||The basic elements of ancient Irish dress for people in the
upper classes were the léine and the brat. These lasted, with variations
over time, from the earliest recorded times down to the 16th century. There is some
speculation that the adoption of the léine is due to Roman influence; but I think
it is more likely that the Romans adopted the more fitted clothing of the Celtic and
Germanic tribes toward the later years of the Roman Empire (as those so-called
'barbarians' gained more power in the Empire).
The léine (pronounced /lay'-nuh/) in early Ireland in early depictions (between
5th and 12th century CE) is a long smock-like garment made of linen, not too widely cut,
reaching to slightly above the ankles and decorated around the neck, wrists, and lower hem
with embroidery. McClintock says it resembles a djelabbeh (Arabic garment). It
might have sleeves or be sleeveless. The léine can be drawn up through the belt to
knee-level (which causes it to bunch in such a way that carvings of men wearing their
lÈines this way are sometimes mistaken for wearing a kilt). (H.F. McClintock, Old
Irish Dress, p. 2) The léine may sometimes have opened in the front to the
waist (see below), but most pictures show a neckline and don't indicate such an opening.
The léine's neckline can be round, square, or v-shaped. Sometimes a léine
is described by the term culpatach, meaning hooded; this could have meant that it
had a collar (culpait) large enough to be used as a hood. (McClintock, Old
Irish Dress, p. 13).
Both women and men wore the léine, but for women, it was a little longer. The
full-length léine is nearly always shown being worn with a brat, not by itself,
and is never shown worn with trews or the inar.
The léine can sometimes be shorter than ankle-length; a shorter léine,
however, seems to be a mark of lower status, as the wearer probably is involved in
physical labor. Some effort was made to assure that the léine wasn't too short.
(Dunleavy, p 17)
Laborers or peasants are sometimes seen in what superficially appears to be a short
kilt, which has some embroidery around the lower hem. However, this most likely represents
a léine, with the upper part thrown off to allow for coolness and freedom of
movement while working. This would indicate that the neck-line of the léine is big
enough to allow the wearer to put his whole body through it, so that it hangs around the
waist. One figure on the cross shows an opening big enough to do this. (Dunleavy, p. 4)
The léine as seen in the Book of Kells has a high neckline, too narrow for the
wearer to throw off the top of the garment for work. Sleeves are narrow and close to the
arm. The long, flowing sleeves of léinte from the 16th century are a later
The léine is usually described as being gel, or
bright. This probably indicates light-colored linen. Some of the léinte shown in
the Book of Kells are of various colors, including light blue or green, which are
obtainable with woad, with an under-dye of weld for the green. Linen doesn't take dye very
well, and most colors applied would come out light, rather than the intense, dark colors
we are able to achieve with modern chemical dyes; the exceptions are the pigments obtained
from indigin (from woad) and murex purple. The Book of Kells seems to indicate embroidery
or woven borders at the neck, wrists and hem. Léinte may also have been
striped. The lines on the garments of the Breac Maedhóc figures
(below) could be intended to represent deep pleats, or stripes, or both.
A good description of how to construct a similar tunic can be found at the following
site of How to Make a Viking
Tunic -- look at the Birka tunic with a round neckline and gores let into the side
seams. I'll be posting pictures and instructions eventually. In the meantime, my
information for The Rogart Shirt would probably be fairly
Women (left) and men (right) from the Breac Maedhóc, a bronze
house-shrine from the 11th or 12th century:
The brat (pronounced /braht/) was a rectangular woolen cloak worn over the
shoulders like a shawl and/or fastened with a brooch on the chest or the right shoulder.
The brat seems most commonly to have been rectangular, and rather voluminous, so
that it could be folded several times around the wearer, with longer length indicating
greater status. Sometimes the brat is described as 'five-folded' (Gantz, p. 157),
but we don't know exactly what this means. They are sometimes portrayed as having some
sort of hood, or as being folded and/or pinned in such a way that part of the brat could
be drawn up over the head as a hood.
Several other forms of the brat seem to have been used, though it's hard to tell
from the pictorial evidence -- one form seems to have holes through which one can put
one's arms without unfastening the cloak. Some are shown that look like modern capes -- a
half-circle, with the bottom edge parallel to the ground, with or without a hood.
(Dunleavy, p. 3) Both large and small mantles are portrayed. The shorter brats,
however, are usually worn with trews. Women are usually portrayed wearing the full-length
Unlike linen, wool takes dye very well, and the brat is often described as being
colored. Usually the brat is one color with a fringe (corrthar) or border of
another color. These borders or fringes could have been either woven into the brat, as
was common with fabric woven on a warp-weighted loom, or made separately, and could
include silver and golden threads. It is possible that embellishments included appliqué
and tapestry-woven patterns. (McClintock, Old Irish Dress, P. 15) Bright colors
were common, with purple, crimson and green being mentioned most often. Other colors
listed are blue, black, yellow, speckled (which, from the Latin, can mean
checked or tartan), gray, dun, variegated and striped. (McClintock, Old
Irish Dress, p. 14) McClintock downplays the possibility of tartans being used, but
scraps of checked cloth have been found from ancient Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, so
a simple check is certainly not impossible.
The brat is also sometimes described as being 'fleecy': the woman who enters
Da Derga's Hostel in the tale of that name is described as wearing a brat that
was fleecy and striped. (Gantz, p. 76) Some brats from later periods have been
found that had a pile woven into the fabric, so that they looked rather like a rug. It is
also likely that the nap of the fabric was drawn out with teasels, so that the fabric was
very fuzzy; this fiber could then be either left long or sheared short, so that it looked
like modern woolen blankets. The depictions in the Book of Kells and other manuscripts,
however, do not show mantles with obvious tufting.
One of the myths making its way through the Celtic community is that the Irish used to
wear a kilt. There is no evidence to support this. Several sculptures have been cited to
support the existence of kilts; however, most authorities (including H.F. McClintock) on
the subject say that the garments portrayed are léinte, gathered around
the waist (see both my comments above in the segment on léinte, and Scottish Clothing, ca. 1100-1800 AD. The kilt arose in Scotland
around 1600 C.E., when Scots started belting their brat around their waist. This was
remarked on by observers, who said they could tell the Scots from the Irish soldiers in
Ulster because of this habit of belting their cloaks.
Below: The disputed panel from the Cross of Muiredach
Soldiers are portrayed as wearing a close-fitting sleeved or sleeveless jacket,
waist-length, fastened in the chest with a brooch. The jacket is worn with a pair of
trews, not over a léine. The high waists of 16th c. jackets seem to be a later
development. One soldier portrayed has sleeves to the middle of his forearm and trews that
come to a few inches below the knee. Another has sleeves that come to his wrists.
(Dunleavy, pp. 21, 22)
Trews in Ireland are usually shown on soldiers, who are wearing them with a short
jacket. The trews are usually close-fitting, sometimes shown to end above the knees,
sometimes to a few inches below the knee, and sometimes cover the whole leg. They are
sometimes marked with vertical lines which may represent decoration or a striped weave in
the cloth. An illustration in the Book of Kells shows a soldier wearing a fitted green
jacket with close-fitting sleeves and a round neck, and bright blue trews. The trews end
just above the ankle-bone and have a strap going under the foot, making them like modern
stirrup pants. There is a line right under the knees that may represent a garter.
(McClintock, Old Irish Dress, p. 5; Dunleavy, p. 21, 22) This is corroborated by
an account of the arrival of Harald Gille, who later became king of Norway, who came to
Norway from Ireland claiming to be a son of King Magnus Barefoot by an Irish mother. His
clothes are described thus: "he had on a shirt and trousers which were bound with
ribands under his foot-soles, a short cloak, an Irish hat on his head and a spear hat
under his hand." (McClintock, Old Irish Dress, p. 5)
Other forms of trews: on the Cross of Muiredach (10th c.), soldiers are shown wearing
what appear to be striped trews that are rather short -- they only reach to mid-thigh at
most. (Dunleavy, p. 21)
Soldier from the Book of Kells, ca. 800 CE (jacket is green, trews
Persons who would have worn trews would have included charioteers, the king's
bodyguard, food bearers, door keepers, and scouts. Kings and other notable persons are
usually shown wearing the long léine.
The crios usually refers to a leather or woven belt. These are probably either tabby
weave (as is the criosana still woven in Aran today), or tablet-woven. It was woven
not only to keep the léine in place but to carry object and utensils in the usual
Contrary to popular opinion, going shoeless is not a universal Celtic trait. The Rule
of Ailbe of Emly directed that "no matter how ascetic a person became he should never
go barefoot." (Dunleavy, p. 20)
See Diarmuit Ui Dhuinn's Footwear of the
Middle Ages site for information on Irish shoes for this period.
Colors of Clothing:
Brehon law laid out the colors of the clothing that people were allowed to wear -- see
my Textile Page.
Eachna's Celtic Clothing
Social History of
Ancient Ireland (excerpts from P. W. Joyce) -- use with caution. His information
on the spurious Irish 'kilt' has been thoroughly refuted.
Molly ni Dana's Home Page -
another essay on Irish clothing, and an essay on shoes.