Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Irish Dance Dress (Functional 3D Item) - Background Research

I agreed with Sian at summer school that I would make my elder daughter a dress for her Irish dancing as my functional 3d item. That seems an awfully long time ago!  Since then, I have been concentrating on making one for her sister using commercial embroidery designs as a kind of trial run (you can see it here on StitchDance) and doing lots of reading and looking at dresses both on the web and in real life.  In a moment I will be showing photos of my notebook, but I thought it would be useful to start with some notes and a glossary.


Feis (plural feiseanna) pronounced “fesh” – lit. festival, an Irish dancing competition.

Class dress –  a distinctive costume associated with a particular school.  In An Comdhail competitions that we attend,  dancers competing in age groups under 9 and below, and beginners of any age are not allowed to wear solo dresses, so they will either wear a class costume or a plain skirt and top.  Class dresses are also used for team dances (figures).

Solo dress – competitions mostly focus on solo dancing - although dancers usually perform three at a time they are each doing their own steps - and dancers aspire to wear a solo dress designed and made for them (but most will buy second-hand).  Every dress is unique; although there are distinct styles and colours that go in and out of fashion, a particular design will not be repeated exactly.  Solo dresses are more elaborate then class dresses. NB although referred to as dresses, costumes may be made with a separate bodice and skirt.

An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG) and Comdhail Na Muinteoiri le Rinci gaelacha  (An Comdhail) – two major governing bodies for Irish dancing. 

The history of the development of the dancing schools and the costumes in the first half of the twentieth century is  closely bound up with politics and Irish nationalism. For anyone interested in finding out more background, I would recommend  The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan, pub Brandon 1999, and Irish Dancing Costume by Martha Robb, pub Country House.  I found it very helpful to see how the styles have evolved and the invention of ‘traditional’ dress.

Permitted Costume Styles

CLRG published updated rules on costumes in September 2010 – you can access the complete list here but the key points are

  • Necklines must be high enough to cover the collarbone.
  • Sleeves to start at the shoulder and end at the cuff.
  • Skirts no shorter than mid-thigh.
  • Costumes must have a full front, back and sides (i.e. no cutaway or transparent panels and skirts must have a full backing).

In essence, the basic shape is a long-sleeved, short skirted dress with a dropped waist and back zip.  

Irish dance dress notes (2)

These pages show second-hand dresses offered for sale at a feis – a good way of seeing a mixture of styles.  On the left-hand page, the dark blue dress is in what is referred to as traditional style – large areas of  satin-stitch knotwork on a plain dark background, and a stiffened box pleat skirt.  These often had white crochet collars.   The other three are more up-to-date and you can see how at times there is no reference to traditional motifs.  On the right hand page, there are two dresses with ra-ra skirts which are very popular (apart from looks, they are considerably lighter than the stiffened styles). The dress with the violet bodice, which was made in 2011, has a puffball, plisse skirt and also shows the move towards building up decoration by repeating small knotwork motifs (this also gives you an idea of prices).

Irish dance dress notes (3)

The back of the dress is also important.  These styles have developed from the traditional shawl pinned over one shoulder.  A few years ago, there was a fashion for dresses in the classic stiff-skirted shape but made entirely in glittery fabrics using applique rather than embroidery, and these have a stiff ‘kite’ on the back as a reference to the shawls.  Most new dresses I see now have either a sash across the back or a shaped shawl (attached with Velcro), although some have a large bow at the dropped waist. There is also a trend to attach the shawl further down from the shoulder  and to continue the embroidery around the back of the dress.   All the photos in these two pages have been collected onto a board on Pinterest which anyone can see here (and this also credits the sources).  A quick trawl on ebay will also come up with many dresses for sale.


Irish dance dress notes (4)

A collection of images from dressmakers websites recording some of the various current skirt styles.   The older-style stiff skirts  have brightly coloured contrasting linings which show as the skirt moves and the girls wear matching lycra or satin ‘kick-knicks’ underneath.  Irish dancing is popular in the USA and fashions cross the Atlantic as competitors meet at international competitions – a good site for US fashion updates is

Armed with all this background information – the next step is to start thinking about the design.  But first I want to sort out my notes on lace for the beginning of module 5, so that will be my next post.


ferinn said...

This looks like a major undertaking!I'm sure you'll be the one to pull it off.

Max the Lobster said...

Wow a major task you have set yourself, can't wait to see what you come up with (even with the restrictions)! i too am up to my eyeballs in lace! not quite sure which direction to take yet

Heather said...

Fascinating - I had no idea there were so many rules and regulations for Irish dancing. Looking forward to seeing your daughter's dress.

Fibrenell said...

I'm sure you'll manage beautifully. I did Highland for many years and having a great looking outfit is one thing, but having one that allows you to dance well too is essential.
Good luck with that Jane.

Rachi said...

I believe you will pull off it..:) said...

As part of Eire traditions, dances were conducted during social events. The performers dressed in Irish flow outfits that were maroon, white and green in color. The outfits were padded with handmade Celtic styles and rock noise. The styles for the outfits were inspirations gotten from books of Irish rock noise, chalice and Kells. It is worth noting that the apparel used these days are a expression of outfits used during the 8th 100 years.
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