Ireland's fashion styles changed little in the centuries before the Renaissance, yet Irish women's clothing history is scanty. Few examples survived the bogs of the Emerald Isle, where many burials occurred. Men recorded clothing descriptions in the accounts of military campaigns, but references to women in these accounts are rare. Thanks to a few surviving books and art objects, traditional Irish women's fashion lives on in Celtic dances, ceremonies and festivals.
For more than a thousand years the leine, or loosefitting smock, remained the basic style of dress for both men and women. A leine mna, or "woman's dress," fell to the ankles or the floor. Artisans usually bleached the linen fabric, although blue, red or green leines were sometimes seen. The sleeves of the leine were loose at the shoulder, which allowed freedom of movement, but gradually narrowed. By the time they reached the wrists, they fit snuggly. Intricate designs were woven into the fabric and braid or embroidery decorated the cuffs, neckline and hems.
Braht or Bratt
Brahts were unisex cloaks constructed from large square, rectangular or half-circle pieces of wool. Women secured them under the chin with a brooch, while men fastened them at the right shoulder. The length of the braht was approximately as long as the height of the person wearing it. Some references point to a hood; others maintain that it was hoodless.
Irish women wore the ionar mna, or women's tunic, over the leine mna and under the braht. Shorter than the leine, the ionar displayed bands of braid at the neck, cuffs and hems. Sleeves could be short or long, reaching to either the elbow or the wrist. This overdress complimented the leine and added warmth in cool seasons.
Broga and Accessories
Broga, or traditional Irish shoes, were fashioned from a single piece of leather and stitched with ornate seams. Celtic dancers now wear gillies, buttery-soft leather shoes that enhance the dancing experience. Gillies originated in Scotland but have been widely adopted by Irish performers. A crois is a belt made of wool or leather. Irish women wore them around the waist and attached malas, or pouches, to carry small necessities. On their head they wore a caille, or veil made of linen or silk. In past centuries, older noblewomen would not have been seen without a caille, although younger girls and peasants may have gone without.
The Brehon Laws
The Brehon laws, Irish code from the pre-Christian era until the 17th century, designated certain colours for each particular class. Slaves' clothing consisted of only one colour, yellow. Peasants wore green and yellow while soldiers were allowed red as well. The attire of landowners and wealthier citizens displayed all of the previous colours, plus blue. Provincial chiefs gained the privilege of wearing black. The clergy, poets and others among the intellectual class wore the bright white of bleached linen. Only the Ard Righ, or royal class, wore purple in addition to the other colours.
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