As I wished to present yet another facet of fashion in the Celtic world, I could hardly ignore the outstanding TV series Snáithe conceived by the graduate of Irish and Celtic studies Ciara Nic Chormaic and presented by the fashion blogger Ciara O’Doherty. Shown on Irish channel TG4 in 2018, the six-part documentary is in Irish (Gaeilge) as the title Snáithe meaning “thread” indicates. However, one can easily switch on the English subtitles and enjoy that magnificent series of illustrated interviews on the history and impact of Irish fashion. I am fond of it because I share her general conclusion that modern fashion, in our Celtic countries, can be firmly rooted in cultural heritage.
Indeed, Ciara O’Doherty answers the essential questions that I have often asked myself when visiting friends in Ireland or welcoming them here in Brittany: have the Irish a distinctive fashion style? Is that fashion influenced by the Irish heritage? And what does fashion reveal about the Irish people?
The six episodes do not follow a chronological order but deal rather with themes enriched by archive footage and photographs to complement interviews.
In the first episode Richard Malone, interviewed during the London Fashion Week, stresses “There is definitely an identity. The tradition of craft is something specific to Ireland” Yet “The designers in London who are Irish are at the forefront of contemporary design and it does not look Irish, it looks like something quite new”.
Consequently, there is no need to conceive costumes so openly inspired by Celtic mythology, as did Joan Bergin for the Riverdance dancers in 1994, to design fabrics and patterns rooted in the Irish dressing tradition.
Fairies fear red, humans like green
A few history books help us to look back to ancient tradition such Fabric & Form – Irish Fashion since 1950 written by Elizabeth McCrum, curator of the Ulster Museum or After a fashion (A History of the Irish Fashion Industry) by Robert Byrne.
In them can be found mentions of old clothing items. For instance, the mantle of Saint Brighid (the legendary abbess of Kildare of the 5th century and godmother of Ireland) reimagined in the 11th century, now preserved in Brussels, or the old Hibernian cloaks. Not to mention a drawing by Albrecht Dürer depicting Irish soldiers with a peculiar style of dresses and fabrics used.
In the Snáithe series, Jonny Dillon reveals that there was a lot of superstition in Ireland. “Certain beliefs were woven into the clothes themselves”. For instance, fairies did not like red, therefore a red ribbon would be blessed, and put as well as salt (repellent to devilish characters) in the pram so as to protect babies.
As Dillon says there was “an element of magic in the birth of fashion”.
It would be wrong to believe that fashion was imported from Britain into Ireland.
Although historian Ruth Griffin explains in the film that initially, the Irish aristocracy and bourgeoisie wanted to wear what they knew being the latest thing in Paris and London as they had seen drawings on how to make costumes and dresses. For instance, two centuries ago, there were the first silk weavers in the Liberties district of Dublin.
Unfortunately, part of its colonial policy in Ireland, trade restrictions were imposed by London governments on Irish Clothes and Clothing industries.
Yet Irish traditional costumes would inspire the fashion of the time.
When in 1842 the English novelist William Thackeray travelled in Ireland to research his novel Barry Lyndon [later a magnificent film by Stanley Kubrick in 1975], he discovered distinctive items of local dress such as red petticoats and heavy knitted socks.
Another writer, an Irishman this time, played a great role. This was the playwright novelist and poet Oscar Wilde. As demonstrated in the TG4 film, he illustrated the ‘Dandy Fashion’. Above all, the author of The Portrait of Dorian Gray supported women’s rights and feminism of the Anglo-Irish world. This is why by 1887 he became editor of the magazine Woman’s World in which many prominent women contributed (He even tried to get a poem from Queen Victoria!). In it they were pages devoted to dresses and fashion.
As the historian of Anglo-Irish literature Declan Kiberd explains in the series Wilde supported the free bodily movement and he thought that man should nurture some femininity. He used to say: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does and this is his.”
He did encourage androgyny (including the divided skirt created with his wife Constance), understanding the power of clothes.
No doubt his homosexuality which brought him to jail, to ultimate isolation and death in Paris, powerfully played a role in his vision. But seen from our modern perspective he was a fashion pioneer.
Summarised in part VI of the film, the idea that prominent and powerful people supported the creativeness of designers, but also the textile industry, runs all along the series.
For instance, some of the famous Irish-made laces such as Limerick lace and Carrickmacross lace were taught in schools funded by benefactors. Tweed was brought to London especially by Alice Hart, the British philanthropist who, after a trip to Donegal, was dismayed by the utter poverty (after the Great Famine). Therefore, she decided to revive the Donegal tweed. She sent the locals examples of design from Scottish tweeds and helped them find dyes using local plants.
Designers were supported by upper class women such as Lady Dunsany (the wife of the writer famous for his fairy tales) who publicized the “peasant chic” look. This was especially done when women were shot by photographers in cottages in the West of Ireland. And there again the famous Red Flannel Petticoat from the Aran Islands was especially appreciated as traditional dresses as shown by two photographers of the Paris-based Kahn Foundation, Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon who came to Ireland in May 1913.
Lady Dunsany died in February 1916 two months before the Easter Rising of Irish nationalists and Republicans who opposed British presence. Their approach was twinned with the Gaelic revival movement in all forms: language, sports, education, theatre, literature. It meant re-imagining dresses of a mythological Ireland as much as making clothes fitting the action of suffragettes and women soldiers in the Republican movement.
Wool, tweed, lace and linen
The strong sense of identity was supported by the use of materials. We have just seen the tweed from Donegal. There, was also the great adventure of Tweed Magee (founded in 1866), which is still made in Donegal today, as Patrick Temple from Magee proudly explains: “We’re manufacturing fabrics still in Ireland, which is quite unique in this day and age”.
We have also seen the linen that was not worn as an outerwear until the 18th Century (and already by the 1750s it was printed). Likewise, as we just saw, the Irish lace industry which was supported in the 19th century by the upper class.
Today, Aoibheann McNamara and Triona Lillis designing collaboratively their brand The Tweed Project say: “We are fully rooted in the traditional, both in production and inspiration”.
For instance, the two women are much inspired by the fishermen of Inis Oírr, from the Aran Islands, and facing the islands on the other shore, the traditional blankets worn by the women of Galway. Likewise, seen on neither very form fitting nor tailored pieces, it was the actual tweed from Donegal (further up on the same western coast) that they seek to use, in grey or black for modern tracksuits.
Like many contemporary designers they also “look beyond the island of Ireland for influences, bringing them back, merging them with our own indigenous fabrics”.
(Film clip from Episode II of the Snáithe series on replay on channel TG4)
They are not the only designers to pursue “Re-imagining traditional garments”.
Yet, another good example of them “honouring the tradition” still stems from the Aran Islands, when they hint at the Crios (pronounce Kriss), that is to say a belt (handwoven from multi-coloured sheep’s yarn) which reminds me of the Gouris in the local male costume of my very own Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany (in the Old Breton language of the Middle Ages the word is guocris). The Crios is not commonly used nowadays (worn by men and women alike) but still remains a powerful symbol.
Wool should be pronounced gold in Irish Fashion throughout the centuries. In the various episodes, several interviewees (Orla Kiely, “The queen of Prints” who grew up in South County Dublin, Chris Weiniger from the spinning mill Donegal Yarns or the knitter Pearl Reddington) all express their passion for wool and elaborate on knitting traditions over at least two centuries.
“Wool the most readily available and cheap material produced most of the traditional forms of Irish dress”. Let’s recall that knitting was introduced on the island back in the 17th century although wool was spun from the Bronze Age as witnessed pieces of clothing found in Ulster dating from the 8th century BC.
In the 20th century, Aran jumpers became famous around the 1930s “at a time when we were questioning our identity” explains Siún Ní Dhuinn. After World War II, they became famous thanks to the music group The Clancy Brothers and celebrities who wore it such as actors Grace Kelly and Steve McQueen.
New materials, new techniques are also part of the game. In county Monaghan Helen Steele has a unique process of throwing diverse paints on a sheet of paper (quite reminiscent of US painter Jackson Pollock’s technique).
Then she photographs the paint running and the pictures (with a predilection for fluorescent colours) are sent to the printers, the fabrics with their abstract patterns are sent back and then cut. “It is kind of the reverse in comparison to most designers, we will really work on the shape first.”
Naturally, it is somewhat more difficult for people to understand that those multicolour dresses belong to modern Irish fashion. Yet, Helen is very proud, and rightly so, that her dresses are sold in Nigeria and worn by African women in Lagos and elsewhere.
‘Sunday Best’ and Woman’s role
As stressed in the part III of the series, for a long time, from the 18th century onwards, in the middle class one wore once a week one’s Sunday Best, and going to mass (when Catholic faith was not suppressed any more) the lowest classes started also to wear their Sunday Best.
Then the suit came in fashion in the 19th Century, and people tended to wear it on Sundays for social events. The historian Síle de Cléir recalls that “the good clothes were always worn Sundays, people tidied themselves up and made a huge effort to wear much smarter clothes than worn during the week”.
After WW2, playing a more public role with jobs, especially in towns, women wanted to show this.
Kate Nolan (from the Atrium concept store) sees now a market for independent designers who make garments special for the everyday not for the Sunday exception.
Laura Kinsella, a Dublin milliner adds that thankfully in Ireland, people are generally more appreciative that it takes time to make skilfully crafted clothes.
Games of Thrones & the Vikings
Without necessarily realizing it, millions of spectators have seen results of the expertise of the Irish in the art of costume design. For the reason that designers have dressed actors of theatre plays, movies, fiction series for TV or circuits such as Netflix, and so on.
For instance, Mary O’Donnell, from Donegal made the costumes for the film Lovesspell starring Richard Burton shot in 1979 in Ireland (and telling the story of Mark of Cornwall alias Konomor of Brittany).
Moreover, with her boutique in Dawson Street in Dublin, Ms O’Donnell brought to world fame the needlework skills coming from her hometown of Kilcar, including dressing up the Irish-American Kennedys who gave a president to the States. Wearing O’Donnell’s jumpers and clothes with her Celtic symbols drawn from the mythic Book of Kells gave to American women a sense of reuniting themselves with their Irish roots.
Another Donegal designer, Oliver Duncan Doherty, using macramé techniques for costumes has gone over to science-fiction or fantasy costumes. “Possibilities are endless” says he telling how he joined the 70-full time team for the series Games of throne in Belfast.
Likewise, Joan Bergin (Focus Theatre costume designer) argues that producers come to see the Irish able to create special universes for cinema, TV and other media on the web. She “knows the score” since she took part in another famous series Vikings (helped by the fact that Trinity College historians have researched the ancient history of Viking Ireland and the foundations of Dublin). Just as she did when conceiving the costumes for the Riverdance dancers and giving a new visibility to artefacts such as the mythological Tara Brooch.
As Ciara O’Doherty comments: “Not so long ago, films being shot in Ireland were using crew and designers from abroad because those skills weren’t available here. Things are very different today as the traditional native crafts enter a new era.”
The conquest of America
And they are being re-imagined by designers all over the country.
In the middle of last century, Irish fashion designers also became famous in the United States. American women adopted the “Irish peasant look” and the “Red Irish Flannel” pronounced again success. Two cases not mentioned in the series are worth remembering.
Many women in the US embraced this “peasant look” as interest for it was probably stirred up by John Ford’s film The Quiet Man (1951) with Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne whose costumes were tailored by the Ó’Máille family of the famous “House of Style” in Galway.
Ford’s films – supported by the Kennedy clan – bore a strong sense of national identity supportive of the Irish fight for independence.
From the same strongly nationalist background came fashion designer Neillí Mulcahy: her mother, Min Ryan, was a founder of the underground Women’s Army (Cumann na mBan). With her husband, Richard Mulcahy, she took part in the Easter Rising in 1916. He became the following year chief-of-staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and later Defence minister of the Irish Free State.
Graduated from the Grafton Street Academy of Dress Designing, their daughter Neillí went to Paris in 1951 to study and training with Jacques Heim, the president of “La Chambre syndicale de la Haute Couture” and inventor of the first two-piece swimsuit (christened Bikini).
In Dublin she opened a Couture workshop and launched a successful career, reworking traditional Irish fabrics such as wool and tweed. It also got great acclaim in the United states especially when her aunt, Mary Kate, wore her dresses during a trip to America as wife of the Irish president Seán T. O’Kelly.
Neillí Mulcahy is also well known for designing the uniforms for air hostesses of the Irish Aer Lingus.
It looked like a new Celtic revivalism in the 1950s as Elizabeth McCrum explains in her book (Fabric & Form – Irish Fashion since 1950):
“Designers of the 1950s were highly aware that their Irishness was their great marketing strength. They used conspicuously Irish fabrics and very often the titles given to each model in a collection were rather laboured evocations of ‘Celticism’. Examples taken at random include Irene Gilbert’s ‘Kilkenny Marble’ and ‘Irish Diamond’, Sybil Connolly’s ‘Irish Washerwoman’ and ‘Bainin’ [báinín in Irish means woven woollen cloth or flannel], Raymond Kenna’s ‘Strongbow’ and ‘Druid’s Spell’, Neillí Mulcahy’s ‘Stirabout’ [the name of a famous Irish porridge] and ‘Aer Lingus’.”
Sybil Connolly was obviously the most famous of those designers.
Originally born in Wales from a Waterford family, she started her first couture workroom in Dublin in 1940. As journalist Deirdre McQuillan recalls during the TG4 program “she knew the value of the image” creating an American market for her designs in 1953. All this was “the new freshness of Ireland”.
Known for using Irish linen, she was also particularly noted for her use of traditional Irish hand-crocheted lace. “She elevated things that we took for granted and made them famous internationally”. High profile women wore her dresses such as actresses Elizabeth Taylor or Julies Andrews (“Mary Poppins”) and First Lady Jackie Kennedy (wearing one of her skirts, in her official portrait for the White House in 1961).
Many in America wished to wear the famous Red Flannel Petticoat. Thus, she understood something which all of the interviewees in this Snáithe series share: romantic Ireland will always be but designers will interpret it in so many different ways that fashion will always be renewed. In other words, the Irish heritage will always have a wide-reaching impact on the modern scene for pioneering designers.
At the end of part V of the series, Ciara O’Doherty herself gives a fair idea of what could be a good conclusion for this article as well. She says: “There’s no doubt but that Irish designers have in recent years been spreading a totally fresh image of Ireland which flies in the face of the traditional rural cliché that was imposed on us – often from the outside, for so long.”
“I am very proud that they are re-writing our own fashion story and constructing a contemporary identity. Today’s designers might just be creating designs that will one day be as famous as the humble traditional jumper from Aran.”