Welsh Costume. Frequently asked questions

The following are attempts to answer some of the common questions. The words in blue are hyperlinks to much more detailed information.

What was distinctive about Welsh costume?
What was the gown and bedgown?
Did each county in Wales have distinctive costumes?
Did each county in Wales have distinctive colours of fabric?
Did Welsh women always wear red cloaks?
Where did the Welsh hat come from?
I want to re-create a Welsh costume – where can I find a traditional pattern and cloth?
Did Lady Llanover invent the Welsh National Costume?
Was there ever a Welsh National Costume

There are lots of images of Welsh costumes made for dolls on this site.

Museum curators are often asked about Welsh costume. One curator said that many enquirers were disappointed by the answers he gave because there are no simple explanations.
The history of Welsh costume is complex because:

  • the evidence is inconsistent and sometimes contradictory;
  • people’s perceptions of Welsh costume has been coloured by myths and misunderstandings
  • it is very difficult to date many surviving costumes

Welsh costumes were influenced by many factors including:

  • changes over the 240 years since it was first identified in the 1770s
  • local customs and products
  • the class of the wearer
  • attempts to ‘preserve’ traditional costume by the gentry
  • the availability of imported fashions and fabrics, especially cotton

What was distinctive about Welsh costume?
Tourists to Wales in the 18th and 19th century noticed that many of the countrywomen in Wales wore costumes which were distinct from those worn by countrywomen in England. The main differences were that: they were made of wool; the fabrics were striped and they wore a gown or bedgown.  Welsh women generally did not wear stays. One of the most distinctive features was that they wore men’s hats (known as beavers), from which the unique Welsh hat was derived.

What was the gown and bedgown?
Gowns and bedgowns are essentially loose jackets.
Gowns were often well tailored; had a low-cut top; short sleeves; were open at the front below the waist and had a long tail at the back: all the surviving examples were made of wool.
Bedgowns (which were never worn in bed), were loose, short, enveloping, T shaped jackets with short or long sleeves and simple or large collars. They were often made of printed cotton, but some woollen examples survive.

It is likely that gowns and bedgowns were worn all over Europe until the 18th century but they survived in Wales into the 19th century.

Did each county in Wales have distinctive costumes?
It is possible that different parts of Wales had distinctive costumes but there is no firm evidence for this.
Only one type of garment varied in design from place to place: the gown or bedgown

  • Pembrokeshire and its borders – plain brown or dark red flannel jackets with short tails
  • Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion striped dark-blue/black and red flannel gowns with long tails
  • north-west Wales – wrap-over bedgowns of printed cotton
  • south-east Wales – possibly long-tailed flannel gowns, but later photographs show wrap-over bedgowns
  • central Wales – very little evidence survives

Did each county in Wales have distinctive colours of fabric?
A wide range of coloured Welsh fabrics have survived, especially those with bright stripes and illustrations indicate that other patterns were worn. However, it is not possible to say whether a particular area produced a distinctive pattern because we do not know exactly where many surviving garments were made, but the following might be true for the earlier part of the 19th century:

  • plain red woollen shawls or whittles were worn in south Wales from Swansea westwards, including parts of Pembrokeshire (but they might have been worn elsewhere)
  • striped dark-blue/black and red flannel in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion for gowns only
  • brown or dark red flannel for Pembrokeshire gowns
  • check fabrics from Swansea eastwards, including the vale of Neath

Did Welsh women always wear red cloaks?
‘Blue is the colour of Wales’, as one reliable tourist wrote in 1796 and most of the evidence suggests that cloaks worn by women in Wales were blue, while red ones were worn in England. Red cloaks probably became more common after the 1860s when traditional Welsh costume was dying out, and an interest in preserving it, and wearing it at special events became popular.

Where did the Welsh hat come from?
The very distinctive Welsh hat with a tall crown and broad, stiff brim first appeared in about 1830
There is no certain explanation for its origin.
It has been suggested that the Welsh hat was based on the type of hats worn by men during the 17th century (sometimes known as puritan hats). These, like Welsh hats, had tall, tapering crowns and broad brims, but they went completely out of fashion by the end of the 17th century and there is no explanation as to why the style might have reappeared in Wales during the 1830s.

Before the 1830s women in Wales wore simple shaped hats made of felt , often described as men’s hats. Some of these were tall with narrow curved brims while others were short with broad brims. It seems likely that in north Wales, a fusion of these two shapes – a medium height hat with almost straight sides and a broad brim – was first worn during the 1830s. It is possible that this was the type of ‘Welsh hat’ worn by Princess Victoria and her mother when they stayed in north Wales in 1832. This type of hat became popular in north Wales while a taller, slightly conical hat was worn, initially in south-west Wales, and spread to much of the rest of Wales.

Most of the surviving Welsh hats were made in England and are covered in silk plush but a few were made by Welsh hatters. It is extremely difficult to date Welsh hats, but it is likely that most surviving examples were made between about 1840 and 1880.

I want to re-create a Welsh costume – where can I find a traditional pattern and cloth?
No patterns for gowns survive, but Ceredigion Museum has one which was taken apart – there are photographs of it on this site.

The bedgown is a very simple design, just a T shape, sometimes with gores in the side to give it a flare, and often with squares of fabric sewn into the armpits to make it more comfortable. 19th century patterns of such bedgowns for the poor are known.

All the rest of the garments are simple – the skirts and underskirts are rectangular pieces of cloth, gathered at the waist, and sometimes with a waistband of a different fabric.

Some mills in Wales now produce fabrics similar to those worn in the past, but the range, colour and quality vary from mill to mill. Full Welsh costumes for children are now available from a number of firms, mostly based in Wales, and are for sale in some shops.

Were paisley shawls made in Wales?
Paisley shawls are those with a distinctive pattern, originally woven in wool, then later printed onto cotton cloth, especially at Paisley in Scotland. They were sold and worn in Wales but there is no evidence that shawl with Paisley patterns were made in Wales. The paisley shawl is associated with Wales mainly because of the two very popular paintings of women wearing them by Curnow Vosper at the beginning of the 20th century.

Is there a traditional Welsh shawl?
Shawls were worn by many women all over Europe and beyond, during the 19th century. There are two main types: those worn every day, normally of woven wool, and those worn as fashionable items by the well-to-do, made of woven wool or printed cotton or silk. Some Welsh country woman had a fashionable shawl for ‘Sunday best’. Shawls worn by countrywomen in Wales were either relatively small, square and often of dull, natural colours, or large square or rectangles, often of red, white or cream, which were used as nursing shawls.

Did Lady Llanover invent the Welsh National Costume?
Lady Llanover wrote and published an essay for an Eisteddfod competition in 1834 on The Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costumes of Wales but she wrote very little about Welsh costume, other than suggesting that wearing woollen fabrics were good for the wearer and the Welsh woollen industry. She probably also commissioned a set of 13 prints of Welsh costumes from various parts of south Wales. Neither the essay or the prints were particularly well known until the 1950s when she was credited with recording, preserving or inventing Welsh costume, and many writers since then have suggested that she was responsible for the creation of a national costume. However, there is very little evidence for this. Her influence was restricted to the costumes worn by her staff and circle of friends, and the Eisteddfod prizes for Welsh fabrics and Welsh hats that she and her friends sponsored were awarded to craftsmen who worked under her influence, or to no one, because her criteria were impossible to achieve.

Is there a traditional male costume in Wales?
All the evidence suggests that during the 18th and 19th century Welsh men wore costumes like those worn by men in England and in other European countries, according to their status. They generally wore jackets, waistcoats, shirts, breeches and stockings, with a heavy coat when necessary. It is possible that the main difference between men’s costumes in Wales and those worn in other places is that more Welsh costume was made of locally produced wool. Many Welsh countrymen’s jackets, breeches and stockings were dyed blue.

During the early part of the 19th century, there was an interest in costumes worn in mediaeval Wales, and it was from these studies that Lady Llanover and her circle developed a costume for men, especially her harpers.

There is absolutely no evidence that men ever wore kilts in Wales, and there is little evidence that countrymen wore smocks as some did in England.

Was there ever a Welsh National Costume?

The most distinctive elements of traditional Welsh women’s costume were the man’s hat (which was replaced by the Welsh hat from the 1830s); the gown or bedgown made from striped or checkered wool; the separate sleeves; the plain red whittle or blue cloak; the check apron; the nursing shawl and the footless stockings. These were seen in large parts of Wales by tourists from the 1770s until the 1840s who were aware that they were distinct from traditional costumes worn in other places. However, other than the hat there were many variations in detail from place to place and time to time and it is not possible to identify an ensemble of costume and accessories which could be described as National.

An attempt to preserve or revive traditional Welsh costume in Swansea in the 1880s led to the creation of what might be described as a National Costume – the most distinctive features of which were the Welsh hat over a cap, and costumes made of plain red fabrics, such as skirts and a cloak.  A variety of gowns or bedgowns were worn with  a shawl, apron, and knitted stockings.

Market women wore old costumes, sometimes augmented by mass-produced and imported accessories, partly out of pride but also as a marketing ploy. Middling and upper class women paid for versions of Welsh costume which they wore at special events such as coral performances, Royal visits and when they organised marketing events to sell Wales as a tourist destination and to sell the products made by Welsh craftspeople in large towns in Wales and England.

From the beginning of the 20th century, primary school girls wore a version of the traditional costume on St Davids day and soon after 1947, Welsh dancers were taking seriously the production of Welsh costumes which they wore when performing, prompted by other national costumes which they saw at International Eisteddfodau at Llangollen.

Most of these costumes were identifiably Welsh, mainly because the distinctive Welsh hat made them so, but the wearers were from the upper and middling classes, not those who would have worn traditional costumes in the past.