway on her mission to change the future. This, of course, leads us to her eye-grabbing red dress, which gets her the King’s attention, but doesn’t quite make her fit in as much as it might seem. So much to discuss! Let’s start with the nipple piercing …

In Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the Outlander series, Claire is startled by the pierced nipples — and swan jewelry — of the king’s mistress. To show them onscreen was trickier than it appeared. “There’s not a store that sells pierced nipple jewelry with giant swans with pearl-encrusted eyes,” costume designer Terry Dresbach laughed. To figure out how to make them, Dresbach made a modified bust out of foil and plaster bandages (modeled on one of her team members) and sculpted different nipple rings for it while sitting at her dining-room table. “My kids were going, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was saying, ‘I’m making swan nipple rings.’ And they would be like, ‘Oh God, we can’t even talk to you.’”

Meanwhile, actress Kimberly Smart (who plays Madame Nesle de la Tourelle) had her own nipples cast for prosthetics so the jewelry would fit, no matter the temperature. “We wanted consistency,” explained makeup/hair designer Suzanne Jansen. “We didn’t want earrings dropping off shrunken nipples, and then everybody looking in the grass for them, so it’s just controlling the situation.” A couple of sets of prosthetics were made, each injected with silicone.

It’s worth noting that the moment when Madame Nesle de la Tourelle makes her way through the crowd, Claire and her Scottish friends are shocked, but the French are not. “No one looks at her,” author Diana Gabaldon said. “Only the Scottish and English strangers respond. You can, of course, interpret that reasonably as the French version of good manners and court wisdom — not to gawk at the king’s mistress seems prudent. But it has the effect of dampening the visual impact of the pierced nipples, because no one is responding to it, save Claire’s blink and Murtagh’s glazed stare.”

Perhaps in the moment, we don’t notice this because we’re surprised ourselves: Did people really do that back in the 1740s? “We always think we’re the most liberated, most sexual culture, and we are not,” Dresbach said. “We think it’s chronological, so that as you go backwards in time, people were more covered up, more prudish.” It’s actually more cyclical. The Victorians, for instance, also pierced their nipples — they just didn’t display them. The French court at Versailles, however, “was even more audacious,” Dresbach said. “The French display everything. Everything is decorated, and why not that?”

The French were still capable of having their heads turned though, and Claire’s red dress serves that purpose. “It’s plainly fabulous,” Gabaldon said. “It’s special onscreen for the same reason it was in the book — its effect on the men who see it. Jamie’s initial discomfiture at the thought of having his wife seen in it, Murtagh’s open-mouthed stare, and finally, the Minister of France’s rapacious advances are what give the dress its real impact on the audience.”

The nipple-piercing involves mostly bare breasts, while Claire’s dress isn’t nearly as revealing — and yet it’s still scandalous to the French court. Why? Because she’s not wearing a corset. “We didn’t want to constrict her the way an 18th-century woman would have been,” Dresbach said. “And I needed to create scandal where there actually wasn’t any. So I was like, ‘Let’s get rid of the corset, and then we can open it up down the front in a way the French would not have.’”

Claire is trying to infiltrate French society, but she still has to look a little bit different — not so different that she couldn’t be accepted, but just enough to show she’s foreign. One of the other ways the red dress does that is its lack of decoration. “It just has less crap all over the front of it,” Dresbach said. “We have the ball-gown silhouette of the 18th century, but we stripped the decorations off and kept it very clean, very simple, very elegant. She’d be in the dressmaker’s salon going, ‘Take all that stuff off of there. Just give me something clean.’ It’s bad enough, as a woman who’s worn trousers, that she’s in corsets and dresses to the floor. She’s not going to add stuff to make it more cumbersome.”

Claire learns to “keep it clean” in a less obvious way through her friend Louise, who insists that hair removal is all the rage. In the books, Claire does a more modest version, getting her armpits and legs treated. One small problem with adapting that for the screen — we haven’t seen how Claire needs this just yet. “I’m not exactly a hairy person,” actress Caitriona Balfe admitted. “Last season, [director] Anna Foerster was a little disappointed shooting the wedding episode. She really wanted some armpit hair to be seen, but I very luckily have very little of it. I was like, ‘I can grow it out, but it’s about six hairs. Sorry!’”

Instead, the scene was modified so that Claire goes as far as her friend Louise, getting what we would think of nowadays as a Brazilian. “Who knew?” Balfe laughed. “I was definitely not aware that this was the norm in 18th-century Parisian courts. I guess we have been torturing ourselves for centuries!”

Outlander Nipple Dress Was an Elaborate Process