When most people think of traditional Irish costume, they think of the clothes worn for Irish dance. While this does not encompass the whole of the history of Irish clothing, it is a useful means of understanding dress form and function.
Irish Cultural Costumes
There may be no more stereo-typed look than that of traditional Irish costume. The popularity of St. Patrick's Day in the United States, as well as, to a lesser extent, that of "Lord of the Dance," has led to a long history of misconceptions about Irish clothing. When people think of Irish costume, they often think of leprechauns all in green or girls in green bodices and short skirts.
For men, one of the traditional Irish items of clothing is the kilt, although this is more commonly associated with Scotland than Ireland. Both men and women wore tunics and cloaks made of wool until the invading English banned traditional Irish clothing, at which point they wore variations on English costume.
The costumes worn for dance represent those worn by peasants from earlier centuries. The costumes will feature embroidered designs taken from the Book of Kells and the look of stone crosses. But even the dress designs are not necessarily all traditional, as the rise of dance schools in the early 20th century led to each school creating its own distinctive costume. The favorite colors were green and white, with saffron yellow accents. Saffron had been a popular color for clothing until it was banned by the English.
Traditional Irish Costume Colors
The early Irish favored bright, bold colors in their clothes. The more important you were in society, the more colors you were allowed to wear. A slave could only wear one color, whereas a freeman could wear four and kings wore seven. Most costumes used for Irish dancing reflect this history, with a bold base and numerous bright colors used as accents throughout.
From Cloaks to Sweaters
Cloaks were an important feature in traditional Irish costume. The cloaks were long, cut in a large circle and often black as this was the predominate color of the sheep. It was fastened with a broach. A man was not considered appropriately dressed unless he wore his cloak.
In later years, the abundance of wool available in Ireland, as well as the need for the practical fabric, gave rise to what is one of the most popular items of Irish clothing - although not many know of its origins. This is the Aran sweater, also called a fisherman's sweater. It hails from the Aran Islands and is usually cream-colored, heavy and festooned with elaborate cable patterns.
The sweaters were made of untreated and undyed wool. This meant it retained its natural water resistance and shape, no matter the weather, resulting in a practical garment for fishermen. The various complex stitch patterns used were often significant, representing symbols for luck, success and safety.
While a sweater is considered a comparatively modern garment, it is possible variations on the Aran sweater have been worn in Ireland for centuries. There is some historical data to back this up, although more research is needed. More likely, the garment as we know it was developed around the same time as it became standard, in the early 20th century, implementing modern techniques on an ancient style. Regardless, their popularity spread rapidly and Aran sweaters are still seen throughout the world.
Think of Your Costume As an Investment
Whether you want a dress for dancing, a cloak, or a hand-knitted sweater, quality Irish clothing will be an investment. The dresses worn for dancing are usually handmade and hand-embroidered. As such, they can be very expensive. Since they are worn for performance and to evoke a particular style and tradition, it is better to make this investment than look for something of a lesser quality. When representing genuine Irish traditions, it pays to look one's best.