The Shinrone Gown — An Irish Dress from the Elizabethan Age

RH301 – Shinrone Gown
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In 1843, a piece of wool was recovered from a bog near Shinrone, County Tipperary in Ireland. It turned out that this piece of wool was in fact a dress dating back to the late 16th or early 17th century.

Not much is known about Irish dress compared with other countries in Western Europe. However, we seem to know more about Ireland during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth than any other time before the Industrial Age. Sumptuary laws and unionizing orders prohibited many aspects of Irish dress, from colour to yardage to style. Though the English settlers wrote much of the “barbaric” customs of the Gaelic Irish, paintings and other visual evidence is scant. This gown, therefore, gives us great insight into the tailoring techniques of the time.

In July of 1998, thanks to the hospitality of Mairead Dunlevy, Mary Cahill and the staff of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, I was able to examine this and other extant garments in their collection. During my time at the Museum, I discovered many things that had not been observed or published previously. Also, I was able to further investigate some theories about the gown and will now lay the prevailing myths to rest.

With its unboned bodice and skirt attached along a straight waist seam, the Shinrone gown greatly resembles many woolen gowns depicted on the Continent in the 15th century. This is not surprising since the Irish had a reputation for being rather “behind the times.” The fabric of the gown is wool in a 2/1 twill weave. It is woven entirely of singles (non-plied thread). Its original colour is not known, presently being the colour of the bog. Interestingly, the twill lines on the skirt and the twill lines on the bodice seem to run in opposite directions. That is, the bodice twill lines ascend to the right while the skirt lines ascend to the left. This can only mean that the skirt (or the bodice, depending on how you look at it) was made inside out. Much of the tailoring of the skirt is done on the inner surface, not the outer, as we shall see. Perhaps the tailor of this gown simply made a human error.

The Skirt

The 32″ long skirt is made of 23 trapezoidal pieces of cloth, sewn together. Each gore is about 12″ wide at the bottom and 10″ wide at the top. The gores are cut on the straight of the grain, so that both cut edges tend slightly towards the bias. Trapezoidal gores, slightly narrower at the top than at the bottom, give a sloping shape to the skirt. It has been put forth by some that the gores are in fact rectangular and only appear wider at the bottom as a result of years of the top being gathered along the edge of the bodice while the bottom of the skirt got slightly wider. This theory does not prove correct in light of examining the extant garment.

Luckily, we need not simply theorize upon the shape of the gores of this gown. The extant example exists and can be measured and examined. Upon close observation, the fabric at the bottom of the skirt is just as tight and uniform of weave as that of the top of the skirt. Furthermore, the edges of the gores do not have selvedges as they would if they were woven to size, as some have postulated. As a matter of fact, nowhere on the gown can a selvedge be found. Although some Irish gowns were made using the selvedges whenever possible, this is not the case with the Shinrone gown. The edges are definitely cut. Moreover, the edges show subtle fringing that can be observed when a piece of fabric is cut on the bias. Though the deviation from the straight of the grain is small, the weft threads run at a slight angle to the edge, indicating a diagonal cut. It is certain that the gores were originally cut to be trapezoidal pieces.

The skirt is gathered onto the bodice in an unusual manner. Each gore has three separate “quills” or welts running from top to bottom with a fourth “quill” covering the seam with the adjacent gore. The quills were achieved by sewing welts with wool thread in a running stitch at equal intervals on the inside of the gown. This unusual technique makes the skirt hang in even folds. The folds of the skirt have often been described as “tubular.” This should not be taken too literally. As one can see from pictures of the gown, the skirt flares towards the bottom.

Previously, it had been thought that the skirt had three sets of quills per gore with the fourth quill covering the seam between adjacent gores. However, we now know that the quills are double. Instead of one welt running top to bottom at equal intervals along the inside of the skirt, there are pairs of them. These quills are sewn side by side so that they form a welt of fabric on the inner side, causing the skirt to hang in neat folds. The reason this fact has been previously overlooked is that most of the left-hand quills have come undone. A few remain towards the back of the gown and upon closer inspection, it became obvious that all the quills had originally been doubled. The thread that held the second quills was of a different colour and appeared inferior. In many places, the thread was gone altogether; only the stitch marks remained in the wool.

The Bodice

The top is equally unique. Contrary to popular belief, the bodice itself does have side seams. However, the side seams are not vertical, but slant backwards at an angle from the underarm to the lower back. These seams have been mistaken for back darts in photographs, but they join two cut pieces of the bodice and do not turn the fabric, as would darts. This diagonal seam, cutting across the bias at almost a 45° angle, reduces the stretch in that area of the gown. The excessive weight of the 22½ foot wide skirt of medium-weight wool would otherwise make the bodice “grow” and sag. This seam treatment controls some of that effect.

The back of the bodice is roughly rectangular covering from the neckline to the waist and from shoulder to shoulder. The widest measurement (shoulder to shoulder across the back) is 17¾”. The back (from the collar seam to the skirt attachment) is 18″ long. The width of the back piece at the skirt attachment is only 7½” wide due to the diagonal side seams. The width of the back at the top of the side seams, which begin under the arms, is 14″. These seams are approximately 7½” long from underarm to skirt attachment. The front of the bodice wraps around to accommodate this narrowing. The small stand collar is only 5¾” long and about an inch wide. It is anchored to the inside of the back piece by a larger piece of fabric, thereby stabilizing it. It does not wrap around to the sides or front of the neck.

The front piece of the bodice is constructed of two halves sewn together only at a small point at bottom center. Like the back, it also does not have a seam separating the top from the waist. Strap-like extensions of the bodice extend up around the side of the bust. These “straps” that connect to the back at a seam along the shoulder ridge, are 2½” wide at the top and widen slightly to 3″. At a point under the bustline, they widen sharply to 6″ and continue to slope down towards the skirt. The strap area of the bodice is finished by turning the raw edges under once but not sewing them. It is possible that they were tacked with a thread that did not survive. From the bustline to the skirt attachment, the front opening is bound with a whipstitch of woolen thread. This style affects underwire-like support even though there is no boning in the gown.

The lower part of the bodice, from under the bust to the skirt attachment, has a double layer of fabric, presumably to accommodate the heavy skirt. However, it was previously unknown that this 7″ wide “second waistband” is not a separate piece of fabric but rather a continuation of the fabric of the bodice. In other words, it is not sewn on at the skirt attachment but rather the bodice is actually 7″ longer than it appears and that extra length is folded up inside the bodice and lightly tacked. It reaches to under the bust in front and is evidenced by a 19th century repair in back.

The Waist Darts

The gown is finished with darts near the waist, two on either side. These darts must be further explained. Unlike modern darts which are used to shape a bodice to fit the body, these darts serve a different purpose. The darts begin near the waist where the skirt attaches and widen towards the front opening of the bodice. This narrowing of the material toward the center front does not afford a better fit than without the darts. Therefore, they must serve some other end.

Previously I suggested that the darts were to accommodate bodice sagging from the weight of the skirt of this gown. While this may have been the cause if the darts were simply “pinches” of fabric, this theory did not hold up in light of the new evidence that the darts significantly turned the fabric of the bodice.

The bodice is roughly the shape of most bodices of this period, having a deep point at center front. However, this is not apparent until the gown is inspected rather closely. Two darts on either side of the front opening turn the material in such a way that the center front point becomes almost horizontal. These darts are thought to accommodate pregnancy – they would be taken out as the woman grew in size and put back in after her body returned to its former shape. If the darts are not in the gown, a good portion of the front of the skirt drags on the floor. The darts are not cut into the bodice as one might expect. Rather the wide end of the dart, along the front opening of the bodice, is a 1-1½” “pinch” of fabric held in place by a running stitch. Both the outside of the bodice and its self-lining are held in the same “pinch”. This lends credence to the theory that they were for “temporary” when the wearer wasn’t pregnant.

Recently, I have made another replica of the dress incorporating the darts and turning the fabric exactly as in the original. Without the darts, if one holds the waist so that the skirt remains parallel to the floor, the bodice makes a shape that would easily accommodate pregnancy. With the darts in place, the dress conforms to a narrower waist.

The Hanging Sleeves

The sleeves are of a uniquely Irish style. Possibly because of the full sleeves of the léine, the Shinrone gown sleeves are open at the bottom. Similar sleeves on men’s coats of the 17th century have two buttons just above the elbow and another three at the cuff that indicate that the sleeves were sometimes worn partially closed. However, the Shinrone sleeves are only six inches wide (and 19″ long), not wide enough to close around the arm when wearing a chemise. Although the right sleeve is fragmentary, the left sleeve is entirely intact, showing no sign of being only a “piece” of a wider sleeve. The edges of the sleeve piece are cut and fulled to prevent raveling. There are no fasteners on the wrist edge of the sleeve. It has been guessed that the wrist was held closed with some fiber that has not survived. The edge of the sleeve gives no clues. Luke Gernon’s 1620 account of a similar gown indicates that the wristband was made of the same cloth. No evidence of stitching or added cloth at the sleeve edge presently exists.

In order to keep the sleeves from slipping over the side of the arm, a triangular gore is sewn into the shoulder seams. This gore measures 3 inches along the side that attaches to the back, 6½” along the shoulder and 4½ inches where it joins the sleeve (for illustration, see construction section). This rotates the “halfsleeve” so that it lies on top of the arm, not around the side. Therefore, it stays put.

A curious element of the sleeves defies explanation. As you can see from the measurements above, the sleeve is 1½” wider than the triangular gore to which it attaches. This extra width just hangs there. It is partially torn along the grain at the 4½” width. It is not known why this extra width is there or if it originally attached to the bodice. The only feasible explanation for the extra width is that, without it, the sleeves were too narrow to be fashionable. The 17th century men’s coats that bear similar sleeves have no extra width of cloth. The gores that attach them to the back of the jackets are the same width as the sleeve itself. It has been conjectured that this piece was attached to the sides of the bodice and therefore prevented the léine sleeve from showing at the underarm (chemises at the time may have been quite transparent). The stress inherent in such placement would explain the tear in the extant piece. At present, this is the only theory.

Decoration?

Although the Irish were famous for their highly decorated clothing, there is no evidence of these practices on the present example. Contemporary descriptions mention jewels sewn to the front and sleeves of the gown. However, no stitch marks indicating such a practice exist. Although similar gowns may have been thus decorated, the Shinrone gown appears to have been unadorned.

Front Closure

Contemporary evidence shows gowns closed in front by lacing. However, the Shinrone gown has no eyelets or wear marks to indicate the presence of buttons or hooks. Luke Gernon’s description below mentions silver buttons around which the lacing was wound. The absence of stretched or worn fabric where these buttons once may have been indicate that the bodice was laced lightly, not drawn closed as some have assumed. If the Shinrone gown once sported silver buttons they were apparently removed before the dress was discarded in the bog. While examining the gown, small loops of thread were found edging the bodice opening. Not enough was found to make any kind of definitive answer, but it is possible that the opening was laced closed using such loops. Similarly-fastened gowns can be seen in 15th century Dutch paintings of the Madonna and Child.

Also in support of the “lightly laced” theory is the structure of the gown itself. The gown is roughly 38″ around where the skirt joins the bodice. This measurement includes a narrow strip at the bottom of the bodice in the front center. If the gown were drawn to, this double thick and whipstitched piece would stick forward, not only making an unsightly protrusion, but also causing the gown along those few inches to dip sharply forward in front. This theory has been tested. A friend of mine, never having seen the Museum pictures of the gown, put on my replica and pulled the front closed. “Why is this sticking out in front like that?” she asked. I smiled at the results of my experiment (she also tripped over the droopy skirt on her way to the mirror). Drawn closed may have been how Lucas de Heere drew a gown in the 16th century, but the Shinrone gown could not have been worn closed.

It has been put forward that the gown is displayed on a mannequin that is too large for it. Upon close inspection, it can be seen that this is not true. The garment is lightly pinned onto the mannequin. No stretching or distortion of the fabric is evident. Furthermore, the gown would not hang correctly if pulled entirely closed, as demonstrated above.

Today the Shinrone Gown is housed in the National Museum of Ireland for all to view. If you’re in Dublin, stop by Kildare Street and see the real thing.

Contemporary Evidence

There is some evidence supporting the idea that this gown must have been quite a common style. A description of Irish women’s dress in the1620s by Luke Gernon seems to describe the Shinrone gown in precise detail.

I proceed to theyr gowns. Lend me yor imaginacon, and I will cutt it out as well as the tayler. They have straight bodyes, and long wasts, but theyre bodyes come no closer but to the middle of the ribbe, the rest is supplyed with lacing, from the topp of their breasts, to the bottome of theyre plackett, the ordinary sort have only theyr smockes between, but the better sort have a silke scarfe about theyre neck, which they spead and pinne over theyre breasts. On the forepart of those bodyes they have a sett of broad silver buttons of goldsmiths worke sett round about. A sett of those buttons will be worth 40s. Some are worth 5li. They have hanging sleeves, very narrow, but no arming sleeves, other than theyre smocke sleeves, or a wastcoate of stripped stuffe, onely they have a wrestband of the same cloth, and a lyst of the same to ioyne it to their winge, but no thing on the hinder part of the arme least they should weare out theyr elbows. The better sort have sleeves of satten, The skyrt is a piece of rare artifice. At every bredth of three fingers they sew it quite through with a welte, so that it seemeth so many lystes putt together. That they do for strength, they girdle theur gowne with a silke girdle, the tassell whereof must hang downe poynt blanke before to the fringe of theyr peticotes…

In addition, one of Lucas de Heere’s prints pictures a gown not unlike the Shinrone specimen. It also greatly resembles the gown Gernon described. This picture, labeled simply “Irlandoise” or “Irishwoman,” dates from 1575, but it is believed to be based on an illustration from earlier in the century. The gown indeed does resemble the Shinrone with some notable differences. Keep in mind that Lucas de Heere was known to have never visited Ireland and therefore his illustration is a tertiary source at best. It has been stated that he copied his subjects from other illustrations which are now lost. We cannot know how closely he drew his pictures to those supposed originals or if the originals that he copied were themselves done “from life.” All in all, de Heere’s drawings are useful as back-up evidence, but not accurate or reliable enough to answer specific questions about the Shinrone gown.

These two references are the basis upon which the Shinrone gown has been dated. No scientific dating techniques were performed. It is conceivable that the extant gown is of an earlier or later date than the descriptions above or that these descriptions refer to another type of gown entirely. Please bear this in mind.

Buy an authentic pattern for the Shinrone gown here.

Bibliography

  1. Dunlevy, Mairead. Dress in Ireland. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989.
  2. McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.
  3. McGann, Kathleen. Unpublished notes made at the National Museum of Ireland, July 1998, and July 1999.

All sketches in this article are traced from pictures taken at the National Museum of Ireland.

Special thanks to the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin for allowing me access to the gowns, Mary Hysong for her spinning and weaving expertise (and her unfailing encouragement), Patricia Whealan for measuring and re-measuring painstakingly, Sheree Krasley for recording the data, Jennifer Markham for proofreading the text, and Nancy Lynch for challenging and inspiring me.

Biography

Kass McGann is a historical clothing researcher specializing in Irish, Highland Scottish and Japanese dress. She was invited to County Offaly, Ireland, to speak at the annual Shinrone Festival in August 1999. In her spare time, she designs web pages.


© 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.

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