“I’d just like to say, apparently, Diane Keaton’s wearing a massive baseball cap that says ‘Dope’ on it in the restaurant downstairs,” Caitriona Balfe announced. “She’s my hero.”
It was a bright, temperate fashion week morning in New York, and Balfe’s boyfriend had just texted her this critical update from the lobby of the Crosby Street Hotel. The actress was in her room, putting the final touches on her look for the Delpozo Spring 2018 show later that morning; though she had spent a decade modeling for the likes of Chanel, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and Alexander McQueen before she turned to the screen full-time, she had never before attended nor walked in a Delpozo show. Still, she has a well-informed admiration for designer Josep Font (“He does this great combination of super architectural and then also super whimsical"), who she was about to meet for the first time after the show. She wore a seafoam-and-ivory strapless dress with a smattering of sequins across the front, from the label’s Spring 2016 collection, for the second season premiere for her beloved series Outlander, and she selected another Delpozo look, this one a navy-and-orange dress from Pre-Fall 2017, for the Golden Globe awards earlier this year.
The musk of hair spray clung to the air. Someone asked if Kate Bush had been an inspiration for Balfe’s blunt fringe and soft waves. “I’ll take that,” she responded, turning to her hair stylist, Gareth Bromell, in a sherbet orange t-shirt: “What have you done to me?” she demanded playfully. Delpozo was Balfe’s third fashion week appointment this season; she had managed to squeeze in appearances at Calvin Klein (“There was an aggression to it,” she said) and Noon by Noor—as well as a quick outing to the women’s finals of the U.S. Open—during a week spent promoting the new season of Outlander.
In Outlander, Balfe plays Claire Randall, a British army nurse who finds herself flung back from 1946 to 1743, where she meets, and falls in love with, the Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The series has a devoted, exacting fanbase, with whom Balfe regularly interacts on Twitter, especially when the episodes air. The much-anticipated third season premiered Sunday night with a first episode spanning several centuries, darting between 1746, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, and 1948, that began to answer the questions the show posed at the end of the previous season. But its most bracing moment comes at its conclusion, when Claire goes into labor and a doctor sedates her against her will (“Claire’s obstetrician turns out to be yet another repellent sexist monster,” Vulture said in its recap).
And for all Balfe's engagement with Outlander’s avid watchers, she still found herself taken aback by the response to Brianna’s birth: “People were very shocked and angry about the pregnancy,” Balfe said, “how Claire was put under against her wishes and how dismissive the doctors were.” The episode, she explained, was reflective of the lived experience of women in the mid-20th century—though midwifery had historically been the domain of women, with the emergence of modern medicine, “women were taken out of the equation entirely,” she said. “The centuries of knowledge that women had amassed were sort of thrown out.”
“You forget how recent it was where women felt they didn’t have a voice in such important moments,” she added.
For Balfe, playing Claire is a balancing act between gendered attitudes of the 20th and 21st centuries. “She’s still a product of her time,” she said. “Faced with the misogyny or the discrimination that she witnesses, your immediate reaction or your gut reaction is from your own [contemporary] experience, but you always have to figure out, how indignant is she, and how used to this is she?”
We were in the back seat of a black car on the way to the Delpozo show as Balfe launched into the details of the show’s third season. She wore a salmon pink, black, and white tea-length dress, with electric green slingback flats with narrow teal perspex heels and a microscopic, luminous pink clutch. It was her preferred look of the three options Delpozo had provided, a suitably warm-weather ensemble given that, in three weeks, Balfe would return to Scotland to begin production on the fourth season of Outlander—“sweaters and jeans for 10 months,” she described it.
Claire has also amassed her share of knitwear on screen, but Balfe, a professed vintage lover, most covets the designs of the ’40s and ’60s. Costume designer Terry Dresbach sourced a combination of vintage pieces, like a Pierre Cardin dress, and 20th-century sewing patterns she could adapt.
“We get to adapt a lot of her 20th-century sensibility into the 18th century,” Balfe said. In the first couple episodes of the third season, Claire remains in her own timeline, but midway through the season, dressed in a costume of her own make, she returns to the 18th century. “As time goes on, she gets rid of the corset or gets rid of the waistcoat,” Balfe said. The result channels Katharine Hepburn in African Queen: a shirt, a belt, a long skirt “she hitches up,” making it “looser and freer and more practical.” (This also came as a relief for the actress herself, since the corsets and bumrolls, apparently, wreak havoc on your back.)
To the chagrin of many viewers, Outlander’s second season featured fewer of its excellent sex scenes—or, as Balfe put it, “a lot of fans were disappointed by the lack of nooky.”
“We were telling a story about a couple that weren’t in sync, and the few times that you did see it, it felt really poignant,” she said. “I always stress that we have tried to always make them integral to the storytelling.” (Plus, “they were also trying to change the course of history and battling and on the road on horseback,” she said.) At the beginning of this season, Claire is still separated from Jamie and “has shelved that side of herself,” she said. But never fear: “There’s a big reunion this year, so that’s obviously part of the story,” Balfe added. “Hopefully you see how that falls away as time goes on, when she’s back in the saddle.” (Pun not intended, though Balfe laughed when she heard it out loud.)
After all that “nooky” to come, the second half of Season 3 will grapple with ever-more-complex relationships, which intersect with complicated historical moments—like a 20th-century woman’s confrontation with the 18th-century Atlantic slave trade.
Balfe has been fully immersed in the Outlander universe since it premiered in 2014. Over the past three years, she’s appeared in just two other feature films: 2015’s The Prince of Desire and 2016’s Money Monster, the hiatus between the second and third seasons too short to fit in another project. She wrapped 10 months’ production, four of which were spent shooting in South Africa, in June; in three weeks, she will return to the Scottish highlands to begin work on Season 4. She had just recently received the first two scripts, though she had yet to crack them open.
And in the meantime, she said as we pulled up to Pier 59, where the Delpozo show would shortly begin, she has been working on a screenplay of her own. She was wary of sharing too many details, but described it as “a small, intimate story set in Ireland.” She hopes to have it done by Christmas.
Inside at Pier 59, there was a collection featuring neon mesh poufs paired with bright florals; each look was topped off with a woven straw headband. And though Balfe has long ago swapped her spot on the runway for one in the front row, she still offered the attentive parting thoughts of a student of fashion. “He just has such optimism in his clothes,” she said, pointing to fabrics, colors and patterns—and to a knee-length red dress that apparently so thrilled her, she even posted it on Instagram. “God, it was gorgeous.”
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