Irish boys were commonly outfitted in dresses until they were 12 or 13 years old. This practice was most common in rural areas, but it was not unknown in towns. Folk lore warned mothers to hide their boys from the 'fairies', so they were dressed as girls, usually in long flannel dresses. We have little information on these flannel dresses. Much of the information described below is derived solely from an examination of the available photographic images. Please let us know if you have any additional information or note anything else in the photographs.
The custom by the 19th Century was most prevalent in Connaught, one of Ireland's four provinces. Connaught is the western projection of Ireland south of Ulster. Another source suggests the custom was particularly common in the western county of Galway, located in the southern part of Connaught Province. The western areas of Ireland tended to be the most backward and traditional. One observer writes, "In Connemara it is believed that the 'bad people' [with supernatural powers] run away with little boys, but not with girls, so boys are dressed in petticoats to deceive them until they are of an age to protect themselves." [Wheeler]
Folk tales vary. Some claim it is the devil stealing boys, others the fairies, or leprechauns as they are also known. One folk tale asks why Ireland is so green? The answer is that it is because the rain fairies love Ireland. They have made it the greenest spot on earth. They do this by sprinkling it for ever with the drops of their fairy rain.
The fairies, unfortunately, seem to get up to a good bit of mischief as well. The fairies are apparently divided into tribes just as Ireland is divided into districts, counties, and provinces. There are many different tribes and these tribes are all quite different from the others. There are fairies that dress like flowers and those than can change themselves into different shapes. There are evil fairies and solitary fairies. Many country people believed that you always had to refer to the as the "Good people," because they are easily offended. But if you truly believe in them and leave a little milk on the window sill, they can bring luck and happiness. Some country people were particularly concerned with the leprechaun, or fairy shoemaker. The leprechaun sits under a toadstool making tiny shoes. As W.B. Years wrote:
Can you not catch the tiny clamor,
Busy click of an elfin hammer,
Voice of the Leprechaun ringing shrill
As he busily plies his trade?
The name 'leprechaun' in fact comes from two Gaelic words meaning 'one shoe'. The reason he has this name is that he is always busy working on one of his shoes. The leprechaun is regarded by the country people as mysterious and mischievous. And one of his great pranks is stealing 'wee' boys away. He steals them so they can help him with his work. He apparently does not bother to steal girls because they are not as strong and useful. As a result mothers so feared the leprechaun that they dressed their boys in flannel petticoats to trick the sly creatures.
Irish boys dressed in dresses until the age of 12. For years it was actually thought that there were variously evil 'fairies', 'demons' or 'spirits' wandering about that would steal away small boys that were still to small to protect themselves. The actual details varied from village to village and from story teller to teller. The Irish of course love to tell stories and do so with great flair. So the precise details of the story varied greatly. What ever the details, many believed the old fables. So to guard against the boys be stolen away, boys usually up to 12 years of age were dressed "daily" in dresses in an effort to fool the daemon into thinking they were not really little boys. Many followed this practice almost religiously. We have noted quite a few references to this folk tradition. How seriously it was taken by people do not know. There were several areas in the countryside where people reportedly acted on this belief for years.
I am not sure when this practice developed. It may have been a tradition dating back many centuries to the Celtic people of Ireland and Scotland. A HBC reader suspects that those cotton dresses on Irish boys were descendants of the 'leine'. The leine was common to both Scotland and Ireland and is mentioned as the principal garment for Celtic men in the middle ages. In that period, it was not a boys' garment, but worn by both men and boys. What ever the origin, the fashion of boys wearing long dresses appears to have been firmly established in the 19th Century. Throughout the century Irish boys in many areas, especially the more isolated areas, where Celtic was still common, wore these flannel dresses. The custom appears to have become less common in the late 19th Century, but was still prevalent in some areas into the 20th Century as there are reports of the practice, including the photographs shown here, until after World War I (1914-18). We had thought that the custom essentially disappeared after World War I. We note one report, however, suggesting that the custom persisted unto the 1950s. An observer reports, "I remember when on holiday in the west of Ireland in the late 1950s seeing a very young boy dressed in a skirt. I was told that it was a disguise, because the fairies stole young boys, but not girls." [Robin Haldane, The Times (London) November 29, 2002.]
The custom was most common in rural areas of Ireland, especially the traditional, poorer Gaelic speaking areas. This can be seen as the boys involved are often barefoot, which in the 19th Century was widely seen in England and Ireland as an indicator of poverty. The custom does not always see to have been just one for poor children. Some images appear to show more affluent boys wearing stocking and shoes as well as well fitted jackets and caps with their dresses. The shoes in particularly suggest as least a minimal level of affluence. Another reason I believe that this custom was not limited just to poor families is that I can recall reading a biography, although the citation allows me now, of an Anglo-Irish boy growing up in an Irish town where the boys commonly wore dresses. He was teased when his family moved to the city, I think Dublin. One Irish reader writes, "Even by the turn of the 20th century, there was still great poverty in Ireland. Not alone could many people not afford clothes, but many families could not afford adequate food. Mothers made clothes from cloth from potato and grain sacks. Perhaps one reason that dresses and skirts were worn by boys is that they were easier to cut and stitch than pants."
We note a similar phenomenon in the Scottie Western isles, namely the Hebrides. In this case the Scottish boys look younger than the Irish boys here. The Irish boys here are school age. The Scottish boys wearing dresses look to be school age. But the photographs look to be taken at about the same time, probably the the 1910s. As in Ireland, the boys are all barefoot.
One HBC contributor reports that the dresses worn by Irish boys were the old cut down dresses of their mothers or older sisters. This may have well been the case in many instances. This is especially true because the fashion was concentrated in some of the poorest areas of England. We can not yet, however, confirm this. Given the fact that in some areas the fashion of boys wearing long dresses was so common, HBC tends to believe that this was not the only source of these dresses.
The flannel dresses worn by Irish boys seem remarkable similar in style, with only minor stylistic differences. We are not sure if this is due to the fact that the available images are all early 20th century photographs. There may have been more variation in the 19th Century. All of the available photographic images of Irish boys wearing flannel dresses show basic "A"-line frocks. Many have skirts which drop straight from wear the arms join the sleeves. Other have modest bodices with a gathering at the waist. All have long sleeves. All are solid flannel material. There is virtually no decoration or stylistic embellishment, with a few exceptions:
Collar: Some of the dresses seem to have very modest collars with darker or lighter materiel.
Stripe: Many dresses have a wide horizontal strip near the hem of the dress. One astute HBC contributors suggests that these stripes may not be stylistic elements, but rather the result of the hemline being let down and/or more material being added to it as the boy grew. He doubts that it was actually any sort of "fashion" since these seem to be practical, everyday types of clothes for them. I'm not sure this is correct, because you would assume the bodice would also have to be enlarged. However, many of these boys came from very poor families, so this observation could well explain the stripe.
One report I noted indicates that many of the flannel dresses were red. Red may have been a common color, but available black and white photography suggests that mothers employed quite a variety of colors were employed for the dresses. Sometimes the boys just wore the dresses. Other times they wore them with a boyish looking jacket, one they might wear with knee pants when slightly older.
Some boys appear to be wearing shirts with their flannel dresses. This of course is unlikely as they could not be tucked in. Shirts would have had to have been made especially for the dresses.
The light-colored shirt-like garments are probably sweaters. Boys commonly wore sweaters with the dresses in the cooler months.
Many boys commonly wore jackets and vests with their flannel dresses. This was particularly common in winter and for school. These look to be the same jackets that they will be wearing when they graduate to knee pants.
Most of the available images show the boys bare headed, but some images showed that they wore a wide variety of caps with their dresses.
We see Irish boys wearing these flannel dresses to school. It should not be thought that these were school outfits. We believe these boys wore these dresses all the time. Many of the available photographs are at school, probably because this was a convenient place to photograph them. The practice was most pronounced in isolated rural areas. These boys did not come from affluent families. They would not have had large wardrobes. We suspect they may have worn these dresses all the time. The boys may have had one dress for school and best, and another dress for play. Here we are unsure. They also may have had jackets and sweaters worn with the dresses in cooler weather.
Available images suggest that these flannel dresses are what the boys wore through out the day for all activities. Photographs show the boys wearing the dresses both at home and at school. It seems to have been a widely followed custom in many communities. School photographs show groups of boys all wearing the dresses, not just a few perhaps with traditionally oriented mothers.
We have little information concerning what the boys thought of wearing dresses to protect themselves from the fairies. The one account we note about an Anglo-Irish boy indicates that he did not object and thought little about it until his family moved to a city and the other boys started teasing him. Another report suggests that the boys, especially the older ones, generally disliked wearing the flannel dresses. Most apparently would have preferred wearing trousers like their fathers an older brothers, but like their mothers were concerned about the fairies.
A reader writes, "Among all of the fascinating pages of HBC, I find the subject of Irish boys in flannel dresses most interesting. However, I have been looking through books on Irish history at local libraries and bookstores but so far have not found anything on Irish boys in dresses. Could you give me titles or information or leads to find more information on this subject." HBC wishes that more readers would pursue the various topics we raise on our site. HBC itself has a limited capability to research the thousands of topics we address. Here we are dependent on our readers to take the basic information we present and pursue it in more detail. This particular topic is a difficult one to research. Outfitting Irish boys in flannel dresses was a common practice, but not fashionable dress. Thus it will not be covered in fashion publications of the day. Our research suggests that it was most common in Connaught. Thus travelogues or biographies from Connaught before World War I might include some information, but it would likely take a considerable effort.
Haldane, Robin. The Times (London) November 29, 2002.]
National Geographic, April 1915, pp. 404-05.
Wheeler, Harold. Ed. Peoples of the World in Pictures (Odhams Press Limited: London, 1936).
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