INTRODUCTION

This page consists of a brief introduction to the development of Welsh costume.

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It is extremely difficult to summarise or to make generalisations about the history of Welsh costume in a few paragraphs. It varied from place to place, from time to time (over a period of 250 years) and from class to class, and the evidence for it is relatively slight and inconsistent.

Distinctive features of traditional Welsh costume

If a woman was seen wearing a man’s hat or a tall black hat with broad flat brim and a striped gown made of flannel she would be immediately recognised by most people as being Welsh. The Welsh hat was unique to Wales after about 1830 as was the wearing of a man’s hat by countrywomen before that date. Under this was worn a cap, the best examples of which had frills which framed the wearer’s face. The gown and bedgown were a survival of a pan-European costume which survived longer in Wales than elsewhere. The distinctive fabric was a result of the fact that good quality woollen garments were produced cheaply in Wales throughout the 19th century. There is good evidence that within Wales there were some regional variations in the costumes worn by women until, perhaps, the 1860s. Blue cloaks were more common than red ones until the 1860s, but in some places red whittles were worn. The other two main elements of the Welsh costume – the shawl and the apron – were found all over Europe, although the examples made in Wales may have been distinct from those made elsewhere.

It seems likely that the traditional costume began to be replaced, at least in some parts of Wales (especially the towns, industrial areas and on the border with England), from the 1830s, by light, bright, and increasingly cheap, cotton fabrics, popular in England, but traditional costumes continued to be worn at special events, and, most noticeably, by women selling their produce at markets. It is at this time that some gentry made attempts to preserve traditional costume as part of an attempt to safeguard Welsh traditions, and to protect the Welsh woollen industry. Lady Llanover and her circle have been credited with success in this attempt, but there is little evidence that she have much influence on any but her family, friends and staff.

By the 1850s, the costume became the subjects of souvenirscostume dolls, prints and early photographs – which were sold to the burgeoning number of tourists.

REVIVAL

The traditional, practical, locally produced costume worn by countrywomen in Wales became identified as a National Costume after about 1880.  The most distinctive features of this were the tall Welsh hat, a red cloak (replacing the more common blue cloak), a shawl (sometimes of fine imported printed cotton), a skirt made of striped or plain red fabric (but not always of wool) and an apron.

What is clear is that within a decade of the traditional costume becoming rarely seen (from the 1860s), there were calls for Welsh costume to be revived and used at major national events, especially Royal visits. At the first major event of this kind, the visit to Swansea by the Prince of Wales in 1881, modern replicas of a version of traditional costume were worn by a number of women including members of a choir. Thus the costume which had survived longest in the rural parts of west Wales became adopted by the middling classes in the industrial and urban regions of south Wales who may have wanted to either embrace Welshness or strengthen it in an area where the population was increasingly being augmented by migrants from England and elsewhere. It is not known whether the adoption of a National costume was driven by men and women, or by women only. There were suggestions in 1881 that men should wear costumes of Welsh fabric, but there is no evidence that any did.

From the 1880s both old and modern versions of women’s Welsh costumes were worn by performers at concerts and eisteddfodau; by stall holders at fund raising events; at sales of Welsh crafts organised by those to wanted to foster a new market for Welsh products and by formal groups at Royal visits.

In 1897, the centenary of the abortive French invasion at Fishguard in south-west Wales was celebrated by about 100 women in Welsh hats and other elements of Welsh costume. By tradition, women in tall hats and red cloaks had helped secure the submission of the invaders but the Welsh hat did not come into existence until 30 years later, and the women wore red shawls, not cloaks and men’s hats, not Welsh hats.

The numbers of women who wore a variety of Welsh costume after 1860s was normally small and its use was remarkable enough to be mentioned in newspaper reports. Those who wore were older women who wore their own clothes out of tradition or pride; younger women who may have worn their mother’s of grandmother’s Welsh hat when selling their goods at market, and the wives and daughters of the new middle-class families who could afford the money to buy the costumes and the time to attend special events. Although there was only a little encouragement to wear costumes at these events, those few who did were often spoken of with pride.

The young women whom the early visitors to Wales found so attractive and picturesque, were sentimentally described as dear old ‘nannies’ when they were seen wearing their traditional costumes in old age. Only occasionally were they made fun of for being old fashioned. Rarely, such women, possibly the poorer ones who couldn’t afford new clothes, were described as witches or hags, mainly because they wore tall hats.

For some, wearing Welsh costume after the 1880s was an attempt to maintain tradition; for others it was a celebration of increasing confidence in being Welsh. Those who wore traditional costume when selling their goods at market may have done so in an attempt to indicate that they spoke Welsh and also to distinguish themselves both as a group and individually, from vendors of imported produce. For a few it was to do with marketing traditional businesses, especially woollen products and later, Welsh crafts. There is little evidence to support the suggestion that the Welsh costume was worn just to please visitors (and make money out of them), but it possible that this happened.

The young women who adopted Welsh costume for special events after the 1880s were perceived as the spirit of a new Wales. The national costume became associated with success, especially after the Welsh Ladies’ Choir, dressed in Welsh costume, won a prize at the Chicago World Fair Eisteddfod in 1893. This was widely publicised especially after the choir was invited to sing for Queen Victoria.

THE MODERN COSTUME

A modern version of the Welsh costume was worn by primary school girls (age 5-11) on St David’s day (The patron saint of Wales, March 1st), from just before the First World War. These used to be made by relatives from old costumes and any fabrics of the right colours which were to hand, but commercially made costumes are now available. The design, colours and use of lace (which was very rarely associated with Welsh costume during the 19th century), may well be derived from costumes made especially for those competing at the International Eisteddfodau at Llangollen in north Wales (established in 1947) and other events where dancers required a comfortable and practical costume which was distinct from those worn by representatives from other nations. The costume now generally worn by dance teams is based on the tailored gowns originally found in south-west Wales.