Irish Traditional Dress Biography
As far as traditional Irish clothing goes, most people immediately point to the kilt. However, the kilt was associated with Scotland, and was never worn by the Irish.
Little is known about Irish apparel before the twelfth century. Historians believe that the early inhabitants of Ireland dressed in wool cloth, although some argue that garments made of animal skins were more prevalent. They may have worn alapaca skins.
Cloaks, on the other hand, would signify wealth if they were made from several different colors. In fact, law decreed that slaves could only wear cloaks with one color, while freemen could wear four and kings wore several different colors. During the warm months, Irish men shed their mantles and cloaks and instead sported the léine, a tunic that extended to the knees. The leine was very wide at the bottom and narrow on top. Likewise, the leine's sleeves were narrow at the upper arms but widened greatly at the elbows.
Less is known of the early apparel of the Irish women and children. Like men, women's clothing was mostly derived from wool. It is likely that the earliest female inhabitants of Ireland also donned léines which looked similar (if not identical) to those of their male counterparts. By the fifteenth century, women were wearing long dresses made from wool cloth, often decorated with ribbons and other accessories. These dresses were created and worn in direct imitation of those found in England, where the nobility had banned Irish clothing.
The clothing that most consider "traditional" today was largely worn in the 19th century. Women wore simple dresses, similar to those worn by present day Irish dancers. Lace collars became quite fashionable at this time, as did the green color associated with Ireland today.
When we think of Irish Traditional Dress, we think of girls in celtic knotwork-covered dance frocks and a boys in solid coloured kilts. Or maybe we think of Men in Irish County Tartans and women wearing jumpers of green tweed. But do we ever ask ourselves what this clothing has to do with Ireland? The simple fact is that it has little if anything to do with the traditional clothing of the Irish people. In fact these outfits have more to do with fantasy and the traditional dress of Scotland than anything Irish.
The first problem comes in 1860 with the publication of Eugene O’Curry’s On The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. Eugene O’Curry was a noted antiquarian of his time. But like others of his time, used few references to support his assertions. His work translating the ancient Irish legends is wonderful. But his translation of the word léine as “kilt” is problematic. The word léine signifes an upper-body garment such as a tunic or long shirt, not a lower body garment like a kilt. And there began the misappropriation of the kilt as Irish dress. You can read more about O’Curry’s work here.
The second mistake in the assignment of Irish Traditional Dress comes with the publication of P.W. Joyce’s Social History of Ancient Ireland in 1903. Joyce accepted O’Curry’s translations without question, and there he made his mistake. However, these prominent authors were victims of a mistake in translation and cannot be blamed for making such an error.
The real misdirection comes in the early 20th century with the rise of Irish nationalism. Padraic Pearse was a fervent Irish Nationalist and went so far as to become a martyr for Irish Independence during the Easter Rising of 1916. On 26 October in 1900, he responded to a question put to him by James O’Kelly asking what should be the appropriate national costume for a Feis (Irish cultural festival) organised by the Gaelic League. In brief, Pearse responded:
The traditional dress of Ireland during the early days was inspired by the Gaelic and Norse costumes. It consisted of check trews for men worn with a fringed cloak or mantle, or a short tunic for both men and women worn with a fringed cloak. Although the people of Ireland do not strictly wear their traditional costume, yet it has retained its importance through folk music and folk dance.The traditional style of Irish dressing was prohibited in the 16th century AD under sumptuary laws passed to suppress the distinctive Irish dress as the Irish were reluctance to become part of England. The fringed cloak was particularly forbidden to wear as well as the wearing of trews or any saffron-colored garment. Saffron yellow was an important feature of Irish costume.
In present times, Irish dancers are the best example to witness the traditional clothing of Ireland. In the early 1800’s female dancers wore ordinary peasant dresses often embellished with ribbons formed into flowers or crosses. The crimson homespun skirt reached till the ankles worn with a simple black bodice. From the late 1800’s onwards, pipers wore the kilt and from about 1910 male dancers began to wear this form of costume. During this period the typical female dance costume consisted of a hooded cloak over a white dress with a sash.
During the early 1900s, there was a trend of minimum design on the costumes. With the establishment of the dancing schools, each one came up with design their own distinctive costumes. The interlocking lines in the design denoted the continuity of life. The most common colors used in the dress were green and white. Red was deliberately avoided because of its relevance to England. The ancient Irish were fond of bright colors, as it was a mark of high social status in the community to be allowed to wear more than one color.
The dresses worn by women are similar to the traditional Irish peasant dress of the 8th century AD. They are decorated with hand-embroidered Celtic designs based on the Book of Kells and Irish stone crosses. The imitations of the famous Tara Brooch are worn on the shoulder holding the flowing shawl which falls down over the back. From around the 12th century AD onwards, gold thread embroidery came to be associated with an important item on women's clothing. Lace collars became fashionable around the 18th century when Carrickmacross and Limerick Lace were first manufactured. These fashion trends are still in vogue in today's Irish costumes.
The men’s costume is little less ornamented than women. They wear a plain kilt or pants and jacket and a brat, a folded cloak hanging from the shoulder. Brat means "cloak" or "mantle" in Irish. The cloak or brat was a symbol of rebellion during the suppression since it enabled the rebels to endure the worst weather while holding out in the mountains.
Most women in Ireland did not wear footwear until over a century ago. This, as a result provided them with a grace and bearing which is hard to achieve by today's dancers. Around 1924, soft shoes were introduced for the first time by girls dancing jigs, reels and slip jigs. The men wore home-made raw-hide shoes or brogues because they worked on the land, which would, have been light on the feet and suitable for dancing. These shoes can still be seen on the Aran Islands where they are called Broga uirleathair. Some fishermen on the west coast wore wooden soled taps or clogs. When it became illegal to teach traditional music, the rhythm of the dance tune was passed down by tapping the hard shoes on the flag stones in the kitchen. Modern dancers wear specially made hornpipe shoes, and for reels and jigs soft shoes akin to ballet pumps. The crios, worn by some dancers, is a colored hand-woven belt originally worn by Aran Islanders.
Today, the dress of some of the dancers of Ireland reminds us of the dance at cross-roads in bygone days. Nowadays each dancing school has its own distinct costumes. It is easy for an expert to identify which school a dancer attends from simply examining the color and design. For group dances, all dancers wear the standard school costume.
Adult female dancers wear a skirt and men wear a jacket and trousers. Male dancers at all levels have a choice of a kilt or trousers and a shirt. When a female dancer reaches a high standard of skill and displays perfection in competitions, she may wear a solo dress with her own unique choice of color and design. The solo dress is only worn during competitions. It is a sign that a dancer has achieved a high level of skill in Irish step dancing. Solo dance dresses can range from £400 to £600 and are made by professional dressmakers who specialize in dancing costumes.