Irish-American Fashion: Traditional Irish Costume

Oh, to march in the St. Paddy's Parade dressed like this!

Oh, to march in the St. Paddy’s Parade dressed like this!

Costumes in America just now are too often terrible. Just awful. They’re these rented affairs made of petroleum-based fabrics and they’re too costumey, like an adult version of those plastic bibs and masks that children used to wear on Halloween. And St. Paddy’s seems to get the worst of it — all these oversized leprechauns and rubbery novelty top hats and “Kiss Me I’m Drunk” t-shirts. Admittedly, there are a few men wandering about in well-made kilts, and pipe bands dress quite elegantly, and we still expect our parade officials to dress in tuxedo and sash. But the rest of us look like refugees from a cheap Mardi Gras shop where a green paint can exploded.

In the meanwhile, at Octoberfest, you’ll see increasingly large numbers of young German-Americans proudly parading about in lederhosen and Tyrolean hat as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And these are well-made outfits! Oh, it is to be jealous.

Well, it’s too late for this year, but let’s all make a commitment that next year we will do better. I have a few suggestions, and let me start with a costume that vintage greeting cards would have us believe is traditional Irish garb. It isn’t, really — the Irish did wear swallow-tailed coats at one time, but the version we see in American representations is decidedly an Irish-American invention. But so is the modern St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and so this costume seems perfect.

1. Green Top Hat, Campbell Cooper, £29.99

Top hat o'the morning.

Top hat o’the morning.

Costume shop top hats are terrible thing — steer clear of them. You’re going to want to proper item, well-made by a proper hatter, and you’re going to want it to be green. If you can find a silk one, that’s best of all, but this green felt version has just the right jaunty style.

2. Green Swallowtail Coat, LolitaGear, $104.99

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Nothing says faux-Irish like a green swallowtail coat.

This is probably the definitive costume article, the green swallowtail coat. The leprechauns in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” wore them, George M. Cohan’s father wore one when performing an Irish act in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and you should too. This one from Lolitagear is fine indeed, but you might consider taking it to a tailor and having some Celtic appliques added (like this one!), just to take it over the top.

3. Double-breasted gold vest, River Junction, $79.95

There's a thin line between Irish gentleman and riverboat gambler.

There’s a thin line between Irish gentleman and riverboat gambler.

There is a tendency to go overboard with green with these costumes, but our Irish gentleman in the St. Patrick’s card at the top of the page had quite smartly gone with a yellow double-breasted vest to offset his coat. You need not choose yellow — the Irish are also often shown wearing red, and that would be quite a tasteful choice too.

4. High collar dress shirt, Gentleman’s Emporium, $57.95

It's not formalwear unless it constricts the neck.

It’s not formalwear unless it constricts the neck.

Nothing says “dressed for an event” like a shirt with a high collar; you’re going to need starch to keep this looking right.

5. Formal green Victorian ascot, Elegant Ascot, $28.00

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In case you want to look like an Irish villain from “Wild Wild West.”

Our man above has a full ruffled neck thingy, and that’s a bit much to ask anyone to wear — even Oscar Wilde seemed to find that sort of thing a bit much, and instead favored an ascot. We shall do them same, and here is a good place to show some more green.

6. Fly-front knee breeches, Jas. Townsend and Sons, $115

Pants fine enough to do a jig in.

Pants fine enough to do a jig in.

The fellow in the card at the top of the page seems to be wearing billowy silk breeches, and those you might have to have made special. In the meanwhile, these lovely linen breeches will do the trick.

Our image doesn’t show what our man is wearing below the knees, and so you have a few choices here. You might go with knee-length riding boots, although, if you plan to walk in a parade, this might make it a bit of a slog. I have also seen images of men in white dress shoes, green stockings, and long spats, which seemed somehow elegant and a bit fetishy, and so that would be my recommendation. Green in the streets, keen in the sheets, I always say.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.