I remember the day I held up my first Irish dance costume. I was nine years old, and I was mesmerized by the satin swans with crystal eyes sewn on lustrous white poplin. The design was inspired by the colors of the Irish flag. My dressmaker had intertwined green and orange embroidery with gold to form repeated knot patterns. The dress was an indication that I was “moving up the podium.” I peeked back at the beginners who wore a simple blouse and skirt, my first uniform. Finally, I was allowed to wear the costume representative of our dance school.
I grew up in Virginia as a competitive Irish traditional dancer, and my team followed the standards of An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission), the largest Irish dancing association in the world. Through high school, I traveled about every other weekend to competitions both local and afar.
Besides the fancy footwork, one of the main identifiers of Irish dance is our appearance. Female dancers are easy to recognize by our curly hair and intricately patterned dresses. Male costumes have their own complex history, but we’ll save that for another time.
For our dresses, my dance teacher had chosen Celtic imagery from the Book of Kells, a popular choice. This ninth-century illuminated Gospel book, one of the most beautiful ever created, is decorated with intricate knotwork believed to be derived from Anglo-Saxon animal interlace. Though the Irish popularized knotwork, it appeared in Byzantine, Islamic, and Coptic designs as well. Today, Celtic knotwork continues as a defining characteristic of Irish-inspired weaving, crotchet, metalwork, jewelry, and more.
Like myself, historian Sarah Churchill began dancing in the United States at the age of seven. Seeing the Book of Kells inspired her from a young age to investigate the origins of the designs. She earned her master’s in Irish art history from Trinity College in Dublin and still makes time for Irish dancing at a New England school.
“There is a lot of mythology about what Irish dance is, where it comes from,” she explains. “There are myths on why we don’t move our arms. We don’t have a lot of written history, but we do have video, photos, and old costumes in closets. I see material culture as an important way of researching the story because our story is largely an oral history.”
I was taught by Laureen O’Neill-James, an icon of Irish dance. I know her still as “Mrs. James,” as do the hundreds of Irish dancers she has taught over the past six decades. She won the All-Ireland championships back in the 1960s, and along with her parents, Frank and Peggy O’Neill, was inducted into the North American Feis Commission’s Irish Cultural Hall of Fame. Frank was a famous musician, and her mother instructed Irish dancers in Scotland.
“I was born to dance,” Mrs. James says. “My mother won the championships of Scotland when she was pregnant with me. I won my first medal at four years of age and so did my sons. Next, I look forward to my grandson winning.”
As a dancer, instructor, and adjudicator, Mrs. James has watched Irish dancing evolve through the years. Her earliest memory of her costumes comes from childhood. “I remember my first costume at the age of around twelve. It was a school costume made in Ireland, a white dress with a pleated skirt and embroidery on the front. It was sleeveless because I wore a green jacket with gold lapels.”
[Want to explore Irish dance in your classroom? Download the companion lesson plan and activity guide for middle school students and up.]
Politics and the Irish Cultural Revival
Irish dance became a movement during a re-examination of what it meant to be Irish. In 1893, Douglas Hyde and a group of like-minded cultural revivalists had established the Gaelic League which promoted the Gaeilge (Irish) language revival. As the language movement began to wane, Irish culture, dance, and costume grew in importance. Feiseanna, “festivals” in Gaeilge, began appearing around Ireland and among the diaspora where Irish immigrants wanted to spread their cultural pride.
This Celtic Revival led to a flourishing of the arts in Ireland and a resurgence of an Irish national identity. “Artists of this time were looking back at the Ireland’s Golden Age, looking at the ancient art and reviving it,” Churchill says.
Through her research, Churchill learned something she was never told. “Irish dancing in the early twentieth century was political. It was very closely connected to a Republican national identity.”
We see this as a very big deal around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising Rebellion and Ireland’s move toward independence. Eventually, what had become the Celtic Revival costume—consisting of a full-length dress (léine), a woven belt (crios), a headdress, and cape (brat)—became a way to show patriotic support. Most dressed this way for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, confirmations, and festivals.
Inspired by the Celtic Revival costume, dancers embroidered the trim of their dance dresses and capes and curled their hair to perform at feiseanna. “We always dressed well for competition,” Mrs. James says.
The jacket that she wore for competition is called a coatee, a tight-fitting jacket worn by men and women in the early 1910s and ’20s, sometimes referred to as the “New Irish Costume.” Usually paired with a kilt, seen as a man’s garment, it’s adoption by women reflected a change in female representation from subordinate to independent. The coatee was worn throughout the ’60s and even experienced a resurgence in the last decade.
The southern twenty-six counties of Ireland did not become a self-governing dominion until 1922, and it wasn’t until 1949 when it shook off the last vestiges of the British monarchy to become the Republic of Ireland. The six northern counties of Ireland comprise Northern Ireland and remain more closely tied to the U.K.
In 1930, leaders formed the An Coimisum le Rinci Gaelacha to regulate teaching and competitions, including dance steps, dress, and makeup. Today, having expanded to many countries around the world, the commission is the largest governing body of Irish dance.
After the 1940s, Churchill explains, the military edge of the Irish costume began to wear off. “Over time, the costume transitioned into a parochial school uniform,” she says. Dancers from the same school would wear the same dress. With new technology and greater accessibility to the sewing machine, embroidery work picked up. There was a need to differentiate male and female costumes, as both were wearing kilts and coatees at the time. Dresses for women became shorter and more feminine. Crotchet lace became a popular addition to the trims and collars of dresses.
Mrs. James recalls the fashion trend being similar to Catholic school uniforms rules: “The idea of the costume was that if you stood up tall and put your hands by your side, wherever your fingertips laid, that determined the length of your dress.”
Culture Meets Competition
Churchill emphasizes a very important shift in Irish dancing. “At some point, competition becomes the most important thing,” Churchill describes, emphasizing a shift in Irish dance. “Because there were so many people competing, there is always this need to stand out. If you can’t do it with the steps, costumes become the more logical place to go.” Although matching school costumes remained for younger, beginner dancers, more experienced dancers were allowed creative freedom.
As competitions grew in number, dancers began to see that judges were wary of awarding too many dancers from a single school. The solo costume was born. Mrs. James remembers it as a way to celebrate the best dancing. “Adjudicators were no longer able to tell where dancers were from.”
Each school has their own rules for achieving solo status, usually by winning first place and advancing levels. Picking out a beautiful one-of-a-kind costume is one of my favorite memories as a dancer. I remember going to a stranger’s house to get measured and select my fabric and designs. I recall books full of sparkly samples of fabrics and Celtic patterns. My selections were sent off to Ireland, and I waited an anxious three months for my costume to arrive.
In the 1990s, Irish dance boomed here in the States, largely due to the live show Riverdance which invigorated the Irish dance world. The dance was seen as modern, hip, and glamourous, igniting interest in young boys and girls worldwide. With this new perspective came a wave of costume modernization. A new industry of dressmakers and shoemakers emerged. Small family-run businesses moved out of their homes and into rented shop spaces. Dancers wore wigs instead of curling their own hair. Accessories could be easily purchased online.
Riverdance performers wore simple dresses with short, off-the-shoulder costumes. Churchill says, “Costume makers got really nervous.” If costumes were simple without intricate Celtic motif, designers would go out of business. Anyone could make a costume and sell it. “Things went the opposite way with costumes,” she continues. “Instead of being super clean and sleek, they got really heavy, and the sequin stretch-knit, applique got really big. And you started to see lots of Swarovski crystal and lots of Celtic themes becoming more elaborate.”
The dresses became more expensive too. According to Irish dance dress designer Michelle Lewis of Phoenix Dress Designs in Canada, “Designers can use a sheer number of stones that adds over $1,000 to the cost of a dress.” I can vouch for her words. My latest solo costume cost the same as my wedding dress.
Lewis started Irish dressmaking in 2001. Her eldest daughter was a dancer, and Lewis learned how to design dresses from a fellow dance mom who made costumes. Lewis first learned sewing from her grandmother, or Nanna as she liked to call her. “I was the only one in my family who did crafty things,” she says. “Costume design has changed immensely since I began. When I started, the dresses were still high-waisted with huge skirts and three panels.”
These panels are large board-like pleats sewn into our dresses to give them a stiffer look. From a dancer’s perspective, it’s like wearing a skirt made of cardboard. Lewis continues about the fast-paced trend changes: “Celtic design was the norm, geometrics were coming into vogue. Within two years, five panels were common.”
To operate under a new big business model, dress designers needed to keep up with increased demand, as well as the latest trends. A rivalry was born among competitive dancers, all of them wanting the best and “showiest” dress. Experimentation was big, and dancers looked for shock factor. New fabrics were introduced in addition to metallics, sequins, and rhinestones. Some fell for the fads of feathered dresses, polka dots, even animal print. In 2015, the commission put a ban on cartoon characters, feathers, and “less traditional” designs. This kept Celtic themes in place and helped keep traditional dress designers in business by encouraging dancers to buy within the Irish dance community.
Traditionally minded instructors like Mrs. James believe that some trends have gone too far. “The costumes have changed tremendously. Now it is above and beyond the ridiculous. You see a dancer take a bow, and you see her bum. It’s absolutely scandalous.”
Churchill, on the other hand, says, “Women catch a lot of heat for looking the way they do, and I don’t think that’s fair. Women feel empowered by these costumes, and we shouldn’t downplay that. It is a part of competition, and I think any athlete would say that. When you put the uniform on, that engenders a shift in your thinking, in your posture, and you embody that athlete in that moment.”
Online posts have affected creativity. According to dress designer Michelle Lewis, “social media has taken over and has impacted dancers’ looks at all levels in so much that the look of elite ‘star’ dancers are emulated. It seems that looking different is no longer desirable.” Now instead of dancers wanting to stand out, many of them want to copy the looks of other dancers. The popular, world-champion dancers have become social media influencers. Some even have endorsements with companies for athletic apparel and workout regimens.
Looking to the Future
New technologies now play an important role in dress design. Some companies use lighter, stretchier fabrics and silk-screen designs instead of embroidery. This is more cost efficient, but we lose the beauty of the applique work. Lewis fears she won’t be able to keep up with technology. “I believe that small dressmakers like myself who have honed our craft will not survive the tech savvy, super slick self-promoters.”
Although trends ebb and flow, cultural exchange has played a major role in the future of Irish dance. Dance schools have been established in countries around the world. “I remember it was a surprise when I went to the World Championships and saw dancers from Israel and Japan,” Mrs. James says.
I was amazed the first time I competed against Irish dancers from Mexico at a regional competition in the early 2000s. Our team warmed up alongside them in one of the practice rooms. As they danced, I noticed them counting in eights in Spanish. That was when I realized the impact our dance form has had on the world. It was fascinating to see Irish dance as an international language.
“Being Irish does not define Irish dance, and this has changed the way dresses are styled,” Churchill notes. I believe that Celtic design work will always be a part of the costume even as styles evolve, but it is interesting to see how each dancer and designer adds their own spin. I’ve seen how dancers express other nationalities through the design of their dresses, and I feel this is important to the longevity of the art form.
Of vital importance to those of us with Irish heritage is the preservation of our history and culture. Irish dance schools in America do not teach the history of Irish dancing. Most of us know little about the cultural elements behind the designs. Maybe this is reflective of some of our costume choices. Some dancers prefer traditional styles while others do not. I hope we do a better job of telling the story of Irish dance. We should know how Irish dancing evolved and the meanings behind the designs.
Although much of the politics behind the Celtic Revival costume have worn off, enthusiasm for the dance has not. The work of designers remains vital. As a dancer, I feel confidence when I am in my dress. We practice for months preparing for competition, enduring injuries, sweat, and tears. The moment the costume, hair, and makeup are on, I feel powerful and ready to share what I’ve learned.
Samantha Beach Sinagra is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master’s candidate in arts management at George Mason University. She has been an Irish dancer with the O’Neill-James School of Irish Dancing for over twenty years. She wishes to thank Sarah Churchill, Michelle Lewis, and Laureen O’Neill James for their support with this project.
Want to explore Irish dance in your classroom? Download the companion lesson plan and activity guide for middle school students and up.