Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  April 21, 2017

Red, Red Women:  a Red Galway Cloak and an Irish Colleen

Rachel Sayers introduces a favourite subject

In this blog post I discuss a subject that first peaked my interest when I studied dress history as an under-graduate, the use of the colour red.  Specifically,  the portrayal of Irish femininity in the form of the red cloaks worn predominantly by the Claddagh women of Galway and the women of the west of Ireland in general. The images of what we call in Ireland ‘shawlie women’, in reference to the women who wore shawls instead of cloaks (and the women who wear the cloaks themselves), are haunting and pierce the soul with their constant stare in the direction of  the viewer. Well, at least they haunted me from the first time I saw them; there is something ethereal and other-wordly about these long dead women staring back at you from a photograph.

     So why choose red, of all colours, for a cloak or shawl? Throughout my research I have been unable to pinpoint an exact reason as to why the women of the Claddagh wore red cloaks up until the early 20th century. Could the cloaks represent  Ireland in terms of  the colour red and what it has stood for? From the ‘red hand of Ulster’ to ‘the red rocks of Kerry’ the colour red has long been read in the annals of ancient Irish history. The West of Ireland was one of the last bastions of a truly ‘Gaelic’ or ‘Irish’ culture with a large majority speaking some form of Irish and wearing what would seem to the enquiring eye a form of medieval dress in the red cloaks of the women of the Claddagh.

  The women of the Claddagh were fierce and self-determined; they ruled the roost and the local community when the men went out to sea or further afield to procure work for the family. The red was a visceral, real and omnipresent representation of a ‘different’ type of Irish femininity. One that was not afraid to wear bold colours and tell outsiders 'what for' if they dared infiltrate their tight-knit community. Those who did manage to penetrate this somewhat closed community managed to photograph one of the first colour photographs of Irish women in 1913; a picture of a young Claddagh girl wearing a very old, worn and red Claddagh cloak.

  This girl  was photographed as part of Albert Kahn’s project to photograph the world as it was in 1913 through the process of colour film. Two French women, Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeliene Mignon, came to Ireland and filmed a rapidly dying way of life across Ireland one of tradition that had changed little despite years of British intervention and aggressiveness against most things that were considered ‘Irish’.  This picture typifies the traditional ‘Irish Colleen’, or Irish girl; dark hair, pale skin and blue eyes- not red hair and green eyes. Her red cloak symbolizes her confidence in her womanhood, her femininity and her status in life as an important woman within the Claddagh.

   The wearing of the red cloak by this time had somewhat died/dyed out (pardon the pun) and many consider this photograph to be posed as this red cloak certainly pre-dated even this fourteen-year-old girl’s birth. It could be argued that even the people of the Claddagh knew that a cloaked and feminine Irish colleen would attract tourists and add to the myth of the demure, traditional, quiet yet confident outspoken Irish colleen of Irish myths and legends.

     This girl wears a Paisley print shawl  and a shorter skirt so it is easy to argue that some vestiges of modern and Victorian fashion did reach the Claddagh women. This was probably happened  as Galway rose as an important trade port in the 19th century.  Goods (especially textiles) were traded at markets throughout Galway in the 19th century. It would have been easy for women of the Claddagh to buy a cheap Paisley print shawl to wear against the cold, harsh winters in the West of Ireland. More importantly the shorter skirt was probably not a nod to contemporary fashion of the Edwardian era but a practical step as the streets of the Claddagh would be muddy and it would be incredibly difficult to manouvre in a full-length skirt.

   Cally Blackman has argued throughout her work on the fashion history of Ireland, with a special concentration on the women of the Claddagh, that the red cloaks and shawls of Ireland were used to romanticize the women of the Claddagh and Irish women in general. Blackman argues that the red cloak and other coloured cloaks or shawls were as I have stated previously used to portray a nostalgic and antiquated view of Ireland to potential tourists who wished to visit the ‘wilds of Ireland.’

    Elizabeth Butler Cullingford states that historically the very notion of nostalgia has been used by Irish males to ‘confine Irish women in a straitjacket of purity and passivity.’ That Irish women are essentially ‘silent’ in their passivity of the use of gender politics to possess the actual physical land of Ireland through the lens of the nostalgic Kathleen Ni Houlihan, Macha Goddess of Ulster or even Mother Eire herself. In essence, that by wearing the red cloak it could be argued that these women are unconsciously playing into the agency of their own femininity being used to represent an outdated, outmoded version of Irish femininity as a whole.

      Women continued to wear these cloaks throughout the 20th century. My research is continuing and on-going and most of my research between the 1970s and 2016 concentrates on the portrayal of Irish women in the marketing of ‘Irish cloaks’ to a mainly American audience. The colour red is still used, it is still used to portray Irish femininity and Irish women in general. However, at this stage in history the colour ‘red’ is an inadequate colour to use to portray Irish femininity when Irish femininity is now multi-cultural, multi-lateral and multi-ethnic.


Rachel Sayers

Costume Society Ambassador 2017

  • 1.Main Ni Tuathail, 1913, Claddagh, Galway, Albert Kahn Archive.
  • 2. Main Ni Tuathail, 1913, Albert Khan Archive.
  • 3. 'Shawlie' Women, Patrick Street, Cork, 1940s. Unknown collection.