Analysis: from Steve McQueen to Marilyn Monroe, many high-profile stars have take a shine to the traditional Aran geansaí long before Tay Tay came along

By Mary Burke, University of Connecticut

When Taylor Swift dropped her album Folklore in July, its title and the Aran jumper she wore for an accompanying photoshoot were a combination calculated to signal authenticity. But Swift was not the first musical artist to use the garment to bolster such a message. In the early 1960s, Irish musicians the Clancy Brothers, who emerged in the hip Greenwich Village folk scene that would also make Bob Dylan, famously wore Aran jumpers on the Ed Sullivan Show

From the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem perform "Wild Colonial Boy"

In the same decade, Bryan MacMahon's RTÉ-broadcast pageant for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Easter Rising, which strove to create an image of Ireland as progressive, directed narrators to wear "Aran ganseys" in order to suggest "the Ireland of to-day." In short, in the 1960s, this garment could signal both heritage and modernity, and an outline of its history helps to explain this seeming paradox.

The "traditional" Aran hand-knit made from báinín (undyed yarn) had a surprisingly late evolution, since it was islanders’ adaptation of the ganseys of British fishermen who came to Aran as part of a fisheries improvement project in the early 20th century. Given the role that America eventually played in the Aran jumper trade, there is a nice circularity to the fact that, as Elizabeth McCrum notes, islanders also drew on European knitting patterns brought back from Boston by returned emigrants in devising the Aran version of the fisherman’s sweater, a garment found throughout northern Europe.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, MoMA New York curator Michelle Millar Fisher on how the Aran jumper became an iconic fashion item

The Aran jumper’s history as domestic-market commodity is also relatively recent. In the 1930s, Muriel Gahan, a founding member of the Arts Council, began to sell the garment in The Country Shop, her Dublin fair-trade outlet for Irish crafts. The style was also sold in that decade by Cleo (Dublin) and O’Máille’s, the Galway business that later popularised Irish tweeds in the United States by costuming male cast members of The Quiet Man

However, Ireland’s promotion of quality heritage goods to prosperous Americans began in earnest after the world's first duty-free shop opened at Shannon Airport in 1947. The massive increase in American visitors to Ireland from the 1950s, due to the growth of the airline industry, created the Aran jumper as global-market commodity.

By 1959, Ireland’s first women’s glossy magazine, Creation, was describing Irish knitwear designer Maureen Evans as "the Balenciaga of hand-knits" due to the profits she was accruing by selling modernised Arans to American tourists. A further link between the rise of the trend and post-war tourist dollars is that Evans credited Kay Peterson, a former manager of Shannon’s duty-free shop, as the first person to promote Arans as high fashion. Peterson went on to become Dublin’s most avant-garde designer during the 1960s.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Mornings with Dave Fanning in 2013, why the Aran sweater is big in Japan

American stars Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly were all photographed or filmed wearing Aran or Aran-inspired knitwear in the 1950s and 1960s. The garment even influenced the British and French fashion scenes: Dublin-born London designer, Digby Morton featured Aran-"inspired" handknits in his 1955 autumn show in London, garnering Vogue’s attention. By 1960, Irish Times' fashion editor Caroline Mitchell was noting that the Irish hand-knit look was evident in that year’s Paris couture woollens.

The fashion for Arans also impacted less rarefied realms, since knitting outwork is a neglected aspect of Irish women’s economic history. By the time it was featured on RTE in 1963, one Galway Aran knitwear store was being supplied by over 500 local home knitters

From RTÉ Archives, a 1963 report on Broadsheet about Standun Gaillimh Teo in An Spidéal which is famous for its Aran sweaters and knitwear

A 1966 article in the RTV Guide (forerunner of the RTÉ Guide) tied the trend to increased sales of TV sets in the period, since knitting could be completed as the housewife relaxed in front of the new device! Interestingly, a government-commissioned study of the period revealed that the main household income on some farms in the Irish-speaking west actually came from the wife’s knitting rather than farming. 

Inevitably, the transformation of a heritage craft into a fashion commodity meant that Aran knitwear would go out of style. The market contracted as the trend for synthetic clothing increased after the late 1960s and as an improved Irish economy led to knitwear outworker wage-hikes (and thus higher prices). By 1973, a survey showed that some tourists to Ireland found Aran jumpers "bulky and unfashionable."

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, design historian Linda King on the high profile stars who've taken a fancy to Aran jumpers

It is worth stressing that in the Aran’s post-war heyday, the Clancys wore their hand-knits on American television and the garment was predominantly exported abroad or bought in Ireland by tourists. Aran jumper knitting patterns did circulate in Ireland from the 1960s on, but as Hugo Hamilton suggests in The Speckled People, his memoir of growing up in 1950s Dublin as the son of a German mother, the Aran jumper was not always a credible garment in post-war urban Ireland, even at the height of its fashion moment. Hamilton was forced to wear an Aran jumper in the hope that it would make him a cultural insider, but it simply reinforced the half-German child’s outsider status in the eyes of his bullies.

Even if Aran jumpers have another global fashion moment as a result of Swift’s photoshoot, they may not be seen on the backs of many actual residents of Ireland. After all, Swift can pose in an Aran jumper and not look kitschy, but could a 21st-century Irish pop star really get away with it?

Professor Mary Burke is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut where she directs her department's Irish Literature and Honors programs. She is the author of 'Tinkers: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller (Oxford University Press)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ