Fashion in 16th century Ireland

Anne-Karoline Distel

The tune you heard* is best known as Greensleeves and has wrongly been attributed to Henry VIII. But I thought it would make for a nice connection between the king and our topic today. My name is Anne-Karoline Distel and today, I am going to talk about Irish fashion in the 16th century.

When in 1509 Henry succeeded to the throne, only in the Pale and cities and towns like Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Carrickfergus was his authority acknowledged. In the other parts of the country, people stuck to their Gaelic ways. That was unacceptable in Henry’s eyes, so when he declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, he set out to make the Irish English. Most of you will have heard of the Statutes of Kilkenny, which in 1366 tried to Re-Anglicise the Hiberno-Normans by forbidding them to speak Irish, marry the Irish, use Irish names and the playing of hurling. Henry’s laws followed that example and amongst other things, he was very concerned with the Irish fashion. However, his explicit rules are very telling in what people in the disobedient parts of the country wore. They were forbidden to

…weare any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel [band or ribbon], neckerchour, mocket [bib or handkerchief], or linnen cappe coloured, or dyed with Saffron, be yet to use, or weare in any of their shirts or smocks above seven yards of cloth to be measured according to the King’s Standard, and that also no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [overlaid, embroidered] ne layd with usker [usgar—Irish Gaelic for jewels], after the Irish fashion, and that no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or hood, made after the Irish fashion
(McGann, Kass. Renaissance Irish Assembled Historical Notes: everything there is to know about 16th century Irish dress . Reconstructing History LLC. Kindle Edition.)

He forbade the use of the very typically Irish dying with saffron, which gave the Irish léine its yellow colour. A léine is very similar to the English or Norman chemise, the undergarment made from linen, worn by women and men alike. Another law said:

Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth.
(McGann, Kass. Renaissance Irish Assembled Historical Notes)

The léine looked basically like a very full nightdress. The women’s léine would have been ankle length, whereas the men’s ended just below the hips. Linen was still grown and woven extensively in Ireland at the time, so there was plenty of it and the Irish showed that by using an extensive amount of fabric in their clothing. When you visit St. Canice’s Cathedral, you can find two examples of bagpipe sleeves in the effigies for Margaret Fitzgerald (died 1542) and Honoria Grace (died 1596). We don’t know, if the effigies show their actual fashion during their life time which would mean they ignored the laws or if the stone masons were very conservative in their work. Both women are wearing exactly the same combination of léine and gown, even though they died more than 50 years apart. The effigies do not tell us much about men’s clothing, because they are both dressed as knights which would not have been their daily attire. There are other examples of 16th century effigies in Gowran, Grangefertagh, Dungarvan and Callan, but I haven’t had a chance to see them.

Henry VIII demanded that no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up. A kirtle is a type of dress that was worn over the léine. It could refer to a piece of clothing referred to by historians as the Shinrone gown. One of them was found in 1843 in Shinrone which was then Tipperary, but is now Co. Offaly and gave the fashion item its modern name. It is again made of an extensive amount of wool (because people knew how to dress for the climate back then). If you imagine a Bavarian dirndl, you get quite close to it. The bodice was laced starting just under the breasts, so that the breasts would only be covered by the léine and possibly a scarf crossing over the chest for modesty. The skirt part is heavily plated and fashion historian Kass McGann believes this to be for insulation reasons rather than to show off how much fabric the wearer could afford. The wool is much coarser than I expected. There were no sleeves as such, but a rectangular piece of fabric going from the shoulder on the back of the arm to the wrist, where it was tied around the wrist. If you imagine that with very wide sleeves, you’d wonder how they worked at all. However, they might have used the ties to fasten the sleeves at the elbow.

(C) WikiCommons

What Henry VIII refers to as a tucked up kirtle, can be seen in the works of Lucas de Heere. He was a Flemish artist living in England working for the English and who painted different Irish people in their attire. In one of the drawings depicting an Irish lady and an Irish girl, the lady (left) is wearing a red dress of which only the lower part can be seen. The léine is not visible, as it was underwear and not seemly to show in public. As a top layer, she wears a beige gown which is laced at the chest and open from the hip to the feet. Those open ends are tucked into her girdle, displaying a strikingly yellow lining. I will try and add copies of Lucas de Heere’s drawings to the KAS website, once this talk is uploaded there. But you can easily find them online looking for 16th century fashion in Ireland. The girl is dressed very similar, but the upper part of her dress is more similar to the Shinrone gown in that the sleeves are only narrow strips of fabric allowing for the wide sleeves of the léine to show.

(C) WikiCommons

Lucas de Heere also depicted Irish men in his drawings, all of them barefoot curiously. Researchers believe that de Heere actually copied someone else’s work, and, with him living in England working for the English, might have tried to depict the Irish as savage as possible. The men and a bagpiping boy wear knee-length yellow léine with jackets on top. DeHeere’s drawings do match bog finds of male fashion though. What is found in the bogs, usually belonged to common people rather than townsfolk, one would presume. Two men’s outfits were found and are now on display in the National Museum. One was found in Kilcommon bog near Thurles in 1946. A wool jacket, trews, a cap, a cloak, plated ties and leather shoes survived. The wool is quite coarse, but looks quite smart in its cut. The trews on the other hand are made of twill. The secret of making them more flexible was to cut the fabric diagonally to the bias. Contrary to common ideas, there is no codpiece. Another bog find comes from Dungiven in Northern Ireland and is on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. It was found in 1956 by a farmer. The pieces were a woollen semi-circular cloak, a jacket, tartan trews, a leather belt and shoes. Contrary to how a tailor would make a jacket today, the main part is made from one piece with the selvedge running horizontally. The fabric is fastened in the front with buttons. A cut is made from the tip to insert the sleeves. The shaping is achieved by a small triangular gore in the lower back of the jacket.

Recreation of de Heere’s drawing by the author

The collection in the National Museum also contains a pair of shoes. That was a very lucky bog find, because as mentioned before, none of the men in Lucas de Heere’s drawings wear shoes and the women’s dresses are usually so long that they cover the shoes. None of the effigies I have seen were any help in the shoe department either. However, there are bog finds that suggest something about the footwear. Medieval shoes were usually turnshoes, so they were made from one or several pieces of leather sewn together inside out and then turned.

Our very own John Rothe, of course, was a merchant who exported and imported sheep’s wool, linen and other fine fabrics. I hope I have given you an idea of how those fabrics were used.


  • Mairead Dunlevy: Dress in Ireland, Collins Press, 1989. available in the KAS library in Rothe House

  • Kass McGann: Renaissance Irish Assembled Historical Notes: everything there is to know about 16th century Irish dress . Reconstructing History LLC. Kindle Edition.

  • National Musuem, Dublin.

  • St. John’s Priory, Kilkenny

  • St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny


Further Reading

  • Ann Tierney: A Record of Some Kilkenny Imports In The Late Sixteenth Century, in: Old Kilkenny Review 2007, p. 38-47.

*Played on a mandolin locally made by Paddy Cleere of Tullaroan.

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