TBT: Michael Collins (1996)


I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to watch Michael Collins (1996), the biopic about the Irish revolutionary, soldier, and politician who was active in the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Free State that followed until his assassination in 1922 — but I’m pretty sure it was Liam Neeson-related. Overall, the film was entertaining for about the first three-quarters, but dragged near the end and I admit I fast-forwarded through much of that. There’s definitely some problems in terms of historical accuracy in the film, and reading that mid-way through also helped me lose steam. Nonetheless, Neeson and supporting actor Aidan Quinn both give good performances as revolutionaries, and Julia Roberts wasn’t quite as terrible as I expected as Kitty Kiernan, the woman who comes between them — although I felt like her role was far larger than necessary. Oh, but Alan Rickman was unnecessarily mustache-twirly as Irish statesman and Collins’ opponent, Éamon de Valera.

Let’s move on to the costumes, which were designed by the great Sandy Powell, and hit all the right notes for historical accuracy, character, and theme. While Powell often brings a twist to her designs, she went very straightforward here, noting, “I have done a few historically accurate things. Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins is about actual events in the 1920s” (Jennifer Jenkins, “Dressing for drama,” Victoria 17/1, Jan. 2003: 44).

Since there’s a LOT of boys in the film, first let’s look at men’s dress from 1919-22, the focal years of the film. Luckily we have photos of the real people involved, so that makes things easy! World War I was just ending, and as a result, men’s clothing — usually three-piece suits including jacket, waistcoat, and trousers — tended to be relatively fitted with narrow-ish lapels, ties, and collars. Hats were still de rigeur when outside. Hairstyles tended to have a definite center or side part, and were shorter on the back/sides and longer (but not TOO long) in front.

Michael Collins, 1919, via Wikimedia Commons

Note the tie clip and Collins’ hairstyle | Michael Collins, 1919, via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Boland, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, before 1922, National Library of Ireland

All three Irish revolutionaries/politicians are in three-piece suits with hats | Harry Boland, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, before 1922, National Library of Ireland

We can also look at images of other men from this era:

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921

Check that hair parting and the fact that his lapels are pretty narrow | F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921

French fashion poster. Men in blazers, coats and smoking coats. Au Bon Marché, Paris, 1920-21, Nordiska Museet

Trousers were also relatively narrow | French fashion poster. Men in blazers, coats and smoking coats. Au Bon Marché, Paris, 1920-21, Nordiska Museet

The male characters are indeed in three-piece suits with hats, and the lines of the clothes suit the era:

1996 Michael Collins

Collins/Neeson and Quinn/Boland wear homburg hats (popular from the 1890s) and three-piece suits. Note Neeson’s watch chain.

1996 Michael Collins

Even when he’s ready to get down and dirty, Neeson is in a collared shirt, tie, and waistcoat.

1996 Michael Collins

Collins’ tie is navy blue with small dots, and his hair is definitely longer and floppy.

1996 Michael Collins

Eventually Collins helps to lead the Irish Free State, and wears a formal uniform as he does.

1996 Michael Collins

Here’s that costume/uniform on display.

Irish revolutionary Michael Collins (1890 - 1922), leader in the Sinn Fein movement, stands outdoors on a dirt path, dressed in the uniform of Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Forces, 1922, National Library of Ireland

I’ll let those who are excited about military uniforms look for any mistakes | Irish revolutionary Michael Collins (1890 – 1922), leader in the Sinn Fein movement, stands outdoors on a dirt path, dressed in the uniform of Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Forces, 1922, National Library of Ireland

1996 Michael Collins

Damn but that man can wear a uniform! I think it’s the height. And the shoulders. Grrr.

1996 Michael Collins

Rickman as Valera (far right) is the most formally dressed in terms of his shirt collar and the splash of red in his tie, but they’re all in somber colors.

Alan Rickman historical costume moviesMichael Collins (1996)

Compare the glasses…

Eamon de Valera, 1918-21, National Photo Company Collection

With these worn by the real deal | Eamon de Valera, 1918-21, National Photo Company Collection

1996 Michael Collins

Stephen Rea plays a composite character who is working for British.

1996 Michael Collins

Charles Dance has a small role as a British officer, and at one point he takes his shirt off, and hoo boy!

Now let’s look at the ladies, more specifically, Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan. Here’s the real Kiernan:

"Kitty Kiernan To become Nun" press photograph, 1922, Whyte's

“Kitty Kiernan To become Nun” press photograph, 1922, Whyte’s

Filling that out with some other period images, we can see that in 1919, women’s dresses were above ankle-length, somewhat loose but with a defined waist, and featured tunic overskirts and wide, pointed collars; hats were relatively wide with deep crowns. Hair hadn’t yet been bobbed, but was usually pinned up with some fullness over the ears.

1919 fashion plate

Sears, Robebuck and Co., 1919

By 1921-22, the waist COULD be lowered but not by much (if at all), dresses were even looser and hems were slightly shorter, and hats had narrowed a bit.

1921 fashions

Photographs, 1921, Gallica

Blouses from a 1920s catalogue

Blouses from a 1922 “National Cloak & Suit Co.” catalogue

1996 Michael Collins

Roberts begins in this wide-collared blouse and wide sash, appropriate to the era.

1996 Michael Collins

Her bangs aren’t my favorite, however. It seems a bit early for these!

Late 1910s hairstyles

I’m more used to seeing faux-bangs like these | Late 1910s hairstyles, Photodetective.co.uk

American Hairdresser, 1924

Roberts’s seem a bit more like these mid-1920s styles | American Hairdresser, 1924

Michael Collins

Roberts gets a number of suit-style looks. This one has lots of soutache trim on the coat, and that velvet hat is great.

Michael Collins (1996)

The skirt length looks good for 1919ish, too.

1996 Michael Collins

She also gets this blue summer suit with a lovely, curved-brim hat.

1922 Simpson Catalog

There’s a similarly curved hat (top right) in this 1922 Simpson Catalog, but I’ve seen the shape back in the late 1910s

1996 Michael Collins

Here’s another teens or right-about-1920 suit-y look.

1996 Michael Collins

The hat was sold online.

1996 Michael Collins

As was this suit.

1996 Michael Collins

She sticks with these kind of looks for several years…

1996 Michael Collins

But eventually starts to look more typically 1920s, like this cloche hat (Photo By Getty Images)

1996 Michael Collins

She wears this lovely embroidered coat and hat…

1996 Michael Collins

… to go shopping for wedding dresses near the end of the film.

1922 The Delineator

There’s a similar silhouette (top right) in this page from The Delineator, 1922


Have you seen Michael Collins? What’s your take on the costumes?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

      • M.E. Lawrence

        Yes! I also want to see the whole movie again, both for the costuming and because I’d forgotten that there’s a whole quartet of divos: Dance, Neeson, Rea and Rickman.

  1. Boxermom

    Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Eamon de Valera was one of the reasons I couldn’t stand him. And then, of course, I saw him as Severus Snape. Ahh, that voice… Meanwhile, I didn’t realize Julia Roberts was that tall! I would barely come up to Liam Neeson’s chest (5ft. nothing). :)

  2. Al Don

    I quite enjoy the movie, performances, costumes, atmosphere. Stirring use of Elliot Goldenthal’s “Coda” which he actually wrote for Heat 1995 but didn’t get to use.

    The account of Michael Collins’ death by a first hand witness (a soldier on Collins’ side) is slightly more chilling than in the film, but you have to wonder what sort of accounts existed at the time the movie came out.

    One side bit of trivia is that British director John Boorman filmed a behind-the-scenes shot for his short in the series Lumière and Company (1995). Top name directors were given an actual vintage Lumière cameras and replica film stock and asked to make whatever with it (with some constraints). Boorman’s resulting footage in my opinion looks like genuine WWI-era footage if it weren’t for the modern actors. I think it’s a good demonstration that you can mimic the look of vintage film if you use genuine vintage material:

  3. ED

    I remain sad that Mr Liam Neeson never managed to make LINCOLN with Mr Stephen Spielberg – he’d have fit the role quite superbly (Though in all fairness Mr Daniel Day Lewis is more than merely adequate as his replacement).

    MICHAEL COLLINS? I prefer to draw a veil of tactful silence over this era, so I’ll only say that the fact Mr Brendan Gleeson has played General Collins AND Sir Winston Churchill is one of the more amusing accidents of showbiz history.

  4. Ciara

    I’ve never seen it. As an Irish person it seems like it would be a bit depressing with all the executions and assassinations.

  5. SarahV

    Liam Neeson was at the height of teh Hotness (sic), here. Lordy.

    (also, Charles Dance is still surprisingly ripped!)


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