This study of Welsh costume developed as a spin-off from a study of descriptions of Aberystwyth by 18th and 19th century tourists. I became aware that descriptions and illustrations of Welsh costume, written by tourists, did not correspond with the perceived history of Welsh costume. It is not always safe to take what tourists wrote at face value, but I felt that this form of evidence deserved further study.
Also, as a curator, I was aware that there had been very few studies of surviving examples of Welsh costume: indeed, almost nothing had been written about the Welsh Hat – a well-known icon of Wales – and what little had been published was at best, unreliable.
Very little evidence for traditional Welsh costume can be dated to before about 1770 but over 70,000 words of descriptions of Welsh costume were written during the late 18th and 19th centuries by over 300 people. Most of these were by English men when touring Wales but the few by women tend to be lengthy, detailed and probably reliable. Few descriptions written in Welsh or by Welsh people in English are known. An English novel by T.J.Ll. Prichard, published in 1828, might have influenced some later descriptions and there are some articles in Y Gymraes, a Welsh language magazine for women, 1850-1851, written mostly by men. No descriptions by the women who wore traditional costumes have been found. [for more on this, see below]
About 700 images (sketches, paintings, prints and photographs) dated 1770 – 1900 clearly depict costume worn by Welsh countrywomen, but possibly only the best examples, not the costumes of the very poor. This is far more than for the whole of the rest of the United Kingdom put together. Many of the prints and photographs of Welsh costume were marketed as souvenirs of Wales from the 1850s; a few were published with bilingual titles. These helped to preserve the concept that there was something unique about Welsh costume. Reports of protests and riots in Wales, especially during the 1840s, and major events such as Royal visits and the opening of railway stations were published throughout Britain and were often accompanied by illustrations of women in traditional costume. The colours of costumes on hand-coloured prints is not always reliable – they may well have been coloured by people who had never seen original costumes.
A similar number of early 20th century photographs were published. Most of these were postcards, some based on earlier photographs while others were comic.
In addition, poetry (including ballads); account books of woollen manufacturers and vendors; newspapers and other types of archive have been studied.
Surviving examples of costume
Museum collections, mostly in Wales, but some in Hereford, London and Liverpool, and some private collections include gowns (about 40 known), bedgowns (about 10), cloaks (about 10), Welsh hats (over 350); small numbers of sleeves and stockings, and hundreds of skirts, petticoats, shawls and aprons. These vary in date from probably the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Some costumes made for choirs, Eisteddfodau competitions and marketing events between about 1920 and 1970, also survive.
The evidence cannot always be taken at face value.
- It is likely that much of what was written about Welsh costume and the choice of subjects that were illustrated, was influenced by the observer’s preconceptions or commercial interests. Many of the visitors to Wales at the end of the 18th century came in search of the picturesque or an idealised life style (Eden or Arcadia). They were often delighted to find that many of the women they saw were healthy, happy and pretty and wore a costume which was distinct from that of English maids and this may have coloured what they recorded.
- Our knowledge is influenced by what has survived: the selection influenced by owners and curators. Inevitably the best, the special and the most unusual has been preserved and generally the common and poor quality has not. Most examples may well date to the late 19th century or early 20th century when Welsh costume was being worn only for special occasions or by elderly women at special events.
- Most of the surviving costume cannot be dated with any confidence: even where information about the date and ownership of some costumes were supplied by donors, there are some doubts as to its accuracy.
- Drawings, paintings and photographs may well have recorded only the best or unusual examples of costume. For example John Thomas photographed many women in Welsh costume (mostly in one of three sets of bodice, skirt, apron and hat supplied by him), but he took very few photographs of women in working costume. One exception is his portrait of ‘Shonnett & Cady’ of Llanfechell in working dress and he took another of them in their best dress. (NLW JTP072, JTP074).
- The provenance of many of the surviving fabrics is uncertain – it is almost impossible to identify the mills at which most of the fabrics were made.
- The oldest surviving examples of Welsh fabrics may well be those on the Welsh costume dolls, but these require further analysis and dating.
- The influence of Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover, 1802-1896) on the development of Welsh costume, has probably been greatly exaggerated.