How The People Dressed
An oval face, broad above and narrow below, golden hair, fair skin, white,
delicate, and well-formed hands with slender tapering fingers: these were
considered as marking the type of beauty and of high family descent; they
were the Marks of Aristocracy. To these natural advantages the people
added by the usual artificial means. Among the higher classes the
finger-nails were kept carefully cut and rounded. It was considered
shameful for a man of position to have rough unkempt nails.
Crimson-coloured finger-nails were greatly admired; and ladies sometimes
dyed them this colour. Deirdre, uttering a lament for the sons of Usna,
says:--"I sleep no more, and I shall not crimson my nails; no joy shall
ever again come upon my mind."
Ladies often dyed the eyebrows black with the juice of some sort of berry.
We have already seen (p. 54) that the Irish missionary monks sometimes
painted or dyed their eyelids black. An entry in Cormac's Glossary plainly
indicates that the blush of the cheeks was sometimes heightened by a
colouring matter obtained from the alder tree: and the sprigs and berries
of the elder were applied to the same purpose. Among Greek and Roman
ladies the practice was very general of painting the cheeks, eyebrows, and
other parts of the face.
Both men and women wore the hair long, and commonly flowing down on the
back and shoulders. The hair was combed daily after a bath. The heroes of
the Fena of Erin, before sitting down to their dinner after a hard day's
hunting, always took a bath and carefully combed their long hair.
Among the higher classes in very early times great care was bestowed on
the hair; its regulation constituted quite an art; and it was dressed up
in several ways. Very often the long hair of men, as well as of women, was
elaborately curled. Conall Kernach's hair, as described in the story of Da
Derga, flowed down his back, and was done up in "hooks and plaits and
swordlets." The accuracy of this and other similar descriptions is fully
borne out by the most unquestionable authority of all, namely, the figures
in the early illuminated manuscripts and on the shrines and high crosses
of later ages. In nearly all the figures of the Book of Kells, for example
(seventh or eighth century), the hair is combed and dressed with the
utmost care, so beautifully adjusted indeed that it could have been done
only by skilled professional hairdressers, and must have occupied much
time. Whether in case of men or women, it hangs down both behind and at
the sides, and is commonly divided the whole way, as well as all over the
head, into slender fillets or locks, which sometimes hang down to the eyes
in front. I do not find mentioned anywhere that the Irish dyed their hair,
as was the custom among the Greeks and Romans.
The men were as particular about the beard as about the hair. The fashion
of wearing the beard varied. Sometimes it was considered becoming to have
it long and forked, and gradually narrowed to two points below.
Sometimes--as shown in many ancient figures--it falls down in a single
mass; while in a few it is cut straight across at bottom not unlike
Assyrian beards. Nearly all have a mustache, in most cases curled up and
pointed at the ends as we often see now. In many the beard is carefully
divided into slender twisted fillets, as described above for the hair.
Kings and chiefs had barbers in their service to attend to all this.
Razors were used made of bronze as hard as steel, as we know by finding
them mentioned in Irish documents as early as the eighth century; and many
old bronze razors are now preserved in museums.
From what precedes it will be understood that combs were in general use
with men as well as with women; and many specimens of combs are now found
in the remains of ancient dwellings.
Bathing was very usual, at least among the upper classes, and baths and
the use of baths are constantly mentioned in the old tales and other
writings. In every public hostel, in every monastery, and in every
high-class house, there was a bath, with its accompaniments. Soap was used
both in bathing and washing.
Woollen and linen clothes formed the dress of the great mass of the
people. Both were produced at home; and in chapter xix. the modes of
manufacturing them will be mentioned. Silk and satin, which were of course
imported, were much worn among the higher classes. The furs of animals,
such as seals, otters, badgers, foxes, etc., were much used for capes and
jackets, and for the edgings of various garments, so that skins of all the
various kinds were valuable. They formed, too, an important item of
everyday traffic, and they were also exported.
The ancient Irish loved bright colours. In this respect they resembled
many other nations of antiquity--as well indeed as of the present day; and
they illustrated Ruskin's saying--"Whenever men are noble they love bright
colour, and bright colour is given to them in sky, sea, flowers, and
living creatures." The Irish love of colour expressed itself in all parts
of their raiment; and we know that they well understood the art of dyeing.
The several articles of dress on one person were usually coloured
differently. Even the single outer cloak was often striped, spotted, or
chequered in various colours. King Domnall, in the seventh century, on one
occasion sent a many-coloured tunic to his foster-son Prince Congal: like
Joseph's coat of many colours.
A very common article of dress was a large cloak, generally without
sleeves, varying in length, but commonly covering the whole person from
the shoulders down. The people also wore a tight-fitting coat with
sleeves, something like our present frock-coat; but it was much shorter
and without a collar, and it was kept tight by a belt round the waist. A
short cape was often worn on the shoulders, sometimes carrying a hood to
cover the head. The outer covering of the general run of the peasantry was
just one loose sleeved coat or mantle, generally of frieze, which covered
them down to the ankles; and which they wore winter and summer. Women
commonly wore a long loose cloak, with a hood, a fashion which is common
at the present day. The over-garments were fastened by brooches, pins,
buttons, girdles, strings, and loops, many of them beautifully made and
The ancient Irish wore a trousers which was so tight-fitting as to show
perfectly the shape of the limbs. When terminating below the ankles it was
held down by a slender strap passing under the foot. Like other Irish
garments it was generally striped or speckled in various colours. Leggings
of cloth or of thin soft leather were used, and were laced on by strings
tipped with white bronze, the bright metallic extremities falling down
after lacing, so as to form pendant ornaments. A kilt was often worn, in
which case the legs were left bare at the knees, with leggings below: for
the kilt is of Irish origin, and was brought--like many other fashions--by
the early colonists to Scotland, where it is still held on, while it has
been long disused in Ireland.
Both men and women wore a garment of fine texture next the skin, commonly
made of wool or linen, but sometimes of silk or satin, embroidered with
devices in gold or silver thread worked with the needle.
Girdles were commonly worn round the waist inside the outer loose mantle:
those used by high-class people were often elaborately ornamented so as to
be worth as much as from L40 to L100 of our present money. Garters were
worn, partly for use, partly for ornament: often they were made of very
expensive materials. Gloves were very common among all classes high and
low, and were often highly ornamented.
The men wore a hat of a conical shape without a leaf; but among the
peasantry, men, in their daily life, commonly went bare-headed, wearing
the hair long behind so as to hang down on the back, and clipped short in
front. Married women usually had the head covered either with a hood or
with a long web of linen wreathed round and round in several folds. The
veil was in constant use among the higher classes, and when not actually
worn was usually carried, among other small articles, in a lady's
Shoes were often made of untanned hide stitched with thongs, with several
layers for a sole. But there was a more shapely shoe, made of fully tanned
leather, having serviceable sole and heel, and often ornamented with
patterns stamped in.
The Irish were excessively fond of personal ornaments, which among the
higher classes were made of expensive materials, such as gold, silver,
gems, white bronze, etc. They wore rings and bracelets of various shapes
on the fingers (including the thumb), round the wrist and forearm, and
even round the leg above the ankle. Necklaces were very common, from the
cheapest kind up to those with the studs made of gold, pearls, and other
gems, all of which materials were found native.
They had torques for the neck made of twisted gold bars; and the elaborate
and immensely expensive crescents or gorgets have been already described
(p. 96). There was a gold ornament--a kind of open ring with bosses or
buttons on the ends--called Bunne-do-at, worn on the breast: suspended
from an ornamented button. Thin circular gold plates were also worn
fastened on the breast: and as for brooches, they were of all shapes and
sizes, some plain, simple, and cheap, some of gold or other expensive
material, of elaborate workmanship.
Pictures and full descriptions of all these ornaments will be found in
either of the two Social Histories.