I confess. One of the first aspects that attracted me to the Middle Ages was fashion. I absolutely loved the dresses medieval women wore, and the guy’s clothes weren’t half bad either.
So when I first set out to learn about 10th century Ireland, fashion became priority on my research list. Let me tell you, diving into that topic was an eye-opening experience!
There’s really too much to cover in one post, and maybe I’ll delve deeper in future posts. But for now, we’re going to look briefly at the top five pieces that no good son or daughter of Éire would be without in their ensemble.
Léine, Not Kilts
*Image note at bottom of page.
A common misconception in earlier times, was that the Irish, like their Scottish cousins, wore kilts. There are no written records of that ever being the case. But men, women, and children alike did wear one garment that could often be mistaken as such to the untrained eye. This was the léine.
The léine (pronounced “lay-nuh”) was basically a close-fitting smock or long tunic. Generally worn over an under tunica, the léine averaged from knee to ankle-length (pending on the wearer’s status and preference) and was held around the waist with a belt.
The most popular fabrics used in their manufacture were linen and wool. Though silk was known and used by some among the noble classes. Usually the léine had no openings in the front or back. So the wearer donned it by slipping it over the head. Collars varied in style from circular to a wide v-shape.
In the case of workmen, the neckline was usually wide enough that they could slip it off their torso and let the top half of the garment hang off the belt so they could cool off or wear it out of the way during manual labor. The skirt of the léine could also be drawn up through the belt from the bottom to free the legs a bit. This caused the fabric to bunch over the belt. Wearing it either way, gave the garment the appearance of a kilt.
Knowing that the 10th century drew near the end of what is known to historians as the Viking age, I presumed Viking fashion to be well blended with Irish at this stage. Seeing samples of 10th century Scandinavian dress, I discovered I wasn’t wrong. If you’re interested in seeing this for yourself, I highly recommend the Hurstwic site. Here you can see images of common Viking garb. Pretty similar, huh?
Ionar/Inar, Vest or Jacket?
Well, basically, like the léine, it depended on the wearer. The ionar and léine had similar functions and both could be sleeved or sleeveless. Some have confused the ionar or inar with the léine. The inar tended to be short, like a jacket or vest, and usually hung to the waist, though longer variations did exist. It could be worn open, or closed with a clasp or lacing.
Since armor was rare among the Irish, even in the 10th century, warriors commonly wore a padded inar for protection. This was presumed to be worn in place of the léine, since no ancient images exist that show warriors wearing both garments simultaneously.
Brat: It’s a Cloak, People!
No, the ancient Irish did not wear a spoiled child around their shoulders. Nor was it a German sausage, though it’s pronounced the same. The brat was a cloak, circular or rectangular in cut, that was pinned on the wearer, usually at the right shoulder. Though some pinned it at the chest.
The brat came in all manner of colors and volumes. In fact, Irish law dictated how many colors could be worn pending on the class of the wearer. The more voluminous the cloak, the richer the wearer. Brats, like the léine and the inar, could also be embroidered, and sometimes trimmed with fur or fringe. Hoods were an addition of later centuries. During the 10th century and prior, if the wearer happened to be out in the elements, they would simply draw the extra folds of the brat over their head as a protective covering.
Trews…the Original Stirrup Pants
As you might imagine, people in 10th century Ireland needed some form of protection for those bare legs dangling under a very open léine. Well…sometimes they just left them bare. But in a moist, cool climate, like Ireland, one often needed extra covering. At least, if you were a man.
Men are the only ones known to wear trews. Trews varied in length. Shorter versions were basically leggings that stretched from knee to mid-calf. But full-length trews were most common. These were held on the wearer with…you guessed it…stirrups. A strap fixed to the bottom of the cuffs was worn under the heel to keep the trews in place. Can’t have them riding up while you’re running across the battlefield now can we?
The brooch, or cloak pin, was to the Irish, what a belt buckle would be to a cowboy. The fancier the metal and design, the higher your status. Gold and Silver were reserved for kings, queens and your other higher-ups, lesser metals moved on down the line. Iron and bronze were the most common. Cloak pins were also popular among the Vikings. Designs varied from circular to kite-shaped. One which became popular throughout Europe during this time was the thistle brooch. You can see an example of it on Pinterest here. The brooch pictured in my featured image above is a typical penannular ring design. Though that one is a newer, European model, it gives you a general idea of what you might see in higher status brooches.
So there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick-rundown of ancient Irish fashion. If you have any questions or comments, please share below.
Ann Dooley and Harry Roe. Tales of the Elders of Ireland. A New Translation of Acallam na Senórach. Oxford University Press 1999.
H.F. McClintock. Old Irish and Highland Dress and That of the Isle of Man. Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) LTD Dundalk 1950.
M.E. Riley. Clothing of the Ancient Celts. 1997.
Mary Murray Delaney. Of Irish Ways. Kilkenny Press. New York 1985.
Nerys Patterson. Cattle Lords & Clansmen. The Social Structure of Early Ireland. 2nd Ed. University of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, Indiana 1994.
Seumas MacManus. The Story of the Irish Race. 1990 Ed. Wings Books. New York, New York. ©1921, 1945, 1966.
T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin (ed). The Course of Irish History. Roberts Rinehart Publishers 1967. Revised 2001.