Children’s Clothing in Modern Ireland

By Mary Hatfield (

One of the many sources that historians of childhood use to gain insight into childhood in the past is clothing. How children were dressed, and what was considered fashionable for children manifest something of the cultural ideas and values of a particular historical moment. For example, in contemporary culture we distinguish boys and girls by dressing them in blue and pink, we also see teenagers emulating the styles of their favourite music band or popular celebrities. Dressing a certain way can signify our membership in a religious community or our allegiance to a favorite sports club.

In a similar way the material culture of the past indicates how people visually signified the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and help us to understand the length and significance of each of these life stages.  

Phillipe Ariés, the famous historian of childhood, argued that medieval society in France did not greatly distinguish between childhood and adulthood as different periods of the lifespan. Based on evidence from portraiture and artwork, he observed that children were dressed as ‘miniature adults’. He argued that this suggested very little separation between child and adult social worlds, with children becoming part of adult society around the age of 7. Many historians have criticized Ariés conclusion, but also recognized that visual and material culture can be an excellent source for gaining access to childrearing practices in the past.

Irish Children’s Clothing

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Irish children’s clothing was generally the responsibility of the mother or nurse. Depending on what a family could afford, women might spin and weave their own wool and then send the fabric to a tailor for making it up into clothes. William Hanbridge, growing up in West Wicklow in the 1810s remarked on his mother’s skill at organising his family’s clothing every year.

‘Nearly everything we wore my mother got manufactured. […] Old Nanny Myers was engaged to spin the wool for the frieze every year. When the yarn was ready it was sent to Jack Flynn to be woven and when woven then to the dyers in Donard who before dying sent it to the tuckmill. It came home a beautiful light drab which was easily soiled. Nearly all the Irish counties had different coloured friezes so that each man wherever he went was known by the colour of his coat. All the rest of the wool for blankets, flannels, stockings &c was spun by mother. For several days after the frieze was brought home Joe Gougher the tailor had a busy time of it, as there were a father and five sons.’[1] [William Hanbidge, Memories of West Wicklow, 1813-1839 (Dublin, 2005)]

Hanbridge identified how each county had traditional patterns and colours for clothing. Lydia Jane Leadbeater, travelling through Kerry in 1845, also remarked on the local’s choice of colours; dark blue frieze was used for most items of clothing, and women typically chose red petticoats and green gowns. [Lydia Jane Leadbeater Fisher, Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry, the Year 1845 (Dublin, 1847).]

This tradition of handmade clothes carried on into the 1930s and 1940s, Irish women’s magazines had regular columns for publishing patterns of knitted children’s clothes. From autobiographical sources we know that many women continued to make most of their family’s clothes until the 1970s. Although in the twentieth century fabric could be bought readymade and sewing machines made the job more efficient.

Model Housekeeping, March 1936.

Artwork from the early nineteenth century

Paintings and drawings can be a rich source for understanding how children were dressed in the past. The Brocas Family, James Henry, Samuel, William and Henry, made many sketches of Irish children during the course of their careers, some were elaborate and time intensive portraits, while others seem to be quickly drawn sketches from life. From these it is possible to glean popular styles and patterns. In this image we see young girls at work, carrying baskets on their heads with light shawls draped around their shoulders.

James Henry Brocas, (1790-1846) Two girls with baskets on their heads, a man with a basket and a dog, NLI Ref PD 2124 TX 1.

Infancy to Childhood

William Brocas sketch, National Library of Ireland, PD 2043 TX 12F

Newborn infants were put into long gowns which extended past an infant’s feet as a way of keeping in extra warmth. When infants began crawling around these long gowns became impractical and at the age of eight or nine months infants received shorter gowns which allowed greater freedom of movement. Petticoats worn with a short bodice and pantaloons were common for boys and girls, and thought to be the least constrictive for children’s activities, and pictured here in a sketch by William Brocas.

For the first four to seven years of life boys and girls were dressed in the same clothes, indicating that age rather than gender was the principal distinction.

When girls entered adolescence, typically around the age of 12-14, their clothing began to reflect their status as women. Young girl’s diaries record them buying ribbons and fabric, noting the latest styles, and commenting on the sartorial choices of their peers. It was common for adults to criticize young girls’ vanity and obsession with appearance.  Henry Brocas drew a caricature of girlhood that featured a young girl exhibiting her latest finery replete with lace and a flowered bonnet, while her mother scowls and labours over a wash bucket. The caption tells us that the mother condemns the girl for leaving her to ‘feed the pigs and break her health’ while a younger sister, dressed in a shorter petticoat and bodice, defends her elder sister, ‘Oh mama don’t scold Mary Anne.’

Henry Brocas, ‘Mother Scolding Her Daughter Dressed in Fine Clothes’ . Image Courtesy of the NLI, Special Collections, 2092 (Tx) 6.

Poverty and clothing

Visitors to Ireland during the nineteenth century all commented on the widespread poverty among Irish peasants. Arthur Young, quoted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, reported in 1824 many people wore the same ‘wretched’ clothing day and night and had no stockings or shoes.

‘The dress of the people is so wretched, that, to a person who has not visited the country, it is almost inconceivable. Shoes or stockings are seldom to be seen on children and often not on grown persons. The rags in which both men and women are clothed are so worn and complicated, that it is hardly possible to imagine to what article of dress they have originally belonged. It has been observed that the Irish poor never take off their clothes when they go to bed; but the fact is, that not only are they in general destitute of blankets, but if they once took off their clothes, it would be difficult to get them on again. Their dress is worn day and night till it literally falls to pieces; and even when it is first put on, it is usually cast-off clothing; for there is not one cottager out of ten who ever gets a coat made for himself. A considerable trade has long been carried on from the west of Scotland to Ireland, consisting of the old clothes of the former country, and to those who know how long all ranks in Scotland wear their dress, there is no more conniving proof of the poverty of the latter county can be given.’

While poor people made do with whatever fabric they could find to keep them warm and dry, middle-class and elite Irish families had more options, and looked to the fashion in London and Paris to inform their sartorial choices. Irish newspapers often reported on what women at Dublin Castle wore, and these styles could then be mimicked.

Richard Rothwell, The Mother’s Pastime, 1844 Source: National Gallery of Ireland.

Richard Rothwell (1800–68) was a prolific portrait painter in Ireland from Offaly. He trained in Dublin at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Exhibited in 1844, his painting of ‘The Mother’s Pastime’ depicts a young mother holding a child on her lap in an idyllic rural setting. Rothwell’s sentimental depiction of a chubby baby and doting mother depicts a clean, well-dressed child in the traditional long gown of infancy. Ostentatious ruffles, and decorative embroidery held little utilitarian value, but they conveyed care; indicating that children were protected and valued. The time that mothers and nurses invested in sewing these garments signalled their proficiency in needlework. The baby smiles endearingly at the viewer while the mother’s attention is directed at her child. The baby is dressed in a white gown with a short, tight fitting bodice and a long voluminous skirt gathered at the waist. The sleeves are off the shoulder and draw attention to a necklace, possibly of coral, around the baby’s neck. The scene imparts a sense of cheerful maternal care, and the product of that care; a well-dressed, healthy, happy baby.

Children’s fashion represents adults’ social and gendered expectations of their children, whilst also depicting the physical world children inhabited during childhood. While images of childhood are always mediated through the vision of the artist, if used critically they constitute a rich source for the history of Irish childhood.

[1] William Hanbidge, Memories of West Wicklow, 1813-1839 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005), 40.


Photography and Irish Children: A Window into Childhood Fashion

By Mary Hatfield (

Photographs provide a rich and detailed source for exploring children’s lives and their place and role in Irish society. Even a brief glance through historic photograph collections indicates the many ways Irish childhood was constructed and experienced across different periods, classes, and localities.

Since the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, professionals and amateurs have utilised commercial and artistic photography to preserve images of children. In the early phase of photography children were posed in settings that echoed the artistic style of painted portraiture; presented in a formal pose with carefully chosen aesthetic details. As the technology of photography became more mobile, cheaper, and widely accessible during the twentieth century images of Irish children began to take on a more informal, unposed style.

The photographic collections of the National Library of Ireland offer a wealth of images of children, at school, at home, in the street, or posed in a photography studio. One of the ways I have been using these collections is to track changes and trends in boys and girls clothing. This post highlights some of my favourite images and how even small details can be indicative of wider cultural ideas.

Boys and girls were dressed in very similar styles in the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. Until the age of 4 or 5 boys and girls wore the same type of long gown. Because of this it can be difficult to distinguish girls and boys in portraits or photographs. An example is this image of Baby Cox, from Tramore in Waterford. Taken in 1899 the image shows the young child in a Tam O’Shanter cap, very popular around the turn of the century for both boys and girls. Accompanying the baby in the pram is small pet dog dressed as a very fluffy rabbit, with a fur muff (easily mistaken for another dog) lying between them!

Baby Cox, Tramore, in cart. Poole Collection, Date: Circa 1899,  NLI, POOLEWP 0789. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

When boys were ready to go to school, usually between the ages of five and eight, they were ‘breeched’, meaning they were given their first pair of trousers. Parents marked out breeching as a momentous occasion. In 1866 John Paul Lawless Pyne, rector of the Church of Ireland in Cloyne recorded in his diary how his wife’s friend stopped in with a pattern of clothes for his son who was to have his first pair of trousers. For him to make note of this in his diary suggests that it was an event in his son’s life worth remembering.

Older boys outside the school, Connemara. 1892. Tuke Collection, Tuke 37. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

In rural Ireland many boys continued to wear petticoats until they were much older than school age, and the practise persisted until the early twentieth century. In 1892, this image was taken of older boys outside their school in Connemara in traditional petticoats and no shoes. This practise has been attributed to the common belief at the time, that fairies had a preference for abducting boy children. Parents dressed their boys in petticoats to confuse the fairies and protect their sons from otherworldly spirits. It may also simply have been far easier to produce handmade petticoats, rather than individual sets of trousers, for families with many children.

Dermot Walshe, 5, Manorhamilton, Model Housekeeping, Jan. 1930.
Eric Geoghegan, two years old, Co. Sligo, Model Housekeeping, Jan. 1930

By the 1930s petticoats for boys were less common, instead boys given playsuits and shorts instead of petticoats for their toddler years, like Dermot Walshe, aged 5, or Eric Geoghegan age 2.  

While many families had limited resources for buying new clothes, people of all classes often spent extra time and money to dress their children for momentous religious occasions. Christening gowns were passed on from generation to generation, adorned with lace and ribbons, and made of high-quality silk and linens. During the late nineteenth century it became common to dress young girls in white for their first communions. Females were required to cover their heads when attending Catholic mass, so young communicants were also given veils. This image depicts a Corpus Christi Procession in Cahir, Tipperary where all the first communicants of the parish were dressed in their best and processed through the streets.

Richard Tilbrook, Communicants and altar boys, Corpus Christi Procession, Cahir, Co.Tipperary, NLI, TIL716. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Because christening gowns and first communion outfits were such valued garments, we have lots of surviving examples of their design at the National Museum of Ireland. When it comes to everyday clothing, there are fewer artifacts to look at, because these garments were likely worn until they were threadbare. Would you save a cloth diaper or shirt that your children had used many times? Probably not. However, this means that it can be hard to know what children wore on a daily basis, because in many photographs children were clearly dressed in their very best!


The family photography firm of A.H. Poole produced portraits of families and individuals in Waterford from 1884 to 1954. Infants, children and families were usually depicted in formally posed scenes. In this image, Violet Poole, the daughter of the photographer, is posed with a large china doll while sitting amidst the grandeur of an ornate chair, potted palm and carpeted floor. This backdrop and set of props appears in many of Poole’s studio portraits. Her dress is at a mid-length appropriate for girlhood. Early childhood petticoats were usually shorter, coming to the knee. Longer dresses, which covered the ankle, would be worn by older, adolescent girls and signalled their transition to womanhood.

Miss Violet Poole, The Mall, full length portrait. Poole Collection, NLI, POOLEWP 0711. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Besides individual family portraits, the Poole firm was contracted to take photographs of local schools and community organizations. In this image, the girls of Rosbercon parish school are featured with Father Coghlan. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary features prominently and would have been an important religious figure for Catholic girls in this period. The Virgin Mary also had local importance as the patron saint of the Rosbercon Church of the Assumption which Father Coghlan was instrumental in founding. Four young boys are in the front row of the photograph, they may have been part of an infant class for both boys and girls.

Group of girls: commissioned by Father Coghlan P.P., Rosbercon, New Ross, NLI, POOLEWP 3236b. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Clarke Collection

J. J. Clarke was a medical student in Dublin from 1897 to 1904 and during that period he captured images of the city and surrounding areas. Due to improvements in processing technology and the increasing portability of the camera, J.J. Clarke’s images captured Dubliners in spontaneous settings. Accompanied by their parents, these girls and boys are dressed for a stroll down the seaside promenade in Bray, Co. Dublin. The young boy wears a sailor suit, a very fashionable item at the turn of the twentieth century, and the young girls’ hair is done in ringlets.

J.J. Clarke, Group of children standing on Bray promenade with two women and one man, NLI, CLAR28. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

If we look closely enough, photographs of children depict monumental changes in the photographic medium as well fundamentally divergent experiences of childhood across historical periods, genders and classes. As cameras and film processing became commercialized and more accessible to the public, representations of children and childhood became correspondingly more diverse, since cameras no longer required a professional to operate them, instead parents could take photos of their children whenever they liked. The visual imagery of childhood is a rich resource for accessing neglected or mundane aspects of Irish life, and the collections at the National Library of Ireland are certainly to be treasured as an irreplaceable record of Irish life.

Further reading

Noel Kissane, ed., Ex Camera 1860-1960: Photographs from the Collections of the National Library of Ireland (Dublin: National Library of Ireland, with assistance from Kodak Ireland Limited, 1990).

Aoife O’Connor, Small Lives: Photographs of Irish Childhood, 1860-1970 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012).

Elinor Wiltshire, If Ever You Go to Dublin Town (Dublin, National Library of Ireland: 1999).