Through a Lens tour: Costumes in Art

Woman in a garden
William John Leech (1881-1968), 'A Convent Garden, Brittany' (detail). Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

Online self-guided tour

This selection of artworks explores the importance of clothing and costumes in art in the national collection.

Finding your way around

  • If you are doing this tour onsite at the Gallery, taking in all the works will take approximately 60 minutes.
  • Feel free to skip a few or spend longer at others.
  • When in the Gallery, please be aware that you will be moving across various levels, which may require access to lifts. You can ask any member of staff to direct you to the closest lift.
  • They will also be able to direct you to any other facilities you may require including a Changing Places facility located close to the Merrion Square entrance.

What's included

Artists use costumes to give us clues about a person, and they can provide information about societies of the past. This tour offers only a brief snapshot of costumes in art – if you would like to know more, you could explore our collection online or consult our research library for more in-depth information.

Start the tour!

"Fashion is not something that exists in dress only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." Coco Chanel (1883–1971)

William John Leech (1881-1968), A Convent Garden, Brittany, c.1913. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland. Credit

Room 18

William John Leech (1881–1968), A Convent Garden, Brittany, c.1913

  • What do you think is happening in this painting?
  • How many people can you see?
  • What do the people’s costumes tell you about who they are?

Leech painted this while recovering from an illness in a convent hospital in Concarneau. The people in the background are nuns from the convent.

  • Can you see their traditional white robes and the headpieces of their religious order?
  • What is different about the clothes that the woman in the foreground is wearing?

Her robes and headpiece are those worn by novice nuns who have not yet taken their vows to God. What else does her costume look like? Could it be a wedding dress and a veil worn by a bride? This is intentional. The artist, Leech, painted his first wife, Saurin Elizabeth Lane, as a novice nun. Leech was her second husband, so when they got married they could not have a wedding in a church as they wanted to. This was Leech painting her as a bride of Christ and as his own bride.

  • He paints her in this traditional white dress. However, is it actually all white?
  • What other colours can you see on her dress?

To give texture and depth to the white in the dress, and to give an impression of the effect of bright sunlight and shadow, Leech included brushstrokes of the green of the grass, the green of the lily leaves, the blue from the sky above and grey from the shadows cast by her shoulder or the tree’s branches.

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Shaw Room

Casimir Dunin Markievicz (1874–1932), The Artist's Wife, Constance, Comtesse de Markievicz (1868–1927), Irish Painter and Revolutionary, 1899

  • How would you describe the person in the painting? What do her clothes tell us about her?
  • Look closely at her beautiful dress and the jewellery she is wearing. Do you think she is wealthy?
  • What emotions might she be feeling?

This is a portrait of Comtesse Constance de Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth). She is painted when an aspiring artist in Paris and had not yet embraced the revolutionary ideas that made her famous. However, her husband painted this portrait. Do you think he had some influence over how she was painted? Have you ever seen a painting or photograph of Constance before?

Constance used clothing as a way of sending a message and making herself recognisable. This portrait, in which she wears an Edwardian, French-inspired, fin de siècle gown, is a very different look to how she normally represented herself.

While she was from a landed family, and may be dressed for high society, Constance was also a firm believer in the power of women, especially in their involvement in the forming of Ireland as a free state in the early 1900s. She is better known for wearing Irish nationalistic dress, which she wore when she became more politically active. She once said to "dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver."

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Dramatic oil painting crowded with people, with a man in armour and a woman at centre being married by a priest.
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854. Photo © National Gallery of IrelandCredit

Shaw Room

Daniel Maclise (1806–1870), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, c.1854

This painting depicts the marriage of Aoife, the daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, to Strongbow. Dermot MacMurrough was the King of Leinster, and Strongbow was the leader of the Anglo-Norman forces who came to Ireland on the invitation of the King to help him defeat the other kings of Ireland. Aoife and Strongbow were married after a battle in Waterford in 1170, as part of an agreement between the King of England, Henry II, and the King of Leinster.

Look closely at the figures in the painting.

  • How does the artist, Daniel Maclise, use clothing to differentiate between the Anglo-Norman and local Irish forces?
  • Can you match the clothing style to the people?
  • Clothing style:
    • Bare chests and tattoos
    • Shiny metal armour
    • White blouses, colourful skirts and laurel wreaths
    • Chains and heavy fabrics
    • Robes, head piece and staff
    • Crown and royal red and blue robes
    • Small crown and golden robes
    • Crown of leaves
  • People:
    • Irish fighters
    • Anglo-Normans
    • Aoife’s ladies-in-waiting
    • Irish Kings
    • Archbishop
    • King of Leinster
    • Aoife
    • Strongbow


  • What do you think of these styles and the way Maclise has represented the different sides?
  • What do you think he is trying to say about the opposing forces?

In the 1800s, when this was painted, the English viewed Anglo-Normans as strong and technologically advanced, while the Irish fighters were thought of as wild and uncontrollable. While Maclise did consult with Victorian antiquarians to make the costumes, metalwork and weaponry as historically accurate as possible, their knowledge of the 12th century was not as extensive as ours would be today so he did take some artistic licence with a few details.

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Formal group portrait of five full-length figures: a girl seated at a piano, a girl resting her elbow on top of the piano, an older man gesturing towards the two girls, an older woman standing beside him, and a young Indian page boy leaning in and looking towards them.
Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), The Ely Family, 1771. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.

Grand Gallery

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), The Ely Family, 1771

What can you tell about these people based on what they are wearing?

Kauffman painted the family of Henry Loftus, Earl of Ely at Rathfarnham Castle in 1771, when she visited Ireland. The painting was finished in her London studio.

The two women on the left are actually the Earl’s nieces, Frances and Dolly Monroe.

  • Do you think Kauffman has differentiated between the Earl and his wife and his two nieces by using the clothes they are wearing?
  • Alternatively, could that just be a coincidence based on what they chose to model in?

The two nieces are wearing clothes that were more fashionable in the 1770s. They have lots of draping fabric, wing-like cuffs on their sleeves and more formal embroidery. Dolly, on the left, is wearing a dress that is modelled on drapery of antique sculpture.

The Earl is wearing the official clothes associated with his title. They are red velvet robes with ermine fur, recognisable by the black flecks marking the tip of a tail. Ermine fur was associated with purity of bloodlines, due to the legend that an ermine, a stoat in its winter coat, would rather die than soil its own fur. The Earl and his wife, Frances, are both wearing red fabrics that were expensive to dye to such a rich tone.

Do you notice that one person in the painting is wearing very different clothing? There is a page on the right wearing Indian or Eastern clothes. He is carrying two coronets that symbolise the Earl’s title.

  • Why do you think the artist or sitter wanted to include this figure in the painting?
  • What do you think about this representation of a person of colour?
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A wax figure of a woman seated with her hands in her lap. She is wearing a blue dress, and has a lace headdress on her head.
Catherine Andras (1775-1860), Rose Bruce (1728-1806), Widow of Revd Samuel Bruce, 1799

Room 47

Catherine Andras (1775–1860), Rose Bruce (1728–1806), Widow of Revd Samuel Bruce, 1799 

This is an unusual piece from the Gallery’s collection. It is made from wax.

The artist, Catherine Andras, was born in Bristol and was orphaned at a young age. A family in London adopted her. She developed a passion for wax model-making while working in a toyshop. She exhibited in the Royal Academy of Arts from 1799 to 1824. In 1802, she was appointed Modeller in Wax to Queen Charlotte.

  • How would you describe the clothes worn by the woman modelled here?
  • What fabrics has Andras depicted?
  • How would you describe the different shades of blue in her dress?

The sitter, Rose Bruce, is wearing an 18th-century cap with lace trim and detail. Her mobcap is styled nicely with the frilled lace detail on her sleeves. Her fingerless gloves highlight her dainty wrists and delicate fingers. She was a strong woman who re-established her large family in Bristol after her husband died when she was 38 years old. She raised and educated her five sons and two daughters. Do her clothes reflect her story?

The taffeta gown she is wearing is more in keeping with the styles of the early 1790s, as opposed to the late 1790s when this model was made. This could show that often women over a certain age were less likely, or able, to keep up with the changing fashion plates – series of prints begun in the 1770s to disseminate the latest trends. Instead, they might rework older garments for many years, adding trims and accessories to make them more current.

This model is only 17 cm. in height. Andras used the wax to great effect to show each ruffle of the blue fabric of her dress and the frills of the lace. It is a great example of a different medium being used to depict fashions or styles in art in different ways.

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A half-length portrait of a young woman wearing a black dress, wide white ruff and white cap. In one hand she holds a glove.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669); Studio of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of a Lady Holding a Glove, 1632-1633.Credit

Room 39

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Studio, Portrait of a Lady Holding a Glove, 1632–1633

  • Look closely at the sitter’s clothing and accessories. What details stand out to you?
  • Can you see her pearl earrings, the gold chain around her neck, the bracelet and the ring?
  • Do you like the detail in the lace on her cuffs and gloves?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What is the most striking part of this sitter’s costume?

Notice the starched white ruff around her neck? These were popular in the 1500s and early 1600s across Europe. The styles of ruff changed over time. This style of pleated collar was called a cartwheel ruff. A ruff this size was likely made from lightweight linen that was heavily starched with a lace trim. Ruffs were prepared by servants and pressed using a custom-designed piece of heated metal, called a tally iron. You can see more examples of ruffs in the Gallery’s collection at the links below.

As you've probably guessed from the title, the sitter’s identity is unknown. We can tell from her clothing, including her leather gloves and the embroidered gold thread, that she was likely from a well-off middle class family. Her clothing is well cared for, uses expensive fabrics, such as her gown of black watered silk, and her family could afford to have this beautiful portrait painted of her, which would not have been cheap. We don't know that her family definitely commissioned this work, although it is likely. Rembrandt spent most of his career in Amsterdam, where this sitter’s likeness would have been painted.

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Other examples of ruffs in portraits:
Woman Reading a Letter
Man Writing a Letter

Room 38

Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667), Woman Reading a Letter & Man Writing a Letter, 1664–1666

These two paintings are a pair. Can you tell what story they are telling? Dutch artists used symbols and imagery in their paintings to tell a story. Some of these symbols can be found in the sitters’ clothing.

  • How would you describe the man’s clothes?
  • Can you see his white flowing sleeves?
  • Did you spot the wide brimmed hat with the feather hanging on the back of his chair?

Because of the hat’s position we can guess that the well-dressed man is about to leave. The globe in the background hints that his journey might be a long one.

  • When you look at the woman sitting in the second painting, what do you notice about her clothes?

The ermine fur around her yellow jacket, the plucked hairline and the gold detail on her skirt are all signs of a well-to-do woman. In her haste to read the man’s letter, she has dropped her thimble and her shoe on the floor. This is often read as the sign of a wild or irresponsible woman and has erotic connotations. Perhaps she is casting aside her responsibilities to spend time with the man. This is further developed with her bonnet and the curl on her forehead representing her engaged or married status.

The rich fabrics and decadent details are also a reflection of the international and domestic powers that the Dutch had in the 1600s. Their trade routes and alliances meant that these fabrics, including the rug on the man’s table, and the styles that accompany them, were imported from around the world.

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Oil painting of Gleaners
Jules Breton (1827-1906), The Gleaners, 1854. Photo © National Gallery of IrelandCredit

Room 2

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton (1827–1906), The Gleaners, 1854

Not all costumes in art are used to represent power or status. Artists’ inclusion of specific styles tell us other things about how people lived.

  • What can you tell about the people in this painting based on their outfits?
  • Can you see any holes in their clothes?
  • Are all the figures wearing shoes?

They are wearing clothes that tell us they do not come from a wealthy background. They cannot afford decadent fabrics and ornate accessories. They have to mend their clothes and work in what they have.

The artist, Breton, has depicted the clothing worn by farm labourers of a rural town called Courrières in France during the 1800s. The women wear long shirts with aprons. Some have their heads covered to protect from the warm evening sun. A woman in the foreground is wearing a red head covering. It stands out to the viewer’s eye. However, it may not have been true to life. Artists at the time used subtle techniques like this to catch our attention.

Breton also uses a pink blouse to highlight the woman on the right, who was modelled by his fiancé, Elodie. Neutral tones were cheaper to achieve in clothing at this time, so it is likely that the artist has added the vibrant red and pink for our benefit.

  • Does one figure stand out?

Have you noticed the man standing on the right of the painting? He is a Garde-champêtre, part of a rural police force. His role was to maintain the peace while the women and children gathered the leftover crops after the main harvest. This was called gleaning.

  • How has Breton differentiated him from the rest of the crowd?

He stands taller and his clothes are slightly better quality than the others.

  • Have you spotted his hat?
  • Does it remind you of anyone?

It is the bicorne hat worn by those who fought in the Napoleonic campaigns, which happened several decades before. Why do you think he is still wearing the hat?

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Three-quarter length portrait in oil of a young man wearing an elaborate embroidered cape, ruff and cap, and holding a sword.
Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625), Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), later Duke of Parma and Piacenza, c.1560. Image, National Gallery of IrelandCredit


Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532–1625), Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese (1545–1592), later Duke of Parma and Piacenza, c.1560

Have you ever posted a photo of yourself on social media so that you could show your friends and family how good you look, or how well your life is going? If you have, you're not alone! It's actually something that has been happening for centuries!

Take this painting, for example. At this point in his life, the fifteen-year-old Prince Alessandro Farnese was living in Spain under the care of King Philip II. He was there to make sure that the rest of the Farnese family fell in line with the King’s rule. However, this portrait shows a strong independent young man, looking directly at us.

He wears a buff chamois leather cape, which is finely embroidered with gold and silver wire, with pearls along the trim and lined with ermine fur. He has a matching leather doublet or ‘guibbone’ over a white shirt with goffered or fluted ruffs on the sleeves and collar. The Prince wears a black velvet hat with more pearls, some gems and ostrich feathers as decoration. His round trunk hose sit on his upper leg with stuffing or padding to maintain the unique shape.

As we have seen in previous paintings, artists used costume and fashion to illustrate their sitters' wealth and status, just as some do now on social media. They used these portraits as an advertisement for their own self-advancement and promotion. This became a well-established practice in the 16th century, particularly at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, which the future Prince Farnese visited shortly before this portrait was painted.

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Full length portrait of man wearing a pink cape and ostrich-feather hat
Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738-1800), in Robes of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland Credit


Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738–1800), in Robes of the Order of the Bath, (1773–1774)

We have looked at how fashion and costume convey status in portraits, however there are very few portraits in the Gallery that convey grandeur as well as this portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont. This portrait is two and a half metres (over eight feet) high. It hangs at the end of the Grand Gallery and catches the eye of every visitor that enters the beautiful glass-ceilinged room.

  • How would you describe this man?
  • How would you describe his clothes?

The robes, sashes, stars, tassels and headpiece are all part of the habit, or traditional robes, of the Order of the Bath. Can you also see his white silk doublet, knee breeches and silk shoes with ribbon rosettes, to which he added metal spurs? This portrait was painted to commemorate the occasion of the Earl being awarded the Order. However, this is quite different to the normal format for this order’s commemorative portraits. Normally the sitter would hold the ostrich feather headpiece under his arm or rest it on his knee.

  • What do you think the Earl is saying by choosing to wear the headpiece?

Perhaps your view of this painting would change if you knew that the vibrant pink was once a deep red instead. Over time, the red pigment has faded to a lighter pink. Time has played a trick on us. Not only has it changed the colour, but time has also changed how we see poses and mannerisms. To a 21st-century viewer, the Earl looks quite flamboyant and a bit camp. However, to the Earl, this pose might have been a strong nonchalance. He leans on his sword, wearing the bold headpiece as if to say that he knows his place in the world and the power that comes with it.

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