My left shoe: the story of Irish film costume

An exhibition in Dublin will showcase some of the few surviving costumes from Irish films, from Calvary’s cassock to In the Name of the Father’s leopard-print underpants


Brendan Gleeson describes the cassock he wore as Fr James in John Michael McDonagh’s movie Calvary. “I felt I had been given a visual image that gave a real sense of the heroic allied to a vulnerability; something in the softness of the cloth. It was a uniform. It stood for something. But the anachronistic nature of wearing garb unquestionably out of date made it a very individual choice too. Very Fr James. Very John McDonagh. Also very Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh. Good costume design demands individual creativity in the service of the narrative and the film as a whole. The cassock does all of that.”

His comment, and the cassock, are featured in a forthcoming exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin, Ireland at the Movies: Costume in Irish Cinema 1987-2015. Costumes from films set in Ireland, along with posters, film stills, continuity sheets and candid Polaroid photos will be on display, assembled by award-winning Irish costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and Veerle Dehaene of Costume Mill in Dublin, and mounted by costume maker and tailor Gillian Carew.


No proper archive

There will be 18 costumes in all, each embodying aspects of the characters who wore them. From the leopard-print underpants worn by Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father to the sequinned dress sported by Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto and outfits from My Left Foot, these are some of the few costumes kept in a country without any proper film costume archive.

“This is the point that motivates us,” says Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh. “Some costumes get thrown out if they are contemporary and have no monetary value. If it is a period production, the production company may hold on to them. Costume and film are linked to our social identity and portray our culture, but we are not good at archiving film work like the UK and US; the National Museum houses fashion and dress, but not costume. It has some of [famous theatrical Dublin costumier] Bourke’s pieces, but they are kept in a historical rather than a costume context, not identified as worn by Siobhán McKenna or whoever. We want to raise awareness.”

From her work in the US, Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh often has to deal with stereotypical perceptions of Irish style.

“For a movie about an IRA guy, their idea was a flat cap and an Aran sweater. You still get those ideas about Ireland, especially with a romantic comedy like Leap Year with Amy Adams [an LA production shot in Ireland for which she was costume designer]. They wanted the Irish guy in an Irish sweater, and, coming from LA, couldn’t understand the idea of a wool coat.”

Costume Mill, based on Capel Street in Dublin, was set up by designer Joan Bergin after My Left Foot, initially as storage for her own collection. Later it became a resource for other designers and production companies. Dehaene, who is from a Meath-based Belgian family, started her career in theatre and movies with Bergin, as did Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh. Both trained initially as fashion designers, Dehaene at the Grafton Academy, Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh at Limerick School of Art and Design in her home city.

Today Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh is one of the country’s leading costume designers – along with Bergin and Consolata Boyle – whose impressive CV includes many Irish movies and Brideshead Revisited (2008).

Outfits from My Left Foot (1989) open the exhibition. “Ireland up to then was the location for foreign productions, but indigenous home productions were kick-started by the success of My Left Foot, with people like Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, ” says Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh. “The 1990s was a very rich and unique time for the establishment of the Irish film industry, and we are celebrating that, and the creativity behind the camera.”

For her, the biggest stars are often the easiest to work with, because they are more collaborative and more interested in what is going to work for their character. She singles out Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson for their passion, intelligence and kindness.

“Costumes have the ability to tell the story. It is an amazing transformational process and is never random or accidental. From the underpants upwards, every single thing is thought about and designed for the character, for the actor and with the set in mind. We want to show that it is teamwork, and not just costumes, but hair, make-up and special effects. We need to rig costumes for bullet holes, for blood bags, for harnesses for a stunt. You don’t work on your own; you are always part of a bigger team.”

  • Ireland at the Movies: Costume in Irish Cinema 1987-2015 opens in the Little Museum of Dublin on August 13th and runs until mid-October
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