Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Guest Blogger: Sharron Gunn on 16th Century Irish Clothing

Please join me in welcoming special guest author Sharron Gunn to History Undressed today! I've long been fascinated by Sharron's wealth of knowledge and am truly excited for her to be here.

Clothing in 16th Century Ireland

The people who lived in 'the Pale' (stockade, boundary of English residency) were English whose chief city was Dublin. Those who lived 'beyond the Pale' were the Irish Gaels, barbarous and uncouth in English eyes.

The Pale

In the first half of the 16th century, men displayed their wealth by wearing many layers of sumptuous fabric. The portraits of Henry VIII and his contemporaries show clothing which is imposing through sheer bulk -- even the sickly Edward VI looked like king material. Women dressed quite modestly; men flaunted their masculinity.

The Crown encouraged the English administration in Ireland to wear lavish clothing, and so they dressed in the same manner as their London counterparts: doublets, lined with expensive fabric such as satin, velvet, or cloth-of-gold, a jerkin (fitted jacket), knee length was worn over it, cut to display the expensive fabric of the doublet. Over top of all a large, loose, broad-shouldered gown was worn. Under the doublet, they wore a linen shirt, embroidered with black or coloured silk at the neck and cuffs. Hose consisted of breeches of various lengths sewn to stockings covering the lower legs and feet.

In the second half of the century, the layers were reduced as the fashion required men show off a masculine figure. The manly chest was improved with padding (bombast) of horsehair, wool, rags, flax or bran; tight lacing (we're talking about men!) made the waist smaller. Legs were displayed in trunk hose, or breeches and hose.

And let's not forget the codpiece. Or braguette in French. (Never ask for one in a French bakery.) This little item, relatively speaking, of male attire developed at the time tailors perfected the ability to make tight hose--the last quarter of the 14th century. In this period, the codpiece was a bag placed over the genitals. (Cod is an Old English word for 'bag' meaning 'scrotum'.) In the 16th century, the codpiece, ever popular, was stuffed and covered with fabric. Even armour had a plate codpiece. Henry VIII's portrait shows three layers of thick clothing but his padded codpiece is large enough to peek out! Codpieces went out of favour during the reign of Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen. Men wandering around in codpieces didn't fit the image she wanted to portray.

The neck ruff, which developed from the narrow ruched projecting collar of the shirt, appeared after 1556, and, after 1570, extremely elaborate ruffs were possible after starch was invented.

When negotiating with the 'native' Irish, the English would offer an expensive piece of cloth or article of clothing as a gift; 'acceptance was taken to signify the acknowledgement by the recipient of English rule in Ireland'. Turlough Luineach O Neill refused a taffeta hat with a 'band set with bugles' in 1568, likely for this reason. However, in 1578, when negotiations to make him Baron of Clogher and Earl of Clandonnell, his wife was pleased to accept one of Elizabeth I's gowns. About the same time another of Elizabeth's cloth-of-gold gowns was offered to the Countess of Desmond and another noble lady. When the Lord Deputy discovered that two magnificent but second-hand gowns were 'slobbered'--had food stains on the front--he sent to London for new fronts so as not to offend the recipients. Queen Elizabeth slobbered!?

However, the clothing of the lower classes was regulated by sumptuary laws.
Black's Law Dictionary defines these laws as 'made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.' Traditionally, they were laws which regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. In most times and places, they were notoriously ineffective.

In 1536 in the town of Galway, townsmen were ordered to wear 'cloaks or gowns, coats, doublets and hose shaped after the fashion (in England), of country cloth or any other cloth'.

The apprentices of Dublin were limited in 1573 to a coat (loose outer garment) of cloth, decently made without cutting (slashing) or silk embroidery; doublet of the same material; a shirt of Irish cloth with 'a decent band' band of plain falling collar; a ruff one yard long and hose of no more than two yards of fabric. No bombast was allowed in either the breeches or doublet.

Soldiers' uniforms were little different from civilian dress. The English officer's winter dress included a 'cassock' or long coat, lined with baize and trimmed with silk lace, a doublet of canvas lined with white linen and closed with silk buttons, two shirts and two bands or large fall collars, three pairs of leather shoes, three pairs of kersey stockings, venetians or fashionable knee breeches of cloth with silk lace trimming and a coloured felt hat.

'Beyond the Pale' - Irish Gaels

The English ridiculed all aspects of Irish life: clothing, customs and laws. Some Englishmen were quite rabid about it.

In their minds, the Irish were fierce and ungovernable or at best childish. They looked odd because they didn't dress as did mainstream Europeans. They didn't live in cities, but in tiny villages throughout Ireland which made them hard to find. If an English army arrived, the Irish vacated the village and scattered to other villages or hid the vast woods which existed in the 16th century. Worst of all, the Gaelic and Gaelicised lords had old-fashioned laws which allowed them to maintain small armies at little cost and offer stiff resistance to English invasions.

Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618) set out the minimum social objectives for an English conquest. The conqueror had to impose his laws, fashions, and language on on the vanquished. 'And if any of these three lack, doubtless the conquest limpeth.'

English clothing of the period has been described above. So how was Irish clothing different ... and objectionable?

The léine (linen shirt) was the foundation garment of the Irish and Scottish Gaels. A man's shirt was shorter than the same type of garment for a women. The possession of a yellow shirt, dyed with saffron, indicated a gentleman, and the wealthier he was, the more fabric he had in his léine.

Henry VIII's Act of 1537 prohibited Irish men from wearing shirts of more than seven yards of cloth. There were such complaints from Gaelic noblemen that they were allowed 12 yards by the parliament of 1541. Vassals, horsemen and kerns were allowed nine, and grooms and messengers were allowed seven and laboures seven. Saffron dye was known and used from antiquity and may have reached Ireland and Scotland along with silk perhaps as early as the 10th century. It is made from the stamens of the crocus and is still very expensive; its gold colour, symbolic of the Gaelic nobility, was also banned in the act.

In the first half of the 16th century, the crios (belt) was worn in a way that bloused the léine over it and made the shirt considerably shorter. The brat (mantle, cloak) was made of a long rectangle or a circle of wool cloth. Frieze, cloth with a loopy nap for warmth, often had fringes of contrasting colours.
Gaelic society is called conservative or archaic, and styles common in Europe in an earlier period are worn later in Ireland. A drawing by Albrecht Dürer in 1521 shows four men: the one on the left wears a thick, padded acton (Gaelic: cótun), worn in western Europe in the 13th-15th centuries, and still worn in Scotland and Ireland in the 16th century. The second from the left wears chain mail which has given way to plate armour in much of Europe. The man in the middle wears a mantle with a shaggy lining. The two younger men on the right wear jackets with wide sleeves. All men wear léinte (the linen shirts).
Two men carry great two-handed swords without scabbards, one under the arm
and the other on the shoulder. One man carries a bow and arrows as well as a sword. The two men on the left each carry a miodóg (long knife). The helmets look foreign and may have been acquired on the continent. The three with swords are óglaigh (young warriors) or gall-óglaigh (foreign young warriors) -- they are nobles/gentlemen; the two barefoot men are ceithearnaigh, kerns or foot soldiers of lesser status, whose weapons are the axe and knives.

Sir Henry Sidney campaigned against the Irish Gaels in the mid 1570's; John Derricke celebrated his accomplishments with a poem illustrated by several images. Although insulting in some cases, the woodcuts are thought to be accurate in many details. The influence of the English and Spanish is seen in the rather brief costume of the Irish Gaels; gone are the voluminous léinte.

In an image of the 1570's a chieftain is shown wearing a decorated leather jacket and hat, hose, square-toes shoes and a mantle. The kern (ceithearnach) wears a woollen jacket with a pleated skirt over a léine with full sleeves. He also wears hose and shoes. The horseboy wears a linen or wool léine with full sleeves and roll collar but no hose or shoes.

The following stanzas praise a man for rebellion against the English and choosing to live wild in the woods. It is written in the standard literary dialect used in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland.

A fhir ghlacas a ghalldacht,
bhearras an barr bachalldocht,
seang-ghlac atú do thogha
ní tú deagh-mhac Donnchadha.

O man who follows English ways,
who cut your thick clustering hair,
graceful hand of my choice,
you are not the good son of Duncan!

Ní thréicfea, da madh tú soin,
do ghruag ar ghalldacht thacair--
maisi as fhearr fá fhíadh bhFódla--
'sní bhíadh do cheann corónda.

If you were, you would not give up
your hair for an artificial English mode--
the fairest ornament in the land of Fódla-- (Fódla = Ireland, based on fód, sod or turf)
and your head would not be tonsured.

Fear nár ghrádhaigh an ghalldacht
Eóghan Bán, searc saor-bhanntracht,
don ghalldacht ní thug a thoil,
an alltacht rug do roghain.

A man who never loved English ways
is Eóghan Bán, beloved of noble ladies.
to English ways he never gave his heart:
a wild life he chose.

And here is where we'll leave Irish clothing of the 16th century.


Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry
David Dean, Law-Making and Society in Late Elizabethan England
Derricke, John, The Image of Ireland (reprint of 1883 © 1581)
Dunlevy, Mairead, Dress in Ireland: A History
Hunt, John, Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture: A study of Irish tombs with notes on costumes and armour 1200-1600, 2 volumes
McClintock, H.F. et al., Old Irish and Highland Dress
Neville, William, Henry VIII & his Court

Sharron Gunn lives in British Columbia and teaches Irish and Scottish history at the University of Victoria part-time. Of Scottish, French and Irish origin, she was born on the east coast of Canada--some knowledge of the Gaelic and French languages and cultures was inevitable.

While living over eight years in Europe, she studied the languages and history of Great Britain and France. She has a diplôme from the Université de Nancy, France, a B.A. in French and a Masters degree (2nd first degree) in Scottish History and Celtic Studies from the University of Glasgow. She is working hard on her second novel, an historical fantasy set in Ireland.


kathleen said...

What an impressive piece of knowledge! You must be an amazing teacher!

Emma Lai said...

Wow! What an amazing amount of useful information.

Denisse Alicea said...

What a great resource of information!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Fabulous post. I enjoyed reading it and filling in some gaps.

Pat McDermott said...

I knew if I stopped by I'd learn a lot. And all so interesting! Thank you, Sharron!

Jennifer Ross said...

What a fabulous post. Learned something new in the first paragraph, (I'll have to watch when I say 'that's beyond the pale' from now on) and kept learning right on through.


Jodie Esch said...

What a treasure chest of information Sharron. And I loved the pictures.

Jodie Esch

Saoirse said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




Anonymous said...

MY FAVORITE LINE: Elizabeth slobbered

SilentOwl said...

Just found your blog. As a 3rd year Heritage student I found it very interesting and look forward to reading both your past, present and future posts. Excellent.