The History of Irish Dance Costumes

Updated July 19, 2017

Irish step dance was born from the rituals of the Druids. These included tree, animal, work, war and courtship dances performed in groups. Irish dance changed over the centuries with invaders to the country bringing their own contributions to what is known as Irish dance today. The art of Irish step dancing began in the late 18th century. Dancers wore their "Sunday best" decorated with ribbons formed into flowers or crosses. Men wore their work clothes and shoes while women tended to go barefoot. The costume has evolved quite a bit since those times.

18th-Century Costumes

In the beginning, female dancers wore dark red peasant skirts that reached to their ankles with a black bodice on top. Men wore white shirts, vests, knee breeches and white stockings. All wore brightly-colored ribbons around their heads, knees and shoulders. After this century, knee breeches went out of style because of Irish independence from England.

19th Century

In the nineteenth century, a new piece of clothing was introduced to both the male and female costume. The "brat" was a thick wool cloak and red, black, blue and gray were the most popular colors. The Sunday best clothing of the 18th century was still worn underneath.

Gaelic Dress

A change in costume appeared in the late 1900s because of the Gaelic League. Formed in 1893, the league began to resist English control and promote Irish culture. Its strong influence shows on the dance costumes you know today. The "Colleen Bawn" for women made its appearance on the stage. It was a dress with an apron and a variation of the brat. It fell out of favor because of its peasant connotations and was later replaced with a long white dress decorated with green, crimson and saffron embroidery at the bodice and a white shawl held at one shoulder and embroidered with Gaelic designs. Ballet pumps were first introduced at this time. Men began wearing saffron-colored kilts but breeches, shirts and cummerbunds were still the preferred costume for formal competitions.

The 20th Century

During the 20th century, dancers earned medals in competitions and wore them on an apron over their costumes but not during competitions. Even today, it's illegal for Irish dancers to wear medals at competition. From the '30s to the '60s, women's costumes began to resemble modern costumes. Jackets over dresses or skirts and blouses became popular. Berets decorated with a feather and sashes made their first appearance. The Gaelic embroidery on dresses was at first modest and became more elaborate at its peak in the 1970s. In the 1920s the kilt became the uniform at male Irish dance schools in Dublin and by the '30s the kilt and a tweed jacket was the known costume throughout Ireland. For a brief period in the '50s and '60s, the Aran sweater was worn with a knitted cap and Aran crios or tied belt. The Aran sweater takes its name from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It is also known as a fisherman sweater and is usually cream-colored sheep's wool with cable patterns on the chest. This gave dancers a more traditional look but was not practical because of the heavy wool.

Modern Changes

Dresses today are dark silk and polyester shantung with a minimum of embroidery and with more geometric than Celtic shapes. Women are also wearing "ghillies"---low-cut soft shoes with crisscross lacing. Tightly curled hair is not traditional but is popular with today's step dancers. Tiaras and embroidered crowns top off these hairstyles, which are sometimes wigs. For men, jackets and kilts were tossed aside in favor of black trousers and shirts and ties. Cummerbunds were replaced with colored or black vests recently. The Irish step costumes have evolved quite a bit over the past 100 years but continue to represent the charm that is truly Irish.

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About the Author

Ann Brzezniak resides in Ypsilanti, Mich. and is a freelance technical writer working for KAS2000, Inc. Her areas of expertise include writing software instruction manuals and news articles. She has been writing professionally since 2002. Brzezniak holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Eastern Michigan University.