I am here to praise Irish dance costumes, although I know there is some controversy about them. They are, it must be said, famously expensive, and there is a perfectly valid critique that they place an unfair financial burden on dancers (especially female dancers), for whom Irish dance can already be prohibitively expensive.
There are also charges that the current style of costume, which tends to make me think of Shirley Temple dressed for competitive figure skating, isn’t really Irish. Dancer John Cullinane, who has authored books on the subject of Irish dance, was unambiguous about this, telling the New York Times that “there’s nothing Irish about them.”
He’s probably right, in a literal sense. The Irish are a notoriously unshowy people, and so traditional Irish dance costumes were very much like Sunday church clothes, sometimes with shawl, brooch, and Celtic embroidery. This doesn’t matter to me, as this is an Irish-American blog, and Americans are, if anything, showy. Here are a few Irish-Americans: Jim Brady, who festooned himself with so many diamonds they became his nickname; Elvis Presley, who favored spangled jump suits; German-Irish country star Porter Wagoner claimed to have 52 cowboy suits made by Nudie Cohn, covered in rhinestones and decorative stitching. We are not a reserved people.
And so, despite its cost and inauthenticity, I like the modern Irish dance costume. It may or may not be American — I have sometimes seen it referred to as an American innovation, but Irish dance exploded after Riverdance, becoming an enormous, rapidly evolving international phenomenon. As a result, the moment when an where the wigs, the tanning, and the rhinestones made their first appearance isn’t well documented. But if it isn’t an American innovation, by God it feels American, and Americans sure have taken to it.
I am going to focus on women’s dance costumes, as I have done plenty of entries so far about men’s Irish-American fashion, and because men’s Irish dance costumes haven’t evolved quite as fantastically as women’s. Get on it, men.
Now, I’m not here to tell you how to get a costume for competition. I simply wish to discuss the elements, if someone wants to incorporate them into their everyday fashion. It’s not enough to be fabulous when high-kicking a jig; one must strive for it always.
1. Tightly-coiled curls wig, $60-$150
It used to be that female dancers would sleep all night in curlers, which strikes me as an unfair request to make of a dancer. Fortunately, technology stepped in, and there is a nearly endless choice of curled wigs at an astonishing range of prices.
There are some lovely Irish-themed tiaras out there, often made of precious metals with exquisite Celtic knots woven in, and I think those would look just right on anybody at any time. However, I can’t help but like the magnificently tacky “Irish princess” tiaras that appear in shops every St. Patrick’s Day. If you have the money, I think it would be delightful to get one of these custom-made using silver and semi-precious stones, although a cursory look at online bids for the job will have it costing somewhere between $350 and $500. But you’re worth it.
3. The dress
Modern dance dresses tend to be short and one-piece, and they fan out at the bottom like a kilt. They also can be enormously expensive, so I would like to offer an alternative for everyday wear: A kilt skirt and jacket top. These can be suitably bedazzled or have appropriate appliques added. `
There’s something especially appealing about this look, as it recalls the uniform of Irish-American honor guards for police and fire departments.
4. Stockings and shoes
If you were to actually wear this ensemble for dance, you would want to get some appropriate shoes, and there are two types: soft shoes, which are very much like ballet shoes, and reel shoes, which are like heavy leather tap shoes. The latter were typically worn by boys and men, but, for fashion’s sake, I would encourage big clunky shoes or boot with oversized soles, mostly because of the sheer drama of the thing.
Dancers often go with spray tans to give their legs a deep, unnatural, and decidedly un-Irish tan, but many wear stockings instead. Pick the look that you feel goes best with the ensemble, although, frankly, if you’re decided to wear the “Irish princess” tiara, you might as well go ahead and wear some of those leprechaun-striped stockings they sell in novelty stores. With this outfit, it’s probably going to end up looking punk rock.