Working Titles – The Banshees of Inisherin


Colm via Film Fugitives

Working Titles takes a closer look at specific films with a denim and workwear aesthetic with the goal of examining the material’s shifting cultural image.

Most movies set in the 1920s feature wardrobes decked out in beautiful tailored suiting. Filmmakers like to take advantage of the legendary style of the jazz age, and rightfully so. The 1920s truly were a golden age of men’s formalwear that continues to inform our style to this day. The Banshees of Inisherin is not one of those movies. 


Padric, Colm, and Colm’s dog on the shore of Inisherin. Image via Searchlight Pictures.

Set in 1923, Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece about the falling out between two former best friends has a beautiful wardrobe —despite the fact there isn’t a single piece to jazz age tailoring. The wardrobe’s beauty lies in the subtle ornamentation that decorated common clothing of that age. The inhabitants of Inisherin island, located off the west coast of Ireland, wore rich textures and colors for such modest people. 

The plot of the film is rooted in Brian Gleeson’s character, Colm, deciding that he no longer wants to be friends with Colin Farrell’s, Padriac. The story is told from the perspective of Padriac who is completely surprised by Colm’s decision and seeks an explanation. Colm is resolute in his decision yet unwilling to elaborate on his motivation, at least at first. The movie plays out as Padriac seeks an answer from his best friend of so many years, exposing the nuances of life on this tiny island. 


A group of armed young men during the Irish Civil War.

What is not immediately clear to anyone without specific historical knowledge is that the entire dispute between Colm and Padriac is a metaphor for the Irish Civil War that took place from 1922 to 1923. Colm’s decision to abruptly dissolve his long-standing relationship with no clear explanation represents the IRA breaking with the Provincial Government of Ireland after they signed a peace treaty with England. Colm’s resolution to enforce his breakaway from Padriac with increasingly drastic measures, despite the harm it caused himself, represents the damage caused by the IRA’s instigation of the war. 

The metaphor runs much deeper than that, with nuances and hidden details occurring throughout the film. So in the avoidance of spoilers and in the interest of style, we’ll focus on the wardrobe going forward. 



Padraic in his blue roll neck sweater. Image via Searchlight Pictures.

Since the film is set within the fishing and farming culture of Western Ireland, any discussion of style has to begin with sweaters. Ireland’s greatest contribution to global fashion has to be big chunky wool sweaters. The Banshees of Inisherin features so beautiful examples. 

Padraic wears the two best sweaters in the film. The first is a royal blue ribbed sweater with a huge rolled-down turtleneck pictured above. This is a fundamental example of Irish fishing sweaters from the turn of the twentieth century. They were built to protect the wearer from the wind, rain, and sea, in an age well before modern artificial fabrics. Wool was all they had and they wielded it masterfully. By the 1920s, Irish culture had been spinning and knitting wool for thousands of years. They used wonderfully detailed knitting techniques to create robust sweaters that looked beautiful and kept the fickle Irish weather at bay.

Wool is a little miracle of nature. It is water resistant because it does not quickly absorb moisture. It is wind resistant because of how tightly it can be spun and woven. Since the wool fibers are hollow, they create strong insulation to trap in body heat. Most remarkable of all is that wool is naturally antimicrobial so the invisible little critters that make your cotton clothing smell bad can’t live on wool. It is no wonder that sheep can survive in some of the harshest environments on earth. 


Padraic in his red collared sweater. Image via Searchlight Pictures.

Padraic’s other wool sweater is unlike any you can find today and very much unique to early twentieth-century Ireland. His red collared sweater, decorated with complex geometric knit, was pulled from archival photos. Delia Barry, a master of Irish knitwear from Kindlestown, Ireland, was contracted to create historically accurate knitwear for the film. She gathered photos of fishermen from the west coast of Ireland taken in the 1920s and recreated their sweaters by hand. According to an interview she did with Greystone’s Guide, she used a magnifying glass to get the details of the knitting just right. 


A early twentieth century photo depicting a sweater similar to Padriac’s. Image via PBS.

When observing photos taken of common Irish folk from the early twentieth century, it is remarkable how well-dressed they were despite living in what we would consider poverty today. Although they lived in an agrarian economy, so the concept of poverty as we know it in the modern capitalist context is different. They didn’t have enough money to purchase new clothing every few months, or even every year, but the clothing that they did own was very high quality. All things in their society were built to last, to be mended and repaired over and over. You could own three pairs of pants because they could withstand being worn a few times a week, every week for years.


Padraic discusses his predicament with Dominic. Image via Searchlight Pictures.

The film’s costume designer, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, did an excellent job recreating the proud attire of these humble people. Men owned a jacket or two akin to modern blazers and wore them almost every day. Waistcoats, or vests, were fashionable and came in some beautiful fabrics. They owned a few shirts in rich colors and patterns. Even though they didn’t own much, they wouldn’t leave their house without an outfit that we would consider formal by modern standards. 



Colm via Film Fugitives

Colm’s wardrobe is highlighted by a few key pieces that deserve as much attention as Padraic’s sweaters. The first being his wide wale corduroy waistcoat. It has four pockets, with his pocket watch tucked into the lower left one. It has a small-notch lapel which was very common for that period. However, the most notable feature of Colm’s waistcoat has to be the dark burgundy color. It perfectly represents the color pallet for the film’s wardrobe which is dominated by dark, rich, earthy colors. These colors were clearly chosen to tie the people of Inisherin to the natural tones of their island. The notable exception to this being Padric’s sister Siobhan who does not feel tied to the island, and thus wears dresses in vibrant colors and textures. 


Colm’s mac style coat. Image via Searchlight Pictures.

Next up is Colm’s full-length mac-style coat that almost resembles a duster. In 1923, the trench coat had only just been invented and was still exclusively worn by the English military. So Colm’s jacket is what most men wore before the trench entered popular fashion. It is an early twentieth-century variation of a mac coat, a style that originated in Scotland in the early 1800s. There are two large chest flaps which are either pockets or simply decorative details. The is clearly the only coat Colm owns and even by today’s standards, if you’re only going to own one coat it is not a bad choice.


A production photo showing Colm’s hat. Image via IMDB.

Finally, there is Colm’s wide-brim hat. It’s a black matte fabric which means it is probably wool, given the context. The brim is extra wide which would provide protection from the frequent rain on an island like Inisherin. The band is bold brown and it is difficult to tell if it is leather or more likely a slightly textured fabric like a cotton-silk blend. Colm’s hat is not only stylish but it is very functional given where he lives. Everything he and his fellow islanders own had to check both of those boxes. 

Authenticity was vital to McDonagh when he was making this film because the characters were tied so strongly to a very specific time and place. Western Ireland of 1923 had to saturate every frame. The location, the dialect, the mannerisms, and especially the wardrobe had to be absolutely accurate to support the metaphor of the film. The story of the film stands alone as both entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking. Then when you learn of the historical context on which the film is commenting, you gain an even deeper appreciation for the meticulous details. 


Colm and Padraic ride home from town. Image via Searchlight pictures.

Inspired by the prolific Irish writer Samuel Beckett, McDonagh comments on events that took place on a grand scale by telling a story about two men on the smallest scale. An interpersonal relationship between two people touches upon all the complexities of a civil war that tore an entire country down the middle. In order to keep the story rooted in context, the viewer has to lose themselves in the time and place of a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923. The Banshees of Inisherin accomplishes this transference perfectly, thanks in no small part to the wardrobe.

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