Guest Blog Post from Rachel Sayers: The History of Irish Dress 1750-1850

whatgrandmawore is pleased to welcome our first guest post from Rachel Sayers!

Within the study of fashion history, Irish dress is one of the most neglected and under-researched aspects. There have been less than ten major texts on Irish fashion to be published in the last 40 years, making writing, disseminating and researching Irish dress history difficult. Researching this blog post on Irish fashion between 1750 and 1850 has been problematic as information is limited, or extracted from other sources that are not readily available to an independent researcher like myself.  This however, has not deterred me in my research, and I hope that you find this blog post informative and enjoyable.

Ireland in the 18th century was a predominantly rural society with a large percentage of the population working in rural areas. Clothing was made by tailors and seamstresses or within ‘cottage industries’ i.e. clothing made in small cottages across Ireland. [1] Working class women would have made home-spun material such as linen, tweed, cotton or woollen garments to clothe themselves, or to be sold to dressmakers and tailors, and others residing in large country houses. Women who wore garments made by poorer women, many of whom would have been their tenants, were just as concerned with fashion as their British and French counterparts, as seen below in the painting of fashionable ladies at an Irish Volunteers review.

The Irish Volunteers were a militia established by Protestant landowners who wished to create a separate kingdom within Ireland whilst remaining under the rule of Great Britain. [2] It was fashionable for aristocratic women to attend these meetings and even wear versions of the volunteer uniform, as seen in the red military uniform worn by the lady in the centre right of the painting in Fig. 1. This was a time when it was not unusual for women to be involved within Irish politics; although their role was reserved for promoting candidates and encouraging friends and family members to vote for their favourite candidates i.e. the male members of their family.

1782 image

Fig. 1: The Earl of Aldborough Reviewing Volunteers at Belan House, County Kildare, oil on canvas, 1782 (with later additions c.1787 and c.1810), 1549 x 2653, Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor, England.

It is important to note the depiction of women within the Irish Volunteer movement, as well as the involvement of women within the Irish Nationalist movement during the 18th century, is often forgotten. [3] Most of the women who took part within the Irish Volunteers movement did so on a purely peaceful basis. However, there are accounts of women bearing arms and being more militarily active within the Irish Volunteers during late 18th century Ireland. [4].

Wealthier women throughout late 18th century Ireland would often venture into their nearest town or city if they wished to purchase more sumptuous items of clothing such as Spitalfields silk, furs, ribbons, and silk stockings for example, that perhaps their local dressmakers did not sell. [5]

The most popular place for purchasing fine goods in Georgian Dublin was the street named ‘Dame Street,’ close to Trinity College and the Irish parliamentary buildings. Here any fine lady could buy silk, furs, corsets, and jewels. Dame Street was not just a place to purchase clothes; it was also a place to see and be seen in the latest Parisian fashions. [6]. Additionally, Parliament Street was also a popular shopping thoroughfare for fashionable Irish women in the 18th century. An advertisement as seen in Fig. 2 describes items for sale including ‘sattins’ and ‘silks’ and depicts a well-dressed Irish lady playing an Irish harp.

1779 irish silk

Fig. 2: Advertisement for ‘The Irish Silk Ware-House,’ Walker’s Hibernian Journal, 1779

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century Irish fashion began to reflect the trend towards a more natural waist-line and the use of organic materials in dressmaking such as linen, muslin and cotton as seen in Fig. 3. This was also a time when the involvement of the Irish Volunteers within the Nationalist movement came to a crisis point, with the failure of the 1798 Irish Rebellion, and subsequent failure of establishing a secure and separate Irish parliament. This led to ‘The Acts of Union,’ which essentially meant that England had an even tighter, and firmer grip on the administration of Ireland from London. It is unclear what role women had within this turbulent era of Irish history or even indeed what effect this had on Irish fashion.

Irish Fashion Plate


Fig 3: Depiction of an Irish woman wearing a bonnet and shawl, late 18th century. Photo Stock.

This era warrants a more in-depth research to be undertaken to ascertain the effects and or role of Irish fashion during these years and how this effected Irish fashion into the 19th century and beyond. 19th century women in Ireland took a back seat in Irish politics until at least the mid-nineteenth century.[7] However, this did not mean that Irish women undertook little or no interest in the developments of the latest fashions.

Indeed, it could be argued that this period in Ireland from the 1798 rebellion until the onslaught of the potato famine in the 1840s was a relatively peaceful time in a long and fractured history. Irish fashion in this period reflected the continual silhouette changes worn by their British and continental counterparts and these changes in fashion were even reflected in children’s clothing, as seen in Fig. 4.

19th century irish children

Fig. 4: Early 19th century study of two Irish children, one with a drum, watercolour on paper, 15.25 x 13, unknown artist. <>

It is important to note that the changes in fashions did not necessarily filter down to the very poorest of Ireland’s citizens as reflected in many upper-class depictions of Irish people in this article. Fashion for the working classes changed little as their clothing was practical, functional and long lasting, with items being handed down from generation to generation.

Most working-class Irish women wore some sort of shawl as their outdoor covering and wore a skirt, blouse, shoes and possibly a lighter shawl indoors. Irish fashion of the late 18th and early 19th century had not changed much by the time that the drawing depicted in Fig. 5 was produced in the 1880s.  This illustration reflects the continual downward trajectory of the Irish working class in that what a young girl wore in the 1880s could have been worn by her great-grandmother a century previously.[8]

The continual portrayal of working-class Irish as a class to be both mocked and pitied by the British who thought of themselves as superior to the Irish continued throughout the early 19th century with similar depictions as in Fig. 5. Clothing was used to portray the Irish as ‘lesser’ or as a ‘simpler’ people. This was to justify the continual oppression of the Irish people, through a colonial and religious lens of the British landowners ‘helping’ their poorly clad tenants, with continual offers of clothing and clothing schemes on larger Irish estates.

1880 irish illustration

Fig. 5: Illustration of Irish Working-Class, The Illustrated London News,December 4, 1880. Ink on paper. <>.

As clothing was a signifier of wealth and prosperity, if someone was wearing rags and shawls they certainly were not the prosperous, but poor, hard-working tenants. This depiction of working-class Irish people depicted in rags was also used to portray the victims of the Irish famine or ‘An Gorta Mòr’ (The Great Hunger). The Irish Famine decimated the Irish rural and urban landscape on such a scale that the ramifications of the mass immigration and large-scale death toll caused by the famine are still felt in certain areas of Ireland to this day.[9]

The Irish potato famine was caused by a disease that meant that the pre-dominate food of the Irish at this time i.e. potatoes failed on a year on year basis from 1845 to 1850. Most people died from starvation or disease caused from little access to food and being evicted by landlords from their own homes or from food being exported when it should have been distributed to the needy. This was the essentially the beginning of the end of a peaceful Ireland as the memories of the famine echoed long into the 19th century and beyond.

1849 irish famine

Fig 6:Bridget O’Donnell and two of her children, pen and ink on paper, c.1849. Wikipedia source.

One of the most haunting images of victims of the famine is an illustration of Bridget O’Donnell with her two children by her side in rags and with a clearly emaciated face in Fig. 6. The image is shocking and Bridget’s clothing or the remnants of her clothing clearly represent the struggles that she had to face as a mother of young children with no food or home. The famine was a catalyst for a resurgence in Irish nationalism in the form of a free and independent state away from any British interference. This is an important point to note as the Nationalist movement played a key part in the influence of Irish fashion in the late 19th centuries and early 20th centuries.


[1] David Dickson, ‘Famine and Economic Change in Eighteenth Century Ireland’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History, ed. by Alvin Jackson (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014), 422-43.

[2] Anonymous, The Earl of Aldborough Reviewing Volunteers at Belan House, County Kildare, The National Trust,

<> accessed 1st February 2019.

[3] Catherine O’ Connor, ‘The experience of Women in the Rebellion of 1798 in Wexford’, The Past: The Organ of the Li Cinsealaigh Historical Society, No.24 (2003), 95-106.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rua Ruth, Shopping in 18th Century Dublin, Rua Ruth Blog, accessed 11thFebruary 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mary O’Dowd, ‘Women and Patriotism in the Eighteenth Century’, in History Ireland, No.5, Vol. 14, 2006. <> 

[8] Donal Ó Drisceoil and Fintan Lane, eds. Politics and the Irish Working Class, 1830-1945, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2006).


[9] Kevin O’Rourke, ‘The Economic Impact of the Famine in the Short and Long Run’, in The American Economic Review, Vol. 84, No.2 (May 1994), 309-313.


About the Author 


Rachel Sayers is an independent researcher and curator based in Scotland but originally from the North of Ireland. Rachel’s main areas of research concentrate on the role that social, domestic and dress history had on the lives of Irish women in the early to mid-twentieth centuries. Rachel has worked for the Imperial War Museums, The National Trust (UK), Titanic Belfast and The National Museum of the Royal Navy on a number of curatorial and research projects.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s