Irish dance dresses

I’ve been doing Irish dancing for almost 10 years now, in various degrees of intensity. I still love it though, and although I’ll never be the best dancer (too many other hobbies to train so much!), I’m still improving slowly. For anyone who’ve never heard of it, Irish step-dancing is best known for its international shows such as Riverdance. The general sport is focused not so much on show though, as it is on competition. Irish dancing is truly a competition sport, especially in Ireland, the UK and the US. The Netherlands doesn’t have so many schools though, and within my organisation we have only 2, maybe 3 competitions a year. Some people even fly to Ireland regularly to join in competition there!  Irish dancing has its own traditions, rules and fashions. Especially the last can be a bit overwhelming for people not used to it. Girls wear busy and bright dresses and curled wigs. When performing, each dress is unique and made for the dancer. This is custom work and as dresses can be quite complicated prices run high, 1000 being cheap for a new dress. But the idea is to stand out on the stage, and the fashion development has taken a life of its own. I don’t always like the over-the-top look, but it’s very interesting how these fashions developed, as it’s truly a modern form of folk-tradition.

Traditionally, everyone would wear their best clothes for dancing and competition, and girls would curl their hair. Dresses were decorated with traditional Irish knotwork, often from the Book of Kells, and had a knee-length skirt (any longer and dancing would be difficult), a modest neckline and long sleeves. At the back, a sash would be pinned to the dress. These are a couple of examples of traditional dance dresses:

1961. A ‘regular’ dress, but with the traditional embroidery and lace collar

ca. 1970


By the 1990’s, dresses were beginning to be a bit more elaborate and the skirts started to have stiffened panels.

Early 1990’s.


In 1998, Riverdance performed for the first time and had a great impact on Irish dancing. Many more people started, and the dress styles quickly evolved. The traditional knot-work was replaced by geometric designs and the goal was to be noticed. I like the dresses a lot op to this point, let’s just say that the following period was not the best for dancing fashions..

Let’s just say I’m happy fashions are rapidly changing at the moment. The last years, the dresses have seen a number of changes and an increase in variety. One noticable change is that the waistlines are dropping, with a long bodice and short skirt. Skirts are also becoming shorter and losing the stiffened panels for softer styles. More and more, knotwork embroidery is coming back. The sequins and diamonds are here to stay though, I’m afraid. Although there’s still some dresses which make your eyes sore, there are some beautiful examples too.

Doire design

Prime dress designs




I especially love the knotwork emboridery which is coming back. I’m not a big fan of glitter, but I like the traditional elements. I’ve never had my own dress, as they’re way to expensive to buy one for just one or two competitions a year. There are some plans to go to Ireland to compete next year though, so I’ve decided I’m going to make my own dress! The only drawback is that I don’t have an embroidery machine available, so knotwork embroidery is out. I’ve picked up some very pretty fabrics though, and I’m quite excited in seeing how it’s going to turn out. For now, this is the design:

Black velvet for the base, with a (faux) silk with velvet roses fabric for the bolero and old pink accents.

Black velvet for the base, with a (faux) silk with velvet roses fabric for the bolero and old pink accents.