The way people dressed in days that are gone

It was while I forced my way in among the crowd packed at the rear of St. Brigid's church, Clonegal, on Thursday, April 1 (confirmation day) and looked over the heads of row upon row of people filling the seats that my mind went back to my own confirmation day do many years ago and brought home to me the difference between then and now.

The first big difference was the manner in which the congregation was seated. At the time of my confirmation the women were seated on the left hand side of the church as you entered and the men on the right.

Among the ladies present on that day the hair styles were something else.....then the head had to be covered. As far as they men were concerned there was a lot more colour in their dress.

Then came the children. They looked resplendent in their school uniforms. The wearing of school uniforms for confirmation was one of the best ideas of later years. It did away with “who was the best dressed child” and left them all on an even playing field (even if they still count the money).

To sum up confirmation day in was an outstanding success and the large number of parents, grandparents and relatives present along with those who came for the ceremony set me thinking that religion and the respect it deserves is still healthy in Clonegal.

Now let us go back to the type of dress we talked about at the beginning. New clothes were only got for a very special occasion, such as a wedding or some unusual event in the life of the family. Confirmation would come under this heading if the child getting that sacrament was the first of the family, otherwise a well kept suit from an earlier occasion served the purpose.

The traveller selling secondhand clothes did a great trade in the parish on confirmation year. In my time confirmation was given in the parish every third year. There was very little “off the peg” buying for boys in those days. Their clothes were made by the tailor from the age of 13 and upwards.

The girls did get clothes from the shop although most of the women in any parish were able to make lovely dresses or skirts. The one thing that has not changed is the fierce pride that the parents have in their children. That same pride was as visible among the parents of the Clonegal and Kildavin children on April 1, 2004 as it was in 1934.

I can remember my grandmother telling me about her confirmation day and the way people were dressed. Sadly she did not live to see my big day, having passed away to her eternal reward a few days before that.

Thinking of her death reminds me of the length of time the family were in mourning in those days. Women wore black for at least a year and the family was supposed to stay away from amusements or other pleasures for six months. I well remember Fr. Jimmy Kavanagh having to ask my mother to allow me to play in an important schools football match nearly a month after my grandmother had died.

Another custom was the giving of clothes of the dead. The old people always said “if the clothes were not given away the soul would be naked in the next world”. In her time and even up to the 1930's, a lot of the children's clothes were made by the bean an ti (woman of the house). They were generally made from flannelette. The clothes were worn down to the mouths of the boots, which came half way up on the legs. Another funny thing about the children was the fact that boys wore dresses, often until they were six or seven.

Then, as now, children liked to show off new clothes. And the same thing applied to their mothers who loved to talk about them. Again I heard my granny tell me of what women wore in her time. Shifts were made of flannel. The well-off women wore calico ones. They were mostly white in colour as were underpetticoats. They were fastened down the front with buttons or with hooks and eyes, They all had short sleeves and wide-neck neckerchiefs were greatly used. These were knotted under the chin but a few people used to knot them at the back of the neck. The neckerchiefs were never bought ready-made. People would buy the material, usually spotted, by the yard and make them themselves.

Skirts were usually made from wool and were nearly always navy in colour. Sometimes they got a plain piece of cloth and dyed it themselves. The dye was made from elderberry or blackberry juices. A garment called a bodice was always worn over the skirt. She talked a lot about cloaks and hoods and other outdoor clothing but I forgot most of it.

It was almost into the 1920's before women really began to wear lighter coloured cloths. Straw hats replaced the shawl and bonnet and dresses came more into vogue. As for the little girls, they were allowed to wear different coloured frocks and dresses. The favourite colours were pink, red, blue and yellow. Never green, that was considered unlucky - “green for grief”. New clothes were generally bought in May (I don't know what sort of weather they had in those days, but girls were supposed to go out in white dresses on the first of May).

The new clothes were worn to Mass the first day - for luck. Children were sent to a relative or friend to show off their clothes. It was about this time that the “crossover overall' came into being. The women of the house wore this when working in the home.

If we go back to the early 1900s we will find that men's clothing could be divided into two sections. Sunday and working clothes. I am not going back as far as the days of the corduroy and the swallowed-tailed coat but what I remember myself.

Just as with children, a woman took great delight in turning her man out in spotless condition on a Sunday.

In the 1920s and well into the ‘30s, the Sunday dress for the men was a navy suit, sometimes a waistcoat or the occasional pullover. He wore a white shirt that would take the sight out of your eye with the way it glittered. It was later that the colour came into the husband's wearing apparel with the introduction of the lighter coloured suits and the sports coat and trousers.

The one thing that remained the same is the pride in the child getting confirmation. It is a credit to the parents and relatives of the children the attention they pay to the youngsters on that day, but there is just a little more than that required when the big day is over the children are soon going into a new world, let it be secondary school, apprenticeship or some other walk in the life they need advice.

It is now that the parents or carers should help them most by trying to keep them on the right track. This is the age at which they can wander and be induced to travel the wrong road. It is up to us to help them - not ignore them.

Just one more thing. I often wonder what some of the old women think of the dress (or lack of it) of the girls today. At least they have freedom of movement and are not wrapped in such a manner that only their faces can be seen. But then are women not among the top flight in our society. More power to them.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist