Clothing Worn and Clothing Remembered

From the time it was founded in in 1935, the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) expressed an interest in gathering information about the clothing and dress. The section on clothing included in A Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942) is detailed and asks for information on many different aspects of the clothing worn by previous generations. It looks for practical details about the kinds of garments worn, how they were made and who made them, but also asks about customs in relation to new clothing, clothing for infants and children, the clothing of the dead and clothing for certain occasions, as well as particular colours that were favoured or avoided. There is even attention drawn to the absence of clothing in regards to going barefoot, and a significant amount of information can be found about ‘cúram na gcos/the care of the feet’ in the NFC card index. Earlier even than the publishing of A Handbook of Irish Folklore, a section entitled ‘éadaí/clothes made locally’ was included in the short pamphlets distributed to schools taking part in the Schools’ Collection in 1937, and many accounts give details for these questions. There was also a long and detailed questionnaire distributed in 1940 on the subject, including much the same questions as can be found in the Handbook, which would be published two years later.

Sunday at attire on Inis Oírr, Co. Galway, drawn by the artist Simon Coleman in 1959.

The Dress Questionnaire, as it is generally called, was sent out to informants with the title of ‘Old Irish country dress’ in English and ‘Éadaí na seanaimsire’ in Irish, though in a rare exception to the Commission’s general practice of issuing questionnaires in both languages, the dress questionnaire seems only to have been distributed in English. This is possibly due to its length and level of detail. Despite the length of the questionnaire, it still garnered over 200 responses. The recent success of the questionnaire distributed on the Feast of St Martin the previous year would have been an encouragement to the Commission and in his letter to correspondents Séamus Ó Duilearga, Honorary Director of the Commission, asks that the same attention is given to this questionnaire in order to preserve this material for posterity:

‘In appealing to you to search for and record something from the large body of tradition about the enclosed questionnaire, I feel sure that you will give your best, and that you will succeed in saving the social-historian of the future a priceless body of material which but for you would never be compiled.’

This questionnaire was to be later used by Bríd Mahon, who was hired by the IFC as a typist in 1939 and promoted to office manager in 1949 on the departure of Máire Mac Néill. In her memoir she writes;

‘I was not long working for the Commission when Delargy discovered that I had a small talent for writing. So for the next couple of years I spent much of my time answering letters from helpers all over the country. Two or three times a year we sent out detailed sets of questionnaires on selected subjects. From 1935 a nucleus of helpers had been built up and by the time I arrived their numbers had grown to around five hundred … The correspondent might labour a month or more over the answers, often asking help of older people. The least the Commission could do was to keep in touch. Once a year we sent out a bulletin on an old-fashioned Gestener machine, telling how the work was progressing and including interesting snippets of lore that our helpers might like to read.’

Mahon’s interest in traditional dress resulted in two short publications for general readers, Rich and Rare: The Story of Irish Dress and Irish Dress, a volume in the Irish Environmental Library Series, which includes illustrations by Mary O’Connell. Mahon also began work on a finding aid for the dress questionnaire: a card index that allowed for material to be searched by county and then by garment. Though the index remains unfinished, it can function as a useful finding aid for descriptions of different garments worn throughout the country.

Dress is, of course, a visual and tactile aspect of tradition. It is important then that information has been recorded not only in the form of detailed description of clothing and customs, but that visual evidence has been preserved also. While examples of garments are held in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Co. Mayo, there are also many examples of traditional clothing preserved within the Photographic Collection of the National Folklore Collection (NFC). Particular photos were taken of clothing, but the many photos taken of informants, ordinary people, and children also act as a visual aid to inspecting the clothing of the past.

Three children on the Great Blasket Island, Co. Kerry. Taken by Carl Von Sydow, 1924. National Folklore Collection, UCD.
Little boy, Co. Longford. Taken by Leo Corduff, undated. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

The many photos of young children in the collection capture some of the interesting elements of childrens’ dress. Most children, boys and girls alike, wore dresses until a certain age. There are accounts that state that the method of dressing boys in this manner was to protect them from being stolen by the fairies, as male children were thought to be more valuable than female children. Séamus Mac Philib writes, however, that this detail is mentioned surprisingly little in accounts of fairy abduction. Boys often remained in shorter trousers until they reached adulthood. Girls wore one-piece dresses until 16-17 years, which they would then exchange for a bodice and skirt, as their mothers would wear.

Small child, Inis Meáin, Co. Galway. Taken by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, undated. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

There is much evidence on the topic of dress in 19th and 20th century Ireland in several collections within the NFC. While the premise of the dress questionnaire was to gather information on the older, rural dress of the previous generation, the topic is also discussed in later collections, such as the Urban Folklore Project in 1979-1980, where informants also describe what they wore as children, and what was worn on occasions such as the first communion and at weddings. No doubt occasions like these will continue to be significant in terms of the clothing we wear.

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

Dunlevy, M. (1999). Dress in Ireland, 2nd edn, Cork: Collins Press.

Mac Philib, S. (1983). ‘Gléasadh Buachaillí i Sciortaí’, Sinsear 1982-1983, pp. 133-146.

Mahon, B. (2000). Rich and rare: the story of Irish dress, Cork: Mercier.

Mahon, B. & O’Connel, M. (1983). Irish Dress, Dublin: Folens.

Mahon, B. 1998, While green grass grows: memoirs of a folklorist, Cork: Mercier Press.

O’Dowd, A. & National Museum of Ireland (1990). Common clothes & clothing 1860-1930, Dublin: National Museum of Ireland.

O’Dowd, A. (2019). ‘The 1940 Dress Questionnaire: ‘Old time Country dress’, memories, new clothes and the clothes of the dead’ Béaloideas 87, pp. 1-28.

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