100 years of Irish fashion in 10 key pieces
With an eye on both tradition and modernity, Emer O'Reilly-Hyland chooses her top fashion items from the past century, one for each decade
While the mini skirt in Britain was personified by Twiggy, Ireland had a very different mini-embodiment. A young civil rights campaigner called Bernadette Devlin was busy wielding a loudhailer and a banner
When you think about images of Irish style over the past century, what do you think of? Maybe it’s early Wild-Woman-of-the-West in her red shawl; perhaps it’s Irish Mammy in the good coat and headscarf; or it could be the Country Gent in his tweeds and flat cap.
Irish designers are as modern and forward-thinking as the rest of the fash-pack, but when you think about the most successful, enduring ones – John Rocha, Louise Kennedy, Paul Costelloe to name a few – their use of those traditional wools and tweeds, leathers and silks, gives more than a nod to the Wild Woman, the Mammy and Country Gent.
And so with both tradition and modernity in mind we chart the key looks over the past century.
The Tara Brooch
While the beau mondes of the Belle Époque donned their feather boas and furs, Irish women dipped back into Celtic myth and pinned their serge suits with precious stone-encrusted brooches. The elaborate pins were inspired by the Tara Brooch, which was created for a medieval chieftain to proclaim his top-o’-the-clan status and, presumably, to save his blushes by keeping his seamless cloak on his manly shoulders.
The Tara Brooch, discovered in 1850 and much copied since, is a stunning, ornate piece, though masculine, almost weapon-like, its long pin strong enough to bore through layers of rough cloth. Perhaps this is why the nationalist organisation, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), used a Tara Brooch as their membership badge, pointing to an earlier time that they felt represented a pure Irish identity.
When they merged with Cumann na mBan in 1914, the new organisation looked for a fiercer emblem. The Tara Brooch, evocative of the medieval sword, was replaced with the realism of a rifle entwined with the letters CnamB. But many of the old guard preferred the subtlety of the Tara Brooch, including gun-toting Countess Markievicz, pictured here in 1918.
It didn’t start with Pegeen Mike, it was around a lot earlier, but mention the word shawl and Synge’s leading lady, shrouded and lamenting the loss of her playboy, leaps to mind. Pegeen was no fashion plate, but decades later, in the 1990s, the nation was awash with shawls of a different kind.
The pashmina, luxurious, glamorous, many-hued, was embraced by a nation of female race-goers and wedding guests. We had drawers full of them, in every shade, practical in a country known for gale force winds howling across its tracks.
But the shawl, as a historic garment, has another, more hauntingly beautiful image. In the 1920s, new Irish banknotes were issued with a picture of traditional Irish womanhood – Cathleen ní Houlihan, with her wool shawl perfectly framing her beautiful face. The picture was painted by Sir John Lavery in 1923, the model his wife, Hazel; the irony . . . that she was American. Even though this cool foreign beauty won the ironic spot on our banknote, perhaps the roughly honed Pegeen Mike, all anger and emotion, would have been truer to us.
The Aran sweater
Europe had Romantic Man staring in wonder at the Alps, but in the 1930s, thanks to American documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, romantic Ireland’s Man of Aran took to the stormy seas of the Atlantic Ocean.
Through Flaherty, the fishermen’s rugged faces and rough workwear in serge and wool came to international attention. The Aran jersey, originally handknit from heavy, unbleached wool, evoked a life of hardship and adventure. Each pattern in the Aran has meaning – cable stitching represents fishermen’s ropes; honeycomb denotes bees hard at work; and the diamonds symbolise the network of island fields. It was in the 1930s when the Aran went commercial, as softer merino wool started to be used, sometimes mixed with silk, alpaca or cashmere, to make them lighter and softer, albeit no longer waterproof.
Some 20 or 30 years later, another romantic Irishman, Liam Clancy, along with his Clancy Brothers, transformed the Aran sweater into a must-have fashion item for Irish Americans. Until then any non-fisherman wearing a geansaí was a tourist or beardy mountaineer, but the sight of Liam and the boys strolling on a Greenwich New York sidewalk, to meet his mate Bob Dylan for a pint, brought the Yanks flocking in droves to buy a báinin.