Comparing and contrasting Welsh costume with that worn by other regions of Britain and Europe is not easy. There are certainly differences between the costumes of different parts of Europe, both within and across borders. Some of this is functional and relates to the availability of raw materials and the work of the wearer, but most traditional costume is that which was worn on special occasions in which the wearer would show that they belonged to the community and demonstrated that they had both the time and the skills to make something special.
Perceptions of national costumes are often based on those worn during the 20th century. There are several books which describe the national costumes of different countries, but since these descriptions are normally brief, simplistic, romantic and mostly those of the 20th century, it is not possible to use these books for true comparisons. Substantial research into the surviving evidence for costumes worn in most regions of Europe over the past 250 years is still required. Much more evidence is becoming available in the form of digitised descriptions written and illustrated by travellers and much of this is confusing or contradictory. As with the interpretation of Welsh costume, great care has to be taken when using this evidence – most of it was written by transient visitors who may well have recorded what they wanted to see and turned a blind eye to what they didn’t.
In addition to the common practice of wearing special costumes on special occasions, there may well be other characteristics which are common to traditional costumes across at least some borders. Some of this may relate to rites of passage: for example, in some cultures, married women wore something, such as a cap, to distinguish them from unmarried women (but was there any way to distinguish an elderly spinster from her married sisters?). Other traditions may relate to the wearing of certain colours or fabrics to mark an event. Evidence for such traditions is sparse, and can often be related with confidence only to a particular place as is the case with other traditions such as seasonal celebrations.
Most of the published descriptions of costume deal only with fashionable dress for women. The following concentrates on the dress of ordinary, rural people.
No detailed study of traditional costume in England has been attempted and it is likely that there was no one tradition. Anne Buck published widely on the subject, but much of it was on fashionable dress. [Buck, Anne, Dress in Eighteenth Century England, (1979] John Styles has written extensively on the dress of ordinary people in the 18th century but had to rely on very thorough analysis of peripheral evidence which emphasised the lack of useful direct evidence. [Styles, John, Dress of the People, 2010] By the beginning of the 19th century the rural women of England were wearing costumes which were common throughout much of Europe – a blouse, skirt, shawl and some sort of bonnet. It was practical and attractive and was made more often with imported cotton (either in its raw state or already woven), than locally produced wools and linen (or a mixture of the two). Bedgowns of sorts were still recorded, but it may be that they were notable because they were part of an old tradition, worn by old women and the poor.
There is no clear evidence that there were regional variations in England, even in costumes worn on special occasions, but much more work is required on the subject before we can dismiss English costume as uniform and unremarkable. (Welsh costume was recorded because it was remarkable.)
A few writers have suggested that there were regional variations in England (such as that represented by George Walker in his ‘The Costume of Yorkshire’ published in 1814), but this is the result of the chance survival of evidence. The lack of evidence elsewhere doesn’t mean that there were no regional traditions in costume design. A similar lack of evidence for regionalisation of other traditions which were remarked on by visitors to Wales, such as the bedecking of graves with flowers and evergreens, has produced a lack of evidence for such practices in most of England, and it is this lack of evidence which makes research so difficult. This may well be a function of the fact that visitors only recorded what they considered unusual. They normally concentrated on visiting places of picturesque beauty, racing through the English countryside on their way to Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, Ireland or the continent without comment, partly because they were in such a hurry and partly, we assume, because they were familiar with much of what they saw on the main routes across the country.
Little research on the traditional costumes of the women of Scotland has been published. Most work on Scottish costume relates to that worn by men much of which was invented.
Trevor-Roper, Hugh, The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland in Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, (1983)
Cheape, Hugh, Tartan, the Highland Habit (National Museum of Scotland, 1991, 1995, revised and updated 2006)
Dunbar, John Telfer, The Costume of Scotland (1984, 1989)
There are two books on Irish costume [Dunlevy, Mairead, Dress in Ireland, (1989) and Brid Mahon, Irish Dress, 1974] in addition to a number of articles on costumes worn in particular places [Crawford, W.H., Provincial Town Life in the early 19th century : An Artist’s impression, and Bourke, Marie, Rural Life in Pre-famine Connacht, both in B.P. Kennedy and R Gillespie (eds) Ireland: Art into History, (1994) respectively pp. 56-59 and 68-70]
Crawford concentrated on a wonderful series of watercolour drawings of people, mostly women in Waterford and Dungarvan by an anonymous artist, probably dating to the 1820s. [now in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum] These show that the women were wearing large hooded blue cloaks (very much like those found in Wales) and plain fabrics for the rest of their costumes.
Joshua Strangman, (a quaker of Waterford), reported to the Poor Commissioners in 1836 that clothing was improved within the last 15 years because of the ‘reduced price of manufactured goods and the universal use of cotton. Formerly the females of this district were attired in garments of a particular fabric, a sort of thick woollen stuff manufactured in this city; its texture was exceedingly strong, and a gown or other article made from it would last for several years; … the present low price of calicoes has, however, completely superseded the use of this fabric, and the manufacture of it, which about 30 years since gave employment to some hundreds of weavers and woolcombers, has now altogether ceased …’. [Poor Inquiry, Ireland, (1836), xxxi, p. 352]
The inability of the woollen industry to compete with the introduction of cheap cotton goods, led to its demise.
The preponderance of cloaks in the set of Waterford people shows that the women were protecting themselves from the elements while selling their goods outside.
41 cloaks are represented: none are red, 27 dark blue, 9 black, 3 grey and 2 light blue. No slits for arms, or collars. Drawstrings around the hood, hems bound with ribbon, sometimes of a contrasting colour. Heads covered in kerchiefs (no hats).
It is said that on Sunday the peasantry are all well clothed, but their working clothes are indifferent. There is a great improvement, generally speaking, in their clothing, but there is room for much more. They manufacture at home the flannels for the gowns and petticoats, and the lining of men’s clothes. They also make their own stockings; but, for the most part, purchase the materials of which the other parts of their dress are made. Women generally make all their own clothes except their gowns. The use of shoes and stockings is increasing; thirty years ago shoes and stocking were not worn by one-third of the labouring class; now a large majority have them. [Poor Inquiry, Ireland, (1836), xxxi]
The album is similar to the sketches of people in Youghal in 1831 by Samson Towgood Roche (also a miniature artist). Kinmonth thinks that he was responsible for this set too [Kinmouth, Claudia, Irish Country Furniture, (1993), p. 76]
Claudia Kinmonth’s work on Rural interiors has brought together many images of Irish peasants in their homes [Kinmonth, Claudia, Irish Rural Interiors in Art, (2006)] and an exhibition on the subject was accompanied by a substantial catalogue with further analysis of the subject. [Murray, Peter, (ed), Whipping the Herring, Survival and Celebration in nineteenth-Century Irish Art, (2006)]