Fashion Cultures and Histories essay on a topic relating to fashion and identity.

Introduction to Fashion Cultures and History

How Catholic influence in Ireland has shaped Identity and Fashion in the country.

Molly Byrne 20003218

The link between fashion and identity has been around for centuries.
Fashion as described by Elizabeth Wilson in her book Adorned in Dreams is ‘Dress, in which the key feature is the rapid and continual changing of styles’ (Wilson E. 1985) She distinguishes fashion from dress by the way that clothing and style change based on aesthetic rather than just practical reasons.
Fashion is constantly changing throughout the ages based on the society and social issues etc. of the time period. We dress ourselves in order to fit into the culture at the time, or to rebel against it. Our identity is shaped by different cultural factors such as age, gender, sexuality, race, class, and religion. The way we dress ourselves shows how we want to communicate our identity to those observing us, and ‘wither the use of our sight, we immediately form impressions about people when we encounter them face to face’ ( Dwyer-McNulty S. 2014)
From people wearing elaborate jewellery and tattoos during the Celtic period, to young people wearing rosaries today, Fashion and dress in Ireland has always expressed and been influenced by the lived experience of the people at the time.

In this essay I will be looking at the way the influence of Catholicism in Ireland has shaped Irish identity, and in turn, the Fashion of the country.
Some key theories I will be looking at include; religious identity, women in Irish society, modesty, uniformity and youth rebellion.
Chris Barker’s text ‘Youth, Style and Resistance’ from ‘Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice’ studies resistance in youth culture which I will be referencing.
I will be looking at the concept of forced uniformity and how that impacts identity, as explored by Jennifer Craik, in her book ‘Uniforms Exposed, from Conformity to Transgression’
Sally Dwyer-McNulty’s book ‘Common Threads, A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism’, looks in depth at the traditional clothing worn by Catholics in America, much of which reflects the cultural values found in Ireland.
Elizabeth Wilson’s book ‘Adorned in Dreams’ looks at the cultural and social history of fashion.
As well as reading academic texts I also carried out my own research by having conversations with friends and extended family about their experiences and drew from my own personal history.

Religion is an ‘institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’ as defined by the Merrim-Webster dictionary.
There is a huge link between religion and identity. Being part of a religion gives you common rituals, sacred texts, holidays and gathering places. It also gives each person a code on how to behave, including the ways in which people dress. Being part of a religion creates a community of people with shared beliefs and creates a culture around these.

Religious influence on fashion can be seen in multiple ways. From the following of religious tradition or guides in scriptures on what should be worn by followers of a certain religion, to people who have been brought up in a certain religion rejecting the religious garments or dress guides. There are also groups of people who, having been brought up religiously, and had forms of religious dress forced on them, have decided to reclaim those religious symbols as a form of empowerment linked to their identity, after rejecting them.

To fully understand the link between Catholic identity and Irish fashion we must look at the history of Catholicism in Ireland. Christian religion was introduced to Ireland at some point before the 5th century, around 400 AD, and ever since that point it has been intrinsically linked to ‘Irishness’ as a concept. From Irish mythology being rewritten to include Christian symbolism in the Early Christian period of history, to Catholicism and the Irish language being outlawed after the Plantations of the 16th and 17th century, to the Magdalene Laundries scandal of recent years, the Catholic religion has always been closely linked with Irish identity.
Catholicism is so entwined with Irish culture and society that it would be impossible to say it has not also influenced Irish fashion and dress.

In the words of Sally Dwyer-McNulty, ‘Catholics had a long history of expressing themselves to those around them through the language of clothing or sacramentals worn on the body’ (Dwyer-McNulty S. 2014) Catholics have historically used clothing to express their faith and conform with the orders of the church. However as with all garments, the meaning can be interpreted differently depending on who is looking at the wearer. Some Catholic garments traditionally worn by women in Ireland include mantillas, rosaries and other religious jewellery including cross necklaces and miraculous medals.
The mantilla is a Catholic lace veil traditionally worn during mass to cover the hair. White lace is worn by young unmarried women, and black lace by married women and widows. As seen in many religions, it is seen as respectful for women to use veils to cover their hair. ‘Restrictive dress for girls elucidated (and continued to illustrate) the Catholic Church’s view both that girls needed to be guided more due to their propensity to commit sins of vanity and that girls and females in general were in a position to be controlled’ (Dwyer-McNulty S. 2014) This tradition of head covering was not only used at mass. Irish women (traditionally married or mothers) would wear headscarves to preserve modesty. This garment became synonymous with the Irish Mammy trope.

Fig1. My grand mother wearing a net hair covering to my aunt’s christening.

Another well known symboltrope in Irish fashion is the Catholic school girl. ‘While ostensibly uniforms signify order, conformity, and discipline, uniforms also are a fetishised cultural artefact embodying ambiguous erotic impulses and moral rectitude.’ (Craik J. 2005)
After the National School system was set up in 1831, 97% of schools were denominational (religious) by the 1870s with almost a million children enrolled. With the introduction of secondary education for girls in the 1860s came the infamous Catholic school uniform. These were run by nuns and had strict dress codes. The girls’ modest dressing reflected ‘the discipline that women religious sought to display on the outside and cultivate on the inside.’ (Dwyer-McNulty S. 2014) School uniforms have been viewed as a way for the church to control and subjugate girls ‘the role of uniforms – and the minute details of how they should be worn [are related] with other training about the highly refined control of the bodies, minds and even language of girls.’(Craik J. 2005)
Even though over a century has passed since then, Irish society’s views on women and the way they dress is still inherently sexist and outdated.

Fig 2. shows my aunt in her Catholic school uniform in the 1970’s and fig 2 shows the uniform of my own Catholic secondary school today. The fact that uniforms haven’t changed in over 40 years shows the extent to which Catholic identity and dress is still rooted in Irish culture. This shows how ‘uniforms are all about control not only of the social self but also of the inner self and it’s formation’ (Craik J. 2005)

In both photos the traditional plaid skirt can be seen, pleated as to make it harder to shorten. Paired with long socks, sensible shoes and a plain jumper and shirt. Makeup and any excessive jewellery were banned, as well as any unnatural hair or nail colours. Effectively banning any forms of self expression available to teenage girls and creating ‘female submission, subordination, and denial of self’ (Dwyer-McNulty S. 2014), as the church wanted.

As a result of being forced to conform and cover up as teenagers, many young adults in Ireland today have chosen to rebel against the uniformity of the clothes we had to wear. Out of a poll of 85 of my peers 65% said that growing up in a country heavily influenced by Catholicism has affected their fashion. Most said that even though growing up they felt shame or anxiety around dressing the way they wanted or showing skin, because of the way we were conditioned in school, this made them want to push back against these norms even more. This is something I have definitely experienced in my own fashion too.
Fig 4. shows one of my friends wearing religious inspired jewellery with crosses, while dressing in a way that many older Catholics would consider promiscuous or provocative.

Another element of the way Catholic identity has influenced Irish fashion is in young people reclaiming Catholic symbols. Due to the way Catholicism has been pushed on young people and due to the restrictive views of the church, many young people, especially young women and queer people, have to deal with Catholic guilt and trauma. For some people, wearing religious symbols out of the intended context is empowering. ‘Resistance issues from relationships of power and subordination where a dominating culture is seeking to impose itself on subordinate cultures.’ (Barker C. 2012) Some people also find it comforting, because even though it was oppressive, it was still a part of their identity growing up.

Amongst the younger generation of Irish people reclaiming Catholic symbolism and identity, is fashion designer Simone Rocha. She designs luxury ready to wear garments partly inspired by her Irish heritage, and in her words in a backstage interview with Vogue magazine, ‘Of course, you can’t look at Ireland and not be influenced a little bit by Catholicism.’

Fig 5 and 6 are from Rocha’s 2020 Autumn Winter show during London fashion week. This collection was inspired by life on the Aran islands off the coast of Galway, and the play ‘Riders to the Sea’ by JM Synge about life there. The play touches on themes of Catholic faith, and the contrast between tradition and modernity, both of which can be seen very clearly in Rocha’s collection. In Fig 5. the garment features the name of Saint Malachy, the patron saint of prophesy, and embroidered Sacred Heart motifs, both of which are very Catholic symbols, being used outside of the traditional context. It is seen as a form of resistance when ‘Objects that already carry sedimented symbolic meanings are re-signified in relation to other artefacts in a new context.’ (Barker C. 2012) or in this case reclamation and acknowledgment. Fig 6. shows a white dress styled with a Chantilly lace veil. This garment is reminiscent of traditional Catholic veiling practices, including holy communion outfits, mantillas, wedding veils, and of course the figure of the veiled Virgin Mary.

Through my research into Irish Catholic identities, I think it is very clear how this influences fashion. By looking a in a broader context at religion generally I could see the way religious identity will influence a person’s dress and sense of fashion. The understanding of the background of Catholicism in Ireland can greater help the reader see this connection. I have explored the way Catholic associated garments were worn traditionally and then the way young people have reclaimed various pieces. Looking at the role of school uniforms and the oppressive ideals of the church has further contextualised this.

Reference list

Barker, C. (2008). Cultural studies : theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage.

Craik, J. (2005). Uniforms exposed : from conformity to transgression. Oxford ; New York: Berg.

Dwyer-Mcnulty, S. (2018). COMMON THREADS : a cultural history of clothing in american catholicism. The University of North Carolina Press.

EmerO'Reilly-Hyland (2013). 100 years of Irish fashion in 10 key pieces. [online] The Irish Times. Available at:

Merriam-Webster (2019). Definition of RELIGION. [online] Available at:

Mower, S. (2020). Simone Rocha Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear Fashion Show. [online] Vogue. Available at:

Wilson, E. (1985). Adorned in dreams : fashion and modernity. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

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