There are over 700 18th and 19th century drawings, sketches, paintings and prints in which Welsh costume is either the main or dominant subject.
A similar number of photographs, dating from the late 1840s exist: many of these are staged (i.e. of women carefully posed and often wearing old costumes, or those lent by the photographer).
In addition, thousands of postcards of women in Welsh costume were produced during the first decade of the 20th century.
Artists rarely depicted costume in detail: when figures appeared in the landscape, it was generally to provide a scale for the magnificent scenery. There were exceptions, however. Julius Caesar Ibbetson toured Wales in 1792 and made many exquisite watercolours of the common people throughout the country but like many other artists, the illustrations are often idyllic or sentimental and of young, healthy women and occasionally of old women, and his illustrations include women wearing a lot of white fabrics which no other artist reproduces. This representation of a healthy, well dressed population at the end of the 18th century may have been influenced by the fact that most artists visited during the summer when the population would have been relaxed and reasonably well fed, and also that this is what the artist’s patrons wanted to see. However, it may not be a complete misrepresentation since it is probable that for many, the period that accompanied the early stages of the industrial revolution in Wales was one of prosperity, broken only by a few bad harvests and grain shortages. The impression which visitors give at this time is that the population may have been near the bread line, but they survived and were content with their lot and indeed, may have been better off than their peers in England. Similar late-eighteenth century views of Irish workers contrast with the impression that poverty stalked both Ireland and Wales at that time, but it was the economic depression and potato famine in Ireland and parts of Wales in the 1840s; the prevalence of poor living conditions associated with the rapid growth of industrialisation in Wales; and the reports of the Rebecca Riots and the Inquiry into Education in Wales (The Blue Books) which colour many people’s perceptions of these countries in the 19th century.
Professional artists had to consider what their patrons wanted to hang on their walls. As a result, many images may well reflect the late 18th and early 19th century’s European preoccupation with idyllic, pastoral landscapes in which healthy, happy people lived in unison with their environment, ignoring evidence of poverty and the daily grind. It is probably true that visitor’s interest concentrated in costume worn on special occasions which, it is assumed, conformed more to a tradition than the clothes they wore each day. Other images may well have pandered to Victorian sentimentality, in which representations of poor but industrious people were preferred to those who were indolent.
There were exceptions to these, however. The artists who could afford to be realists, idealists or naturalists may have produced accurate representations of the costumes of the rural poor (who maintained traditions more reliably than the more affluent middle- and upper-classes). [This is an assumption as is the suggestion that the very poor wore whatever they could use, be it their old, repaired costumes, or costumes given to them by philanthropists.] Others who may have recorded more accurately what they saw were those who produced illustrations for newspapers and magazines (the first being the Illustrated London News (ILN) who, from 1842, sent artists around the globe with printing blocks on which they drew in pencil before sending them back to London to be engraved). The ILN was able to publish images of the Rebecca Riots in Wales (1840s), the potato famine in Ireland and the effects of mass emigration from poor areas and immigration to new centres of industry, resulting in much poorer conditions of work for many. Some of the reformers of the time (including artists) highlighted the evidence for overcrowding and extreme poverty, but the images of these may well be more emotional than an accurate reflection of the costumes of the suffering.
The colour of costumes in watercolours and prints
The colours of costumes in watercolour may be more reliable because they were done on the spot but were dependant on the colours the artists carried and on the preferences of the artist. Newell, writing in about 1820, suggested that red cloaks, rather than blue, would have looked better in a landscape picture. (Newell, Robert Hasell, Rev, (1778-1852). Letters on the Scenery of Wales; including a series of Subjects for the Pencil, with their Stations determined on a General Principle; and Instructions to Pedestrian Tourists. London: 1821, p. 61)
The colours on hand-coloured prints varied from one print to the next.
Subjects of illustrations
Most of the illustrations are probably of farmers’ wives and daughters, the latter might have been working as servants on other people’s farms or in larger houses. For example, Lady Llanover and the subject of Pritchard’s novel ‘Twm Siôn Catti’ gathered servants from various counties in Wales and expected them to wear traditional Welsh costumes, but most domestic servants in big houses would probably have worn costumes provided by their employers which might be of cotton and more fashionable than the traditional costume.
A few publishers produced prints of Welsh people for books and for framing: some of the subjects were of the exceptional, others were caricatures. These provided impressions of Welsh costume which later visitors either repeated without comment or disagreed with, saying that they were not typical of Wales, when what they meant was they were not what they happened to see in the places and at the time they happened to be in Wales. These pictures must therefore be treated with caution. (Buck, A., The dress of Domestic Servants in the 18th century, in Strata of Society, p. 10)