A 16th Century Irish Linen Headdress
In English accounts of late 16th century Ireland, many things are described as strange and foreign. One of the most outstanding is what the Irish wore. In an attempt to complete my Irish wardrobe, I undertook the study of references to what Irish women wore on their heads. A number of text sources describe a variety of headdresses made with an astounding amount of linen (as much as 40 ells!). Displayed is my attempt to recreate one of those headdresses for wear with my Shinrone gown and léine of the same time period.
Most documentary evidence of Irish dress in the 16th century comes from English accounts. The problem with these descriptions is that they are biased, describing everything non-English as “strange”, “unseemly” or even “sluttish”. At this time in history, Ireland was at war with England and Elizabeth was struggling to bring the rebel Irish in the North under her control before they could conspire against her with her Papist enemies. Legislative efforts to “Anglicize” the Irish betray that pursuit of control.
In a letter to the town of Galway, 28 April, 1536, Henry VIII wrote:
Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth.1
A 1537 Act of Parliament further cemented this order.2
William Good, an English missionary, speaks about the strange headdress of Irishwomen in his treatise, dated 1566:
..and they load their heads (as I have said) rather than adorn them, with several ells of fine linnen roll’d up in wreaths…
An ordinance proclaimed at Limerick in 1571 by Sir John Perot, President of Munster, reads:
… and no maid or single woman shall wear or put any great roll or kercher of linen cloth upon their heads, neither any great smock with great sleeves, but to put on hats, French hoods, tippets, or some other civil attire upon their heads.
In 1596, Edmund Spenser lists things that the Irish would wear despite laws against them:
…the great linen roll which the women wear to keep their heads warm after cutting their hair, which they use in any sickness…
Fynes Moryson speaks about Irish women with some scorn. In his Itinerary in 1600, he writes:
…their wives among the English are attired in a sluttish gowne to be fastened at the breast with a lac, and in a more sluttish mantell, and more sluttish linnen. And their heads be covered after the Turkish manner, with many elles of linnen, only the Turkish heads of Tulbents [turbans] are round in the top; but the attire of the Irish women’s heads is more flat on the top and broader on the sides, not much unlike a cheese mot [mould] if it had a hole to put in the head.
Speede’s Map of Ireland also mentions the attire of women:
The women wore their haire plaited in a curious manner, handing down their backs and shoulders from under foulden wreathers of fine linnen rolled about their heads, rather loading the wearer than delighting the beholder; for as the one was most seemly, so the other was unsightly.
Later in the same work, he says:
They do not wear more than a chemise, and a blanket, which with they cover themselves, and a linen cloth, much doubled, over the head and tied in front.
Luke Gernon, an early 17th century writer who is known for his equitable treatment of the Irish, described the regional differences in Irish women’s headgear:
In the country even among theyr Irish habbits they have sundry fashions. I will beginne with the ornament of theyr heads. At Kilkenny they wear broad beaver hatts coloured, edged with a gold lace and faced with velvett, with a broad gould hatt band. At Waterford they weare capps, turned up with furre and laced with gold lace. At Lymerick they weare rolles of lynnen, each roll contayning twenty bandles of fyne lynnen clothe,3 and made up in the form of a myter. To this if it be could weather, there is added a muffler over theyr neck and chinne of like quantity of linnen; being so muffled, over all they will pinne on an English maske of blacke taffaty, which is rarely ridiculous to behold. In Connaught they wear rolles in the forme of a cheese. In Thomond they weare kerchiefs, hanging downe to the middle of theyr backe. They maydes weare on the forepart of their head about foure yards of coloured ribbon smoothly layd, and theyre owne hayre playted behind. In other places they weare theyre hayre loose and cast behind.
As late as 1644, Boullaye le Gouz describes:
The girls of ireland, even those who live in the towns have nothing but a ribbon for head-dress, and if they are married they have a napkin on their head in the manner of our Egyptian women.
Luckily, the Dutch painter, Lucas de Heere left us a few illustrations of Irish townspeople. In a couple of these pictures, women are shown wearing linen headdresses not unlike those described in the English accounts.
John Derricke’s engravings from Images of Ireland are not very lifelike, but in two of those images, women are depicted in a headdress that could be the same one Gernon described years later. A redrawing of one of those engravings is show at left.
Further evidence, though perhaps not specifically Irish, comes to us in the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden. In two of his paintings, Mary Magdelene wears a strange linen roll on her head. I have heard it said that it is not unlike those worn by Irish women a century later. I include those pictures for your judgement.
The present exhibit is meant to replicate the Irish linen headdress described as looking like a “cheese mould”. I obtained 4 yards of 60″ wide 3 ½ oz. linen from a commercial source. I cut the linen into 20″ wide strips in order to replicate the width of period Irish linen. I folded these “bandels” into strips that resembled the paintings of Irish linen rolls. I then wrapped the linen rolls around a head mannequin and stitched them into place with waxed linen thread.
Although we do not know for certain how the Irish linen headdresses were made, the present example accurately replicates this accessory using all the available evidence.
- Dunlevy, Mairead. Dress in Ireland. 1989: Holmes & Meier, NY.
- McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. 1950: Dundalgan Press Ltd., Dundalk.
- Maxwell’s Irish History from Contemporary Sources, page 366, as quoted in McClintock(2)
- “An act of Henry VIII forbade any person in Ireland after 1 May, 1539 to dress their hair in the Irish fashion or to: …weare any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel [band or ribbon], neckerchour, mocket [bib or handkerchief], or linnen cappe coloured, or dyed with Saffron, be yet to use, or weare in any of their shirts or smocks above seven yards of cloth to be measured according to the King’s Standard, and that also no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [overlaid, embroidered] ne layd with usker [usgar Irish for jewels], after the Irish fashion, and that no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or hood, made after the Irish fashion.” From a Collection of all the Statutes of in use in the Kingdom of Ireland, Dublin 1678, as quoted in McClintock.(2)
- A Bandle is half and ell: “The cloth is is a sort of frieze, of about twenty inches broad, whereof two foot, called a bandle, is worth from 3 ½ d to 18d. Of this seventeen bandles makes a man’s suit and twelve make a cloak.” Sir W. Petty’s Political Anatomy of Ireland, as quoted in McClintock.(2)
© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.