Boys' Irish Step Dancing Costume Garments

Figure 1.--Boys participating at Irish dance competitions call feises wear either kilts or black long pants. Note that unlike Highland dancing the boys doing Irish step dancing always hold their arms at their sides. Notice the Celtic-styled embroidery on the sleeves of the boys' jackets.

Boys and girls competing at Irish dance competitions called feises wear quite different dancing costumes. Theboys costumes have changed sunstantially beginning in the late-20th centurty. The boys began wearing kilts in the 1920s. The girls wore dresses, buut not kilts. This is in part dure so the boys would not feel shy about wearing kilts that girls wear. By having destinctive costumes the boys didnot look on the kilt as a girl's garment. The girls wear elaborately embroidered dresses. The boys worer 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. This chabnged with the success of River Dance. Kilts began go disappear and the boys began wearing black long panhts. Somebots wire long pants earlier, but after River Dance, long pants gradually becanme standard.


Boys doing Irish dancing also do not wear caps, another variance from Highland Dancing where boys wear Tam O'Shanters or Glen Garys with a back black streamer. The only exception is the boys dancing the jig in sailor suits. They often wear sailor caps.


Boys wear white in competitions. We notice both long and short-sleeved shirts. They are not specikized garnments, but standard white dress shirts. We do not see any variationn here like blue shirts. All he boys wear white shirts worn with neckties. At some of the outdoor Feisana the boys are ihstructed to take off their jackets because of the heat. They waitv until instructed beccause they mughthave points reduced . Costunming is oart of the competition. In other instances the boys do notv yet have proper jackets to wear with the kilts. The jackets are expensive so some parets delay the purchase util they are syre that the boys are interested enough to guve sime effort to the dancing.


The boys wear short jackets looking like blazers or sports jackets. Some of the fancier ones have Celtic-styled embroidery on the sleeves. The enbridery is very popular in Amerrica. A popular style in Ireland is jackets with piped edges. Some of the jackets are black or dark blue. Other boys wear brightly colored jackets. The jackets come in awide range of colors including bright red or even an occasional yellow. There are also a wide range of slightly more subdued hues. White jackets are also worn, but are difficult to keep clean. The dancing jackets are not regular blazers. They are cut much shorter than regular jackets which then make them more suitable for dancing. Some girls' outfits include jackets, but they are not common. Most girls just wear dress-like dancing costumes.


HBC has noted some of the novice dancers in America during the mid-1990s wearing vests rather than jackets. The vests were an advantage during outdoor summer feises. They also reduced the expense to outfit a boy. This seems to have been orimarily for the younger dancers. We are not sure how wide-spread this fashion was. The blazer jackets appear much more common.

Figure 2.--Irish dancers wear a sash that pins at the front shoulder and hangs down the back of the jacket or blazer. They usually are in a color to contrast with the jacket, often the same color as kilt.


Boys wear sashes with are pinned at the shoulder and hang down over the back of their blazer or jacket. They are usually a color contrasting with the jacket--often the same color as the kilt. They vary greatly. Some are adorned with embroidery of Irish motiffs. Others are very plain with lirrle or no embroidery. Many are fringed. The girld do not wear sashes--only the boys.


Boys doing Irish step dancing mostly wore solid colored kilts for competitions, unlike the plaid kilts worn by the boys doing Scottish or Highland dancing. Green and safron used to be common colors, especially for dancing school uniform kilts. The practice of having the boys at a school all wear the same kilt and jacket is now less common. Individual dancers have a much wider variety of colors. 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. The kilts are pleated and vary in length, often because of the mother's tendency due the cost to buy larger sizes.


Many boys performing at the beginning levels in American wear long black pants instead of the more traditional kilts. These America boys dance in white shirts, ties, and long black pants instead of the kilts. When dancing in pants, the boys do not wear jackets. Kilts are expensive and some boys object to wearing them. The practice of wearing long pants instead of kilts sees to be particularly established in California. Few Irish boys, however, perform in pants. Some schools in America allow the younger boys just beginning to peform in short pants and kneesocks during the summer. This is just until the boys decide whether they will continue with Irish dancing. Kilts are quite expensive and parents often do not want to buy ione if the boy is not going to persue an interest in Irish dancing. 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. Often dancers now wear underwear in the same color as their kilt.


HBC has noted step dancers wearing two kinds of pins. Pins are used to pin the decorative back sash to the shoulder. The pins can be quite decorative with even costume jewlry. A fancy pin is also used to close the kilt in front. Irish dancers do not have sporans--but most boys have kilt pins to vlose the kilt at the front.


It is esential for the dancer to have his kilt firmly in place ehile performing. 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, although there are side straps. But given the intensity of the dance, much greater support is needed to keep the kilt in place. Thus virtually all dancers wear suspenders (braces to our English and presumably Irish readers)) to keepmtheir kilts securely in place no mater how forceful the steps being executed.

Sailor Suits

Boys and girls doing the hornpipe wear special blue or white sailor suits with caps and bell-bottom trousers. The competitors always wear long bell-bottomed pants, never short pants for hornpipe competitions. The hornpipe is also an event in Higland dancing. HBC has developed more information on the hornpipe costume udsed in Higland dancing.


A few boys wear cumberbundsm often in colors matching the kilts. This is, however, not common.


Some Dancing schools had the children wear white gloves. The gloves were worn for public appearances and parades--especially of course the annual St. Patrick's Day parades. In may parts of the United States as well as Ireland the weather can be quite cold in Mrach. I do not believe that the gloves were worn for actual dancing. HBC has not seen white gloves being worn since the early 1980s.

Figure 3.--These boys are waiting for the next competition. Note the two boys at the left are from the same school as they are wearing identical costumes--including matching jackets, kilts, and kneesocks. Girls never wear kilts, but rather elaborately embroidered dresses and short white athletic socks.


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. Some boys wear dark-colored kneesocks, others prefer bright colors such as red or yellow. A few boys wear white kneesocks. Mostly these are heavy whire socks like the one worn by pipers, but some times regular whire kneesocks are worn. The Irish boys often wear garters to keep turn-over-top socks up during the heat of a routine. The garter is a like an elastic band with two flashes of material. Turn-over-top kneesocks are less common in America. The boys doing Irish dance in America often wear kneesocks without the tuen-over-top cuff and thus many do not wear garters.


All costumes are worn with either hard shoes or soft shoes depending on the dance being performed. The hard shoes have metal heels attached for the sound effects made popular with River Dance. For the soft shoe dances, ballet shoes are used. The issue of hard shoes and excessive pounding or "battering" as the dancers call it has become an increasingly controversial issue in Irish dancing.

One American dancer reports that for set dancing, "I purchased a pair of shoes from the Talbot Street Dance Center in Dublin. They are a lace-up oxford style with a one-inch heel plus a quarter-inch hard cap (fiberglass?). Imagine your hard shoes with no ankle strap (and therefore not as low-cut), no toe tap, and a quieter heel. They cost 30 Irish pounds (punt? what is it?), or $40 plus about $10 for shipping. Way cheaper than you'd pay here. I'm finding that the heels may be too high for battering steps, so I may go back to my Stevens Stompers. This is a clogging shoe available at many square dance shops in the US, or from the makers at They have a low wooden heel that has a nice sound. With either shoe, I find that my heels make more noise than my toes. I think this makes my steps sound too syncopated. When I had my Stompers re-soled, I asked for a heavy man's sole so they would be more balanced, but my double-toe shuffles still sound more like a wimpy "swish-swish" than a resounding "tap-tap. I hope the other listers will chime in with their shoe views. .... I've certainly seen lots of dancers in sneakers, men's dress shoes, and summer sandals. At a place like Irishfest, it's kind of a bother to change shoes every time you wander into the dance tent, but it's nice to have a good leather-soled shoe for classes." - Karen


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Created: May 20, 1999
Last updated: 6:41 AM 7/6/2013