Tag Archives: A History of Costume

Undressing Saint Patrick

17 Mar
Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick wearing the robes of a Catholic cleric, complete with mitre – a headdress that wasn’t invented until almost 200 years after his death.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain in 387 and died on March 17, 461 in County Down, Ireland. He is the man who brought Christianity to Ireland and drove out the “snakes” (likely pagan Druids). March 17 is St. Patrick’s day, celebrated world-wide by Irish and non-Irish alike. (Find more about St. Patrick here.)

We recognize St. Patrick as man with a white beard in clerical robes and a mitre, carrying a crook, sometimes with a shamrock in his other hand. What’s interesting about this common image is that no one really knows what he looked like – there are no visual records of St. Patrick before the 13th century – 800 years after he died.

“The manner in which he has come to be depicted represents the culmination of over a thousand years of art, influenced by various texts and evolving belief systems, both localized and international,” says the Irish Royal Academy. In other words, his image has been appropriated by artists who depicted the saint in familiar and contemporary terms that people could relate to.

Until the 19th century, few Irish could read, unless they were monks and clergy, so people were educated through image and symbolism through the church. People of St. Patrick’s time would have understood the Catholic symbolism associated with St. Patrick’s garb, which was rife with allegory.

Clerical costume of the fifth century

Maewyn Succat – Saint Patrick’s real name, wears liturgical garb that has long, traditional associations with the Catholic Church. 20,000 Years of Fashion by Francois Boucher, says that clothing during the early Christian era was simple, and clothing was not gender-specific. “Originally the only difference between the elements of religious costume and those of lay clothing was the use of more sumptuous materials for the former.”

Clerics adopted fine linens and silks for their liturgical costume, and there was “an ever-increasing fondness for rich-coloured materials, especially among the Angles and Saxons,” according to A History of Costume, “and beautiful trimmings, gay braid, and fringes came into fashion”.

Catholic clerical wear has not evolved much since the early Christian era, so mostly, St. Patrick’s image is correct to period, but there are inauthentic – i.e. appropriated – features in our common understanding of what St. Patrick looks like. Let’s start at the top.


An Annunciation scene worked on a mitre from about 1400; pearls and silver-gilt motifs on silk.


The first and most obvious appropriation of St. Patrick is his headdress. The mitre, the pointed hat split in half that bishops and popes wear, is what we have come to associate with the saint, but mitres didn’t appear until the seventh century (St. Patrick died in the mid-fifth century).

In fact, Boucher says that bishops first wore a gold circlet lined with a crown, and in the 12th century, “the crown split into two lobes, one on either side… by the end of the 12th century, the points had moved around 90 degrees and were now back to front.” It hasn’t changed much since that time, though mitre heights have varied.

Were St. Patrick true to his period of the fifth century, he may have worn a hood or a soft skull cap instead of the mitre, but that St. Patrick is bestowed with this head piece that symbolized power in the church, indicates that the saint was highly regarded.

Pall (or Pallium)

The Y-shaped band of wool worn over the chasuble (below) is the pall, drenched in allegory that features six embroidered crosses to symbolize the nails used in Christ’s crucifixion.


The chasuble is a circular garment with an opening for the head, and adopted by the clergy in the fifth century.  The saint’s chasuble is green, as expected (more on this later), and lined with golden fabric – a visual indication of St. Patrick’s position in the Catholic church.

According to Costume in England by F.W. Fairholt, “The chasuble signifies the robe of Christ, which is the Church. It is ample and closed on all sides, to show forth the unity and fullness of the true faith. The fore-part represents the state of the Church before the Passion of Christ; the back, the Church under the Gospel.”

At the same time, Fairholt suggests that the chasuble is symbolic of the purple garment that was put on Jesus Christ before he was crucified. Either way, the chasuble was heavy with meaning to Catholics of the early Christian era.

Dalmatic (or Dalmatica if you’re Roman)

Under the saint’s chasuble is his gold embroidered dalmatic. According to Fairholt, the dalmatic was associated with an immaculate life, or “of bountifulness towards the poor, because of its large and broad sleeves.” St. Patrick’s dalmatic is blue, the colour of the sky, which, to people of fifth century Britain, indicated divine contemplation.


According to 20.000 Years of Fashion, the pall began life as a large, draped Roman cape and narrowed over time to become the stole. Members of the Catholic clergy still wear long, embroidered stoles, draped around the neck.

Allegorically, the stole symbolizes the cords with which Christ was bound upon his crucifixion.


Saint Patrick’s base layer looks much like the dalmatic, but the alb is a long robe that reaches the feet. According to Costume in England, the alb was “not invariably made of linen cloth…[and] not necessarily white. It was originally intended to indicate the white garment which Pilate placed upon the Saviour after he had despised and mocked him.”

The alb symbolized purity and innocence. St. Patrick’s alb in the illustration appears to be white linen, but looking closer, it appears to have golden threads woven into the fabric. To Christians of St. Patrick’s era, gold signified purity, dignity, wisdom, and glory.


Our saint is probably wearing buskins, soft embroidered leather slippers of the fifth century.


The bishop’s crook is another ”recent” addition. Bishops carried the crook, a decorated shepherd’s hook, alluding to Christ the shepherd, in the 12th century.


St. Patrick

St. Patrick in crimson and a short mitre with lappets  – the white flaps on the head piece – worn during the 12th century) from a stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

We expect St. Patrick to wear green because he is the patron saint of Ireland and green is synonymous with Ireland. In the top illustration, St. Patrick’s chasuble is green, the colour that symbolized cheerfulness and the goodness of God and of the Resurrection at the time he lived. But this, like the mitre, is something that has more of a modern association.

When clerics decided to dress in fine fabrics, they also dyed their clothing in colours symbolic to the early Christian faith. After an image search for St. Patrick, he can be seen dressed in green, also in blue, crimson, white, and yellow.

The Smithsonian magazine features what they believe to be the earliest depiction of St. Patrick from the thirteenth century: a man who wears not a mitre and cleric’s robes, but a simple, hooded, blue monk’s robe.

According to the Irish Journal, “Ireland’s history with the colour blue is largely related to its colonial history, but there are older associations too – Flaitheas Éireann, the embodiment of Irish sovereignty in mythological times (a sort of Irish answer to Uncle Sam), wore blue.”

When Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he gave Ireland its own coat of arms:  a golden harp on a blue background, and in 1783, “George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as St. Patrick’s Blue,” according to the Smithsonian. (Read more about the blue\green of Ireland.)

The colour green seems to be a differentiating colour linked to more recent Irish politics and independence, which eventually became associated with the Catholic population of southern Ireland. Green appears to be linked to Irish nationalism of the nineteenth century, “when the colour was adopted as a more striking way of separating Ireland from the various reds or blues that were now associated with England, Scotland and Wales,” the Irish Journal says.

So the St. Patrick that we imagine is actually a mixed collection of liturgical garments from different periods, and not based in the reality of his life. However, St. Patrick’s day is about celebration, and the splendor of his green robes, his flowing beard, the tall, fancy hat, and the golden crook gives us a more appealing image to raise our glasses to, rather than toasting a barefoot, blue-robed, tonsured monk with a chin beard.

Happy St. Patrick’s day!



25 Aug

I’m updating the presentation book I use to show potential clients the kind of work that I do, using visual collage and fabric swatches to illustrate appropriate dress for different work and social situations as my tools. I created the original collage sheets about seven years ago and redoing them now, I see that there have been very few lasting major changes in menswear since then, save for the slimmer suit cuts and the introduction of gingham.

Changes in menswear are historically very slow, sometimes with little changes over very long periods of time, but during rare moments, very swift changes to wardrobe take place, like during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), a period of intense political and social upheaval, where thousands of aristocrats were guillotined during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.

I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), set during the French Revolution last night and noticed that the period costumes looked suspiciously plain but very “put”, or deliberate, and wondered why. The thing about costume is that the clothing of any period is a reflection of society at that particular time, politically (think trade routes, for example – what dye stuffs and fabrics are available for import at the time), economically (who can afford what), and socially (who affords what sorts them out into classes).

The Revolutionary wardrobe

During the years 1791-92 – years so fateful for the French monarchy – all ornamentation disappeared from clothing, and although earlier fashionable styles continued for a time, even the last relics of former days vanished when the Reign of Terror opened. Rich and poor alike were careful to dress as negligently as possible, for anyone whose outward appearance brought him under suspicion of being an aristocrat went in danger of his life… Ostentation in dress was not in accord with Republican sentiment.

-Carl Köhler, A History of Costume

A ribbon cockade - a symbol of the people's movement.

Nobles who manged to last through the Reign of Terror had to blend in with the common people so as to not be noticed, so fine materials like silk and velvet had to be abandoned – common cotton and wool were the people’s materials and fabrics of the Revolution. Bright colours for the very poor and still-starving people of the Revolution wouldn’t exactly be appropriate, so darker colours prevailed, save for the patriotic blue, white, and red cockades that decorated hats and frock coats.

The tail coat was born in France - when coat waists rose up, the front skirts of the coat disappeared, making way for "tails".

Köhler suggests that men’s dress coats were first affected by the Revolution and several styles were worn at the same time. Coats had high stiffened collars that stood around the wearer’s neck and sides of his face and the cuffs that went half way up the sleeve forty years before were lost to a more modest half-cuff. Cut-away military officer’s dress coats were seen everywhere and middle class men wore open, double-breasted, square-cut English riding coats with two rows of buttons. Soon, the waist on the riding coat rose up and rounded, and the breast flaps became enormous. Later, the same coat became a single row of buttons, no longer double- breasted but fastened with hooks where the two fronts met.

Linen fall-front breeches.

In 1792, there were no zippers, so tailors used strings and buttons to close clothing. Men wore slim-fitting, high-waisted fall-front breeches (brit-ches) that fastened below the knee and were either laced or stitched up the back. The flap at the front of the breeches unbuttoned and dropped down to reveal a buttoned waist band holding the garment around a man’s waist.

Knee hose were worn over the calf and under high-top boots, ordinarily worn by  middle classes with the English dress coat, but adopted by the French Revolution. Hats with high crowns were in fashion, taking over for the showiness of the large wigs that were so popular during the late King Louis XVI’s reign, and the bicorn hat, the two-pointed headpiece made famous by Napoleon, was introduced to French society during this period. Men’s natural hair was arranged in loose short curls at the sides and back of the head and the front curled high, though small wigs with a single row of curl could still be seen.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Under the frock coat was the waistcoat, long and double-breasted with high lapels, pockets, and decorated with two rows of buttons. Under the waistcoat was the shirt, full cut, and made of cotton or linen. Shirts of the period were often ruffled down the front or worn with a jabot, something of a lace bib worn around the neck. A length of silk or heavy cotton muslin made up the cravat (also known as a neckcloth, forerunner of the modern necktie) which was wrapped around the neck two or more times and tied at the throat in a soft bow. The full shirt sleeves gathered into a wristband (cuff) with deep ruffles, often made of lace.

Leslie Howard played  Sir Percy Blakeney and the Scarlet Pimpernel in the aforementioned film. Blakeney, an 18th century English noble, leads a double life, appearing as an aristocratic dandy who is secretly part of an underground effort (Band of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to free members of French nobility from the Reign of Terror. Sir Percy constantly arranges his cravat, reminds everyone in court that he is the go-to man for matters of fashion, and voices not-so-glowing comments about other people’s clothing.

Upon inspection of the King of England’s new set of clothing, he says, “Look at that puny sleeve, a dishrag of lace. It looks like the lining hanging down…. it’s as ugly as a parson’s widow! Open up your sleeve, man, let your ruffles take the air, let them flow and ripple, so that when his Royal Highness takes snuff, it will be a swallow’s flight.”

This kind of  foppish attitude sounds an awful lot like Beau Brummel (1778 – 1840), the famous and fashionable English dandy who, among other things, changed menswear forever by bringing long trousers into permanent fashion. Brummel stressed the cut of the garment and the quality of the fabric and discouraged fancy trim and bright colors that were popular in the late 18th century.  It is said that Brummel suggested gentleman take on more subtle and subdued colour schemes and leave the colours for the ladies (and this man’s opinion still rings true over 200 years later). I have a feeling that Pimpernel’s writer, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, wrote Brummel into Sir Percy’s character –  I can’t imagine who else could make Percy’s sartorial dictatorship so charming.

Les Incroyables

The people’s movement to banish anything associated with aristocracy had a backlash itself in the form of Les Incroyables, the unbelievables, or the incredibles. This group of young people pushed styles to their extremes  and were famous for wearing short waistcoats, tight, high-waisted frock coats with huge breast flaps, and breeches “tight to the point of indecency”, one of my sources says. Their high boots were lined with contrasting fabric that were turned over at the top, and they curled and scented their hair with musk as a revolt against the plain fashion of the Revolution. They came to rise after the fall of Robespierre and were known as the White Terror – angry mobs of dandies, possibly from working class backgrounds who may or may not have supported the Revolution.

Aileen Ribeiro, in Fashion in the French Revolution, says that the political sympathies of Les Incroyables are not clear, leading her to believe that the implications of this dandy movement seems to be that fashion is more important than ideology.

In 1792, the costume reflects the times as usual. Within a ten-year period, the changes in fashion were so erratic, that to me, seem to be a reflection of the confusion of the period. During the Reign of Terror, bourgeois costumes of gorgeous, brightly coloured stuffs, accessorized by pieces made of precious metals and jewels, were replaced with more somber fibers of the earth made into plain garments of the people, sending the message of equality for all.