Clothing of the Ancient Celts – Introduction

With the current vogue for all things Celtic, you’d think there would be a lot of interest in Celtic history, culture and costuming. But, as a remark passed along by a friend states, “There are not a lot of people interested in Irish history. There are a lot of people interested in painting themselves blue and pretending to be from Tir na n’Og.” Hopefully, since you’re here looking at my page, you’re interested in doing things correctly. And I’m trying to provide a little guidance, and tell you what is and isn’t known on the subject without making stuff up out of thin air.

Firstly, the term ‘Celtic’ as a blanket term for post-Iron Age Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Breton etc. cultures is so over-used as to be nearly meaningless. It’s really a linguistic term; and there are certainly cultural commonalities between these groups. But if you’re putting together an impression/persona/kit from one of these groups, try not to mix and match â?? something from an Iron Age Irish source with something else from an 18th century Scottish source, for example. I’m using the term ‘Celtic’ here because this web page does cover these various groups over a large amount of time, but have tried to divide the information up into meaningful groupings.

Secondly, to read the current crop of Celtic interest books, you’d believe that the ancient Celts were a peaceful people, living in harmony with nature, giving women equal rights under the law, and not harming any living thing, preferring instead to live on nuts and berries â?? kind of like a hippie commune from the late 1960s. The truth is that the Celts were a blood-thirsty warrior race who scared the bejeebers out of the professional soldiery of Rome. Individual tribes were almost continually at war with their neighbours. But at what may be termed “the height of Celtic power”, Rome feared what would happen if those tribes stopped fighting each other and turned their attention on the splendor of Rome.

And thirdly, please don’t get your facts from historical fiction. I don’t care how well-informed the author is. I don’t care if she lists a bibliography in all her works. The key word here is fiction. As the reader, you simply don’t know where the author has left off “historic” and begun the fictional part of the tale. Authors of fiction are not beholden to portray the world as it really was, but rather to tell a good story. Let them inspire you. But do not use them as sources for historical research.

Ok, now…

When you watch a Hollywood film about medieval or pre-modern Europe, chances are the people are clothed in drab clothes, crudely woven and sewn.

Actually, textiles in ancient times were fairly advanced. It doesn’t make any sense that a culture with the fine metalworking techniques seen in torcs and other surviving artifacts would be running around in rags and tatters, yet this is the common perception of what people wore.

Weaving is a very basic technology and was quite advanced as early as 5,000 BCE, and brightly colored dyes were readily available. If we met our Celtic ancestors, they would probably look as gaudy to us as they did to the Romans, since they were very fond of bright colors and ornamentation.

There aren’t a lot of textile remains found for Celtic clothing from prehistoric times through the 6th century; we mostly have to rely on manuscripts and descriptions of what was worn at various times. However, I will make some educated guesses based on textile construction techniques from the few Celtic finds available, as well as evidence from the bog finds in Denmark, which could arguably be either Celtic or Teutonic. Obviously, fashions varied from place to place and time to time, so Celtic clothing wasn’t universally the same in all places over the thousand or so years I’m spanning; however, similar techniques of constructing and decorating clothing were used throughout Europe, and results can be inferred from these. Clothing in the Iron Age certainly varied from tribe to tribe; one tribe may have favored baggy trews, while another tribe liked them skin-tight. What I hope to do here is to provide a framework based on what we do know, in order to have at least a solid starting point for further exploration.

I do not have much information on Welsh, Breton, or Galician culture and costume at this point. A few Welsh costume links are in my list of other web resources. If you know of any other Welsh costume web resources that I should include, please e-mail me.

Note: I just found the WORST blatant attempt to pull one over on the unsuspecting public… this site (Welsh Tartan Centre) is pure and utter nonsense. There’s no evidence that the Welsh wore a kilt, let alone a tartan kilt. As best I can tell, the store owner is trying to convince the public otherwise as part of a marketing gimmick. His idea of Welsh folk costume is basically a rehashed version of the Victorian Scottish formal costume, which itself isn’t terribly authentic as far as folk costume goes.

Copyright Notice:

The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Clothing of the Ancient Celts – Copyright 1997, M. E. Riley and 2002, Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved.

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