perceptions of the development of Welsh costume

This page contains sections on:

  • What is a Welsh costume?
  • The development of a ‘national’ Welsh costume.
  • Who wore Welsh costume?
  • Theoretical development
  • Marking rites of passage?
  • An Icon of Wales
  • Marketing
  • The end of folk costume?

see also Regional variations

INTRODUCTION

There have been few detailed studies of Welsh costume. This might be due to the fact that the little evidence that was available was contradictory and uncomplimentary. Almost all contemporary descriptions and sketches were produced by male tourists to Wales between 1770 and 1870;  surviving costumes probably date after 1870: there are no known accounts of the significance of Welsh costume written by the people who wore it.

Also, its development is complex: the evidence for how it changed from place to place and time to time during nearly 250 years (1770-2015), is patchy.

Some of what has been written about Welsh costume in the past has been influenced by current preoccupations in the interpretation of Welsh history – such as a reaction against it being seen from a English perspective and a move away from a romantic view of the past.

Our perceptions of Welsh costume are influenced by the visitors to Wales who described them (but most of these were men who may already have had perceptions of what they thought it was like); the artists who produced pictures of it (but some of these had to produce images which would satisfy their patrons); the gentry who encouraged people to wear Welsh costume (but they may have been influenced by current fashion); those interested in recording and preserving tradition; the commercial photographers (who wanted to make money out of it) and the women who wore it (of which there are very few first-hand accounts).

What is a Welsh costume?

The mass of evidence for costumes worn by rural women from the 1770s shows that there was something distinctive about them – they were made of wool and were often striped and the women wore a gown or bedgown which was rapidly going out of use in the rest of Britain. The other distinctive attribute was that women often wore men’s hats: the unique component of Welsh costume – the Welsh hat – did not appear until the early 1830s. It is the hat and the gown or bedgown which makes Welsh costume distinctive (shawls, cloaks, skirts and aprons were found in many other cultures).

The development of a ‘national’ Welsh costume.

There was no single style of dress or design, colour, pattern or type of fabric worn by the women of Wales which could be described as National at any time in the past. The costume worn by primary school girls on St David’s day today might appear to be uniform, with its felt Welsh hat (mostly made in the Far-East), red shawl, red skirt, check apron and lacework, but it is quite unlike anything worn during the 19th century.

The costume which developed after the middle of the 19th century is said to have been based on fakelore rather than folklore and was driven more by commercial interests and romance than tradition. It is probably true that this perception of the origins of Welsh costume is as much a myth as the suggestion that the traditional costume is based on myth.  The other supposed influence on Welsh costume was Augusta Hall (later Lady Llanover, 1802–1896) of Llanover near Abergavenny in south-east Wales. There is evidence that certain members of the gentry and nobility recorded and tried to preserve some Welsh traditions, including costume (as did gentry in other parts of Europe, see Maxwell, below) but there is no evidence to show that Augusta Hall influenced anyone to wear a ‘Welsh’ costume other than her close friends, servants and tenants, who wore Welsh costumes on special occasions.

Who wore Welsh costume?

Although there is a lack of any firm evidence, it is probably safe to assume that it was the middling-sort of people, possibly only successful farmers’ wives and daughters who wore their best Welsh costumes (and the Welsh hat) at chapel and church, at special events and especially when they were travelling to and from market to sell their farm produce (which was when visitors noticed them).

Their full, best costume marked them out from the rest of the market sellers. While not going quite as far as Howitt in his description of Dolly Cowcabbage in 1841 in which he suggests that farmer’s daughters are born old fashioned and had old heads on young shoulders (Howitt, William, The Farmer’s daughter in Meadows, J.K., Heads of the People: Or, Portraits of the English, (1841) p. 322), it does seem probable that Welsh market women who lived on farms did retain traditions longer than their sisters in towns and that in some cases, at least, wearing the traditional costume was a deliberate marketing ploy. This does not take account of the fact that many of the young women from the 1840s were wearing a new fashioned item – the Welsh hat.

Souvenir Photographs

There is evidence that some late 19th and early 20th century photographers working in Wales had sets of Welsh costume which women could borrow when their portrait was taken and this tradition goes back to at least 1854 when one of the earliest photographers in Wales, John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Swansea, dressed his daughters in Welsh costume (but without hats) and entitled the image ‘Garden girls in the costume of Glamorgan’. John Thomas took many photographs of young women in the same three sets of costumes.

At present, it is not know to what extent this use of the Welsh costume and hat in portrait photograph was driven by tradition, patriotism or by commercial photographers.

THEORETICAL DEVELOPMENT

Welsh costume probably developed from a practical rural working costume. This may have been unconsciously adopted by the younger women of the more affluent farmers of Wales as a traditional costume. Their best costumes, which were worn on special occasions were recognised by outsiders as a folk costume. Once the traditional costume was supplanted by modern fashions, a National costume was consciously adopted by the middle classes to be worn only at special events.

MARKING RITES OF PASSAGE AND SEASONS?

There is no firm evidence to suggest that there were traditions relating to changes in what was worn or how costumes were ornamented to mark rights of passage, such as achieving a certain age, getting married, having a baby or becoming a widow, but there are a very few indications that women wore caps to cover their hair after marriage, and that cloaks were given to a bride by their mother or husband.

It has been suggested that if a young woman was given a bolt of flannel as part of her dowry, it would last her a lifetime and it is possible that she had a new gown made from it as need dictated. There is, however, no firm evidence of this practice, nor is there any firm evidence that special traditional garments were purchased for weddings and other celebrations. There are very few references to Welsh costume being worn by brides.

Gloves and handkerchiefs and willow caps/ hats were given as love tokens but no other items of costume are mentioned by Catrin Stevens in her Welsh Courting Customs (1993).

AN ICON OF WALES

By the late 1840s the Welsh hat had become an icon of Wales and was used in cartoons to represent Wales as a nation. It may be that the use of this exceptional headgear as an icon of a country which was perceived by many as a male dominated industrial society can be explained by the fact that it is such a simple and unique shape. Whatever the reason, it certainly brought forward the image of happy, hearty, healthy, heard-working and handsome Welsh women, who, quite probably, kept their families alive during difficult times. It was unusual for a woman to wear a Welsh hat without wearing most of the other elements of Welsh costume, especially the gown or bedgown.

THE END OF FOLK COSTUME?

It is the loss of the gown and bedgown from the 1850s which is most noticeable in the surviving evidence, (unless this is just a function of survival of evidence). Photographs show instead, women wearing blouses buttoned up to their necks. There may be a number of reasons for this: firstly, the blouse may have been more comfortable, more fashionable and easier to wash; secondly, the high neckline may have come about as a result of a mid-Victorian concern for modesty; and finally, it may have been an issue of keeping warm and healthy since the latter part of the century underwent a mini ice-age. Those who wore gowns and bedgowns at the end of the century normally wore a large shawl around their necks which they modestly tucked into the upper part of the gown, in stark contrast to the uncovered upper chest that is evident in many late 18th –early 19th century images, including Ibbestson’s watercolours of Welsh women. The issues here are complex however: for example, Ibbestson’s paintings are of care-free, hardworking farm labourers, while those wearing the National costume at the end of the century were standing around at major events under the close scrutiny of many.

By the 1950s the image of a woman in Welsh costume had become firmly established as an icon used in marketing Wales but the skirts were shorter, the aprons often had more lace and the hats were of felt.

The use of lace on more recent costume may reflect more than making the costumes pretty: it might be the result of  bringing them into line with perceptions of other national costumes, particularly European ones seen at the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen, some of which include a lot of lace.

Further reading

Maxwell, Alexander, Patriots against fashion : clothing and nationalism in Europe’s age of revolutions, (2014). Chapter 8 includes an excellent discussion on the attempts of the gentry in many countries to preserve the traditional costumes worn by working people during the 19th century, but his section on Welsh costume contains many simple errors.