Boys' Irish Step Dancing Costumes

Figure 1.--Boys costumes are fairly standard, either black long pants or blazers and kilts worn with white shirts and ties.

Modern costumes are quite different from those worn historically at feises. The dance costume has changed greatly from traditional garb. Boys and girls wear differentb outfuits. Girls wear dresses. Kilts were introduced fir boys after Witld War I (1920s). Only the boys wear the kilts. Boys doing Irish dance wear either long black pants or kilts. A few beginners wore short panrs. The kilt costumes were worn with jackets in contrasting colors and knee socks. The girls wear dresses, never kilts or knee socks for performances. Some schools do allow the girls to wear kilts for practice. Reserving the kilts for boys is done in part because the kilt was the ancient Celtic male garment and in part so the boys aren't dressed like the girls. This would discourage many younger boys from participating in Irish dancing. Girls commonly wore dresses done in white, saffron, and white. The boys kilts were often the sane, but over time we see the boys wearing costums done in a wide range of colors. Since River Dabnce became popular, mostboys have begun wearing daek long oants for step dancing.

Costume Developments

Traditional garb

The dance costume has changed greatly from traditional garb. In the 1800s, dance masters wore hats, swallowtail coats, knee breeches, white stockings, and black shoes with silver buckles probably similar to today's hard shoes. (The expression "cover the buckle" seemed to mean crossing your feet so rapidly while dancing that the shine of the buckle covered the entire area.) In the 1800s, it is likely that female dancers wore ordinary peasant dresses or perhaps their "Sunday best" and ribbons formed into flowers or crosses.

The Irish revival

After 1893 with the revival of Irish culture, the quest for a traditional Irish costume began. Pipers adopted the kilt which older male dancers later adopted in the 1910s and 1920s. Ironically, little evidence supports the argument that the kilt originated in Ireland; however, it is clearly Celtic. Today, male dancers wear either kilts or long pants. After 1893, the typical dance costume consisted of a hooded cloak over a white dress with a sash. An alternative to the cloak was a shawl. By the 1930s the cloak was dropped and the shawl evolved into the current "shawl" worn on the back of costumes; this shawl linked to the traditional Irish "brath" which was rectangular and attached to the outfit by brooches or pins. Until the 1980s, a cord was often worn around the waist, dangling to the knees, ending with a tassel. Dancers also might wear a small coat or vest. Colors were predominately green, white and saffron on early costumes; they avoided red because of the association with the English. However, due to the availability of local dyes in ancient Ireland, red likely was a traditional color. In recent time, all colors have come into use. Males' costumes are more subdued. Embroidery was relatively minimal on costumes in the early 1900s. However, it has steadily increased in use and complexity. Designs were originally of traditional Irish origin, obtained from the Book of Kells, Irish stone crosses, and chalices. The interlocking and continuous lines in the pattern on the costume symbolize the continuity of life and mankind's eternity. Designers are now introducing modern interpretations and patterns. Another relatively recent innovation is the use of silver and gold thread in the embroidery. Interestingly, there is a justification for this because women's clothing in pre-Norman Ireland contained silver and gold thread embroidery. Early descriptions of dancers sometimes note they were barefoot. Soft shoes were introduced around 1924 for girls dancing reels, jigs, and slip jigs. For a while, boys adopted their use also, but had dropped them by the 1970s. Hard shoes have also evolved in style and technology. Dancers have adopted fiberglass toe tips and hollow heels. This change in materials allows dancers' "clicks" of their heels to become much louder, thus changing the emphasis and content of many dances. (Previously, nail heads were used and dancers inserted coins between sole and toe tip to increase loudness.) Bubble heels were invented around 1985 to augment clicking, but they are now prohibited at feisianna. (Feis rules also require "authentic Gaelic dress" but it is likely that neither current boys' nor girls' costumes would have been seen in Celtic Ireland.)

20th Century

All of the images we have of Irish dance come from the second half of the 20th century. The earliest we have is from the 1960s. We are not sure how boys were costumed earlier, either in Ireland or elsewhere. We have noticed a Boston parade honoring Wrong Way Corrigan crossong the Atlantic in 1938. There were Irish musiscians and dancers in the parade. One group of four dancers had girls dressed in dancing dresses similar to modern ones, but the boys wearing black knickers and black socks. We do not know how common this was. We also do not know what dancers in Irlad wore. It is unlikely they wore knickers.

Figure 2.--The shoulder sashes are worn with a metal pin at the front. Many of the boys wear brightly colored kilts in various combinations with their jackets. The tie usually matches either the jacket or kilt.

Basic Costumes

Boys and girls competing at Irish dance competitions called feises wear quite different dancing comptitions. The girls wear elaborately embroidered dresses. The boys wear jackets, ties, knee socks and usually kilts of contrasting colors. The costume also includes a sash called a ????? worn down the back of the jacket. The boys wear short jackets looking like blazers or sports jackets. Some of the fancier ones have Celtic-styled embroidery on the sleeves. Boys wear solid colored kilts for competitions, unlike the plaid kilts worn by the boys doing Scottish or Highland dancing. Green and safron are common colors, but the boys dance in a wide variety of brightly colored kilts as well as white and black ones. At the more advanced levels of competition, almost all of the boys will dance in kilts. Many boys performing at the beginning levels in American wear long black pants instead of the more traditional kilts. Boys and girls doing the Irish jig wear special blue or white pants sailor suits with caps. The competitors always wear long bell-bottomed pants, never short pants for jig competitions. All costumes are worn with either hard shoes or soft shoes depending on the dance being performed. Boys always wear kneesocks with the kilt, never ankle socks. The knee socks usually match either the jacket or kilt, butbsometimes a third color is worn. Boys doing Irish dancing also do not wear caps, another variance from Highland Dancing. Irish dancers in Ireland and America also wear suspender straps to keep their kilts in place for dancing. Kilts of course do not come with belts. American boys in the 1970s often wore short pants under their kilts, especially made in the same material as the kilt. American boys in the 1980s often wore short pants under their kilts. The shorts popular in the 1980s were cut so short that they were unobtrusive. Modern short pants in the 1990s are to long long to be worn with kilts. Some schools in America allow the younger boys just beginning to peform in short pants and kneesocks during the summer.

Practice Costumes

Schools vary as to practice costumes. Some school set guidelines, but let the children select their own practice clothes. Other schools have specific practice uniforms. One boy describes his practice costume as a white T shirt, navy cotton sweatshirt both with school logos, navy kilt made out of machine washable material rather than wool, and navy knee socks.

Costume Conventions

Boys doing Irish dncing are enrolled in schools run by former championship dancers. Most are very traditionally orinted and believe in maintaing the tradition of the types of costumes they wore when performing. As a result most boys wore kilt costumes with kneesocks. Blazers were commonly wiorn wuith the kilts. Often they were blazer especially dine to be worrn with the kilts, although usually in cintrasting colors. , although a few beginners wore short pants, also with knee socks. A few boys wore long pants, often without the blazer worn with kilts. After RiverDance becanme a hit, wearing long pants became much more common.

Beginner Costumes

A blazer and kilt is quite an expensive costume. Some mothers with younger boys opt for more inexpensive costumes at the beginning stages. Here mothers vary. Some mother elect to buy a blazer and kilt costume from the very beginning because they are so enthusiastic about Irish dancing and are very interested in their children participating. Oher moms just use a standard white shirt and long or short pants at the beginning before they know for sure if their son is interested in seriously persung Irish dance. If he decides that he is not interested then there has been no money wasted on an expensive costume. If the boy decided that he wants to continue with Irish dancing than a an actual costume can be purchased.

School Performance Costumes

There are different kinds of performance costumes. Younger, novice dancers often wear the school costume, although not all schools insist on one. The modst common school costume we have seen are green and safron costumes. We have, however, seen several other color combinations.

School costume

Some schools have a standard performance costume, different ones for the boys and girls. This is particularly common for the younger children involved. At feises large numbers of competitors can thus be seen in the same costumes, and their school is thus easily identifiable. Older children, as they gain experience, are often allowed to wear their own individual costumes for solo performances. Some schools require even experienced dancers to wear the school costume for some competitions or public performances. Many boys, as explained below, might have several diiferent costumes. The younger children at these schools are easily recognizable in their distinctive school costume.

No school costume

Others schools allow the students to choose their own distinctive costumes, even the younger participants. We note an explossion of color with these induividual dancing costumes. The boys seem to have more different coloes, often bright colors, than the girls.

Figure 3.--The kilt is almost always worn by the boys in pair dancing, in part because the girls tend to be more serious about the costuming.

Pair Costumes

There are also pair costumes where 2-4 dancers dancing in pairs competitions wear coordinated costumes. The boys and girls of course have different costumes, but often the colors match or are coordinated. Often these dancers wear a school dancing costume. Mamy of these dancers are the more advanced dancers. Those that also participate in championship competition will have their own solo competition costume.

Solo Costumes

More experienced dancers have solo costumes, although the girls pay much more attention to this than the boys. Girls of course discuss their solo dresses endlessly with each other, their teachers and their mothers. The boys are less concerned with such matters, but like the girls, for championship competitions no longer wear the school costume. Their costumes are not nearly as elaborate ]as the girls, but their blazers might have a little embroidery and the sash they wear over the shoulder can be quite elaborate. The girls when they tire of discussing their own solo dresses also discuss the boys' costumes.


Color is a major element of the Irish step dancing costumes. The costumes worn by the dancers have changed dramatically over the centuries and this has included the color. The formation of the Gaelic League began to set standards for Irish dancing (1893). The standard costume for women abnd girls becanme a white dress with a sash, and a green hooded shawl or cloak worn over the top. Gradually the cloak isappeared, but the shawl remained and developed into the stylised shawl of modern dresses. The sash persisted as a cord tied around the waist. This can still be seen in some school costumes. After World War I we begin to see more color. Dresses began to be done in green, saffron, or white (1920s). These are of ciourse the colors of the Irish flag. Red was not common as there was an association with the British Red Coats which had occupied Ireland. This is when we begin to see boys dancing in kilts. We are not sure about the color of the early kilts. We suspect that they were similar to the colors for the girls' dresses. green, safron, and white. These were commonly the colors chosen by dancuing schools for the school costumes that the younger dancers wear. We are not sure when boys began to wear a greater variety of colors. After World War II in the 1960s we beggin to see boys wearing a wide range of colors including many bright colors. We have seen just about every color used for these costumes, including black, blue, briwn, green, grey, orange, purple, red, white, and yellow, Anout the only color we have not seen is pink. Usually the bright colors were used for the kilts and a neutral color like blue ad greyvused for the blazer-jacket. But we have seen some bright colors used for the jackets as well In these cases a subdued color was just for the kilt. The costumes are always done in contrasting colors for the kilts abd jackets. Often knee socks were chosen in the same color as the kilts or in some cases the jacket. The boys costumes were much more colorful than the girls' costumes. We note dress makers advising girls to select a color that suits their coloration and body stature. For the boys it just seems to be a fun matter that the boys and their mothers like. The younger boys had the nost colorful cstumes. Older boys more commonly wore darker color, more neutral colors. Since the advent of Riverdance, color has been much less of a factor. Kilts have become less common. And the long pants the boys wear without jackets are never done in bright cilors. They are almost aklways navy blue or black.

Individual Experience

One Irish boy provided some details on costuming at his school. Often the older more experienced dancers use several different costumes. One enthusiastic Irish dancer from Dublin describes his different costumes. This appears to be common for boys who have danced for several years and are serious about it. He has four different cos tumes and two types of shoes. He kindly provided this description of his costumes:
New soloI have a new solo costume Grey Jacket, white shirt, maroon tie, maroon kilt, maroon knee length socks, and maroon shawl with a lot of embroidery of Celtic designs on it.
Old solo My old solo costume was a little worse maroon Jacket, white shirt, black tie, white kilt, black socks, and shawl. This costume was a real pain as the kilt got dirty if I sat down on a dirty seat or the floor.
School Costume: My Schools name is the Ryan School of Irish Dancing. We wear black jacket, white shirt, green tie, green kilt, white knee socks, maroon shawl with Celtic designs on it.
Group or couple costume: Black jacket, white shirt, dark green tie, shafron kilt, dark green knee socks, and shafron shawl with Celtic designs on it.
Dance shoes: I have 2 pairs of hard dancing shoes, and 3 pairs of soft shoes, very much like ballet slippers but with a reinforces toe, and a heel shock absorber, I prefer dancing in the hard shoes as there is less leg strain.

Figure 4.--Many routines, even by the younger boys, have fancy footwork and leaps. Usually the boys lined up to compete next carefully study the other routines, but some of the younger boys have less concentration than the girls. Notice the boys at the back are all from the same school.

National Variations

There are no manjor differences between the costumes worn by boys in in Ulster, the Republic, America, and other countries. American boys seem to dance more in long black pants, but not for serious major competitions. Boys in Ulster all wear solid colored kilts just as in Ireland. Scotland boys, of course, wear plaid kilts rather than solid colors. A few American Irish dancers wear plaid kilts, but it is not common. Dancers in Ireland and Britain often have blazers with piped edges. I have also seen this in New Zealand. This is very rare in America.

Boys' Atttiudes

Almost every boy beginning Irish dancing dislikes having to wear a kilt. This is presumably they are, for all practical purposes, skirts plain and simple. Having to wear a kilt probably discourages some boys from participating in Irish dancing. This is particularly true in America. Unless American boys have older sisters in Irish dancing, they probably have not seen men or other boys wearing kilts. But then again, according to an Irish source, its not usually the boy that decides on his own that he wants to dance. Its normally parents who decide to send them at 7 or 8 years of age to dancing school. American boys doing Irish dance often do not tell their schoolmates that they are Irish dancers. Few boys outside of the Irish community have heard of Irish dance and many would tease a boy for dancing in a kilt. I'm not sure if the same is true in Ireland itself where Irish dance and dance costumes are much more familiar.

Figure 5.--Some feises provide fiddlers to provide live musical accompaniment.. The boys can request the fiddlers or sometimes accordianists to play faster or slower.

American boys doing Irish dancing are shy about wearing kilts. There is a notable difference between Irish feises and Scottish Highland gatherings. It is common to see boys and men, both dancers and non-dancers, wearing kilts. At the Irish feises, however, few boys wear their kilts to the feis. They arrive in regular clothes, change before their competitions and then chnge back to their regular clothes immediately after their final competition. This is in part because the kilts and jackets are expensive and boys being boys, they would get soiled or damaged. But it is also because the boys are much more shy about wearing them than their Scottish cousins. This may not be quite as true in Ireland, but Irish boys participating in Irish dancing also report tha t they do not like to wear the kilt, although some do not mind it for actual dancing competitions.

Different schools have different approaches to get boys, especially the younger beginners who are shy, used to wearing kilts. One Irish dancer reports that when he began Irish dancving the school practice costume was shorts and "t" shirts. About 1994, his teacher introduced a practice costume with washable kilts, different from the wool school competition costume. This has helped to get new dancers used to the kilt which they will be wearing in actual competitions. She also felt it was a ggod idea to have similar clothing for the practices.

Long Pants or Kilts

Boys peform in either long black pants or kilts. The dancers have varying preferences. One Dublin dancer expains his preference for the kilt:

I am not a lover of the kilt, but after trying to dance in pants a number of times I found kilts give better movement. The number of pants I have split at wedding when called to dance is enough. The younger guys joining the dance school have a problem with the kilt. After a few weeks they get over it. I guess thatís why we have a dance class uniform the other reason for it that when you dance in a kilt, it falls a certain way, but with pratice one can make it fall rather than venting it up in the air. The girls have the same practice costume, although their kilts fasten the oppos ite way. For competition they wear very expensive colourful dresses.

Figure 6.--This dancer is displaying very complicated footwork in connection with his routine.

One Irish dancer believes that most boys would all prefer long pants, they had a real choice, although they would have to be really loose, or very stretchy. In actual practice, for major competitions the boys have little choice, especially in Ireland. (There seems to be more flexibility on this matter in America). Feis officials allow boys to wear long pants in competitions, but, according to an Irish dancer, almost all serious competitors dance in kilts. It is traditional, and all the teachers and judges are from the old school so the kilt is the order of the day. It would be like girls wearing pants for dancing. It would be frowned upon. They also say that it is easier to see the leg movements for judging. One Irish dancer writes, "As far as I am concerned it is easier to dance in a kilt." He then explains, "Itís the hanging around in one I do not like," apparently a widely held point of view among boys doing Irish dance.

Feis organizers insist that there is no difference in the judging as to weather the dancer wears a kilt or black trousers. Dancers are, however, not convinced of that. One dancer reports, "I have never seen a guy to dance at competitions here in Ireland perform in anything other than a kilt." He stresses that the judges are always former dancers, who are die-hard traditionalists and look critically on any changes to the way they performed as children.

Figure 7.--These boys at a feis in the 1980s are watching a compeition to root on friends and to get ideas for their competitions. Boys who have finished their competions, like the boy in the middle, are quick to take their kilts off.

One might think that the popularity River Dance may have made black trousers more popular and cause Irish dancers to adopt black trousers, replacing the kilt as a costume. One Irish dancer reports that this has not proven to be the case. He writes, "No way, Riverdance is considered a showbiz version of Irish dance. Irish dance is traditional. So the costumes will stay that way. If you see what the girls wear in River Dance (black dresses) and compare them to competition dresses you will see why."

Descriptions and Comments

Parents and dancers have describe the boys' dancing costumes at different schools and discuss various ideas and concerns. Some like traditional styles. Others like more color. Black trousers arepopular at some schools. Some mothers prefer the more Irish look of kilts. Some boys are a bit shy about dancing in a kilt and kneesocks. Cost is another major concern.

Feis Outfitting

Boys need a great deal of help getting their dancing costumes just right. The contestants at feoses are greaded on their costume--noy only the costume itself, but how well they wear it. Usually mothers, sometimes dads, check to see the boys' hair is combed, the tie is right, the shirt tucked in, the knee socks pulled up, the shoes shined, and other small details. During the feis it is possible that the shoes get scuffed--so a lot of little details need to be checked. Often the boy is thinking more of his dance routien.


Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossary] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web chronological pages:
[The 1880s] [The 1890s] [The 1900s] [The 1910s] [The 1920s] [The 1930s]
[The 1940s] [The 1950s]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web dance pages:
[Return to the Main Irish step dance page]
[Main dance page]
[Ballet] [Highland] [Ballroom]
[Native American] [Tap]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing kilt pages:
[Main kilt page]
[Kilt suits] [Scottish kilts]
[Scottish boys clothing] [Scottish school uniform]
[Highland dance] [Irish kilts]
[Irish boys clothing]
[Main Irish step dancing page] [Greek kilts]

Created: May 20, 1999
Last updated: 5:24 AM 7/5/2013