Take off Your Brat and Stay Awhile

One of the things the holidays bring out is the festive clothes from our closets. No doubt the same was true for the ancient Gaels on high feast days. In this article, we’ll take a peek into the Irish wardrobe and explore men’s and women’s fashions during Ireland’s Golden Age (100-800 AD).

First of all, there were no closets, cupboards, or wardrobes then. Clothing would have been neatly folded and stored in wooden chests. The first garment a man would pull on might be loose-fitting trousers gathered just below the knee or the ankle. These were worn by men of lower rank – warriors, huntsmen, horsemen, oarsmen, laborers. There is some indication that the nobility did not cover their legs, especially in ceremonial dress. Compare this style to the Highland kilt.

 Next, a man would pull on a léine (pronounced LAYN-ye) or tunic of undyed linen, which “reached to the knee or calf and was gathered at the waist [along with his britches] by means of a woven crois [pronounced CRISS], or leather belt, the ends of which were used for carrying a knife, purse or other small objects. Over the tunic a colourful woolen brat was worn, usually dyed purple or crimson. Lesser folk wore black, yellow, grey or striped cloaks. More elaborate tunics for ceremonial occasions had ornamental collars, hoods and fringes of gold and silver. Embroidery is frequently mentioned in the early writings.” (Mahon, 2000, p. 9-10).

A man might alternatively wear a ionar, or jacket, under the cloak. The garment is described as being long and narrow, sort of like a collarless duster or mantle which may or may not have been sleeveless. I’m of the opinion that it was sleeveless since most of the clothing during this time featured very little stitching. Cloaks were fastened at the shoulder with elaborate brooches. The léine was likely cut cookie-cutter-wise from one folded over piece of cloth rather than assembled with separate pieced-in sleeves.

When dressing, a woman would first put on a long léine or shift, which likely reached to the ankles, and over it pinned a long overdress consisting of one lengthy piece of cloth. Most women probably only possessed one shift but had several dress-cloths for different occasions. The cloth was wrapped and pleated at the shoulder and belted at the waist. To ward off chill, women would have thrown wraps about their shoulders. In Scots Gaelic, it’s called an arasaid, and it might have been worn with the bottom edge tucked into the belt so that it could be thrown off at need and still kept conveniently on the body.

Men and women both wore a long decorative cloak called fuan (pronounced FOO-an). In The Courtship of Emer, Cú Chulainn’s fuan has “five folds or plaits running crossways.” I take this to mean that the voluminous cloth was pleated five times and draped at the shoulders.

“Shoes and sandals were made of leather or wood or of linen with wooden soles. For ceremonial occasions kings and queens wore silver or bronze sandals but the common people went barefoot. Irish warriors, like the soldiers of Ancient Greece, fought barefoot.” (Mahon, 2000, p.10). Men might have also bound the legs of their britches to their calves with leather strips to keep the cloth from getting snagged in the undergrowth. And when it got really cold, they wrapped their calves in strips of woolen cloth, keeping it tight to the leg with leather straps. Undoubtedly, animal skins, including seal skins, were used for cold weather garments and for embellishing the dress of the nobility.

 There’s a lot to be said about color used in Gaelic clothing. According to the brehon laws, “a servant or churl could wear only one colour, a farmer two, an officer three and a free man four; five colours were allowed for a chieftain, a judge or bard could wear six and nobility wore seven, including royal purple….Blay-coloured [clothes] and yellow and black and white [were] worn by children of those of lesser rank; red and green and brown [were] worn by the children of chieftains and the royal purple and blue by princes and princesses.” (Mahon, 2000, p. 22-23).

Suffice it to say, blue was the most costly color to create. We’ll take a look at how the ancient Gaels produced these colors in next week’s post on dyestuffs.


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

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2 Responses to Take off Your Brat and Stay Awhile

  1. This is wonderful. Did these laws stay until the Norman invasion? 10th Century; Did they change over the period before? Are there any records about disputes over wearing the wrong clothes?

    • kerryross says:

      Hello, Marie. To answer your questions: 1) Did the these laws last until the Normans? Yes, but the Brehon laws were only partially eclipsed by Norman rule. Some of these early legal traditions lasted into the 17th century, when English law stomped out the last vestiges of Gaelic law. 2) Did they change over the previous period? Yes, but very little. Gaelic society was fairly stable and reasonably undisturbed until later invasions, beginning with the Vikings in the 9th century. 3) Any records about disputes over wearing the wrong clothes? No. There are only a couple examples of case law in early Irish law and neither of these cases have to do with clothing. Wikipedia actually has a pretty decent overview of Brehon law. Check it out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Irish_law

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