The costumes of traditional Irish dancers are laden with history and symbolism. Learn some of the secrets from a lifelong pro.
As Irish dancing evolved over the years, so did the costumes. “Back in the 1800s, dancers would just wear their Sunday best because they performed Sunday after Mass,” says Muireann Ni Chiara, founder and director of Millennium Academy of Irish Dance & Music, which teaches about 150 male and female dancers of all ages at Worthington and Granville studios. Nine-year-old Ella Chillog has been dancing at Millennium Academy for four years and is preparing for the North American Irish Dance Championships, which will be held in Montreal this July. This is the first year she’ll be old enough to qualify for the World Irish Dance Championships.
Women typically curled their hair for Sunday Mass, which translated to the popular hairstyle for dance performances. Today, dancers have the option of curling their hair or wearing wigs. “It saves them from having to sleep in curlers the night before,” Ni Chiara says. Embroidered headbands and crowns became popular as costumes became more elaborate.
“This is the first position they take before they do every single dance and the last position they take before they bow down at the end of the dance,” Ni Chiara says. “It’s a mark of respect to the audience and the judges.”
Chillog is wearing Millennium Academy’s uniform, a traditional velvet dress with a three-panel skirt. Green, yellow and white are customary dress colors, Ni Chiara says, but theirs are navy blue and gold because those are the colors of Tipperary, her hometown in Ireland. The Celtic embroidery is also customary, and these designs come from the Book of Kells.
“It’s actually a requirement here—you have to have a shawl on while dancing,” Ni Chiara says of the piece that was popularized in the 1930s. (Dancers previously wore cloaks.) The shawl is pinned with a traditional Tara brooch.
Dancers wear both “soft” (shown here) and “hard” shoes. Both are made with black leather and often lace up the front, but hard shoes have fiberglass tips that make a tapping noise for dances like those popularized by “Riverdance,” and soft shoes are better suited for light jigs. Academy dancers also wear white poodle socks, although historically dancers wore shorter socks.