men in Women’s costume

It was not unusual for men to dress as women when taking part in activities which required anonymity. It is said that this arose because women were not considered as responsible for their actions as men, and so were less likely to be arrested and punished, but it is more likely that in wearing women’s costume, men would be less recognisable.

There may well be ancient traditions in which men wore women’s clothes either for entertainment or when exacting  justice on local miscreants (e.g. Cefl Pren).  Extraordinary versions of women’s costumes are still worn by men at carnivals, on New Year’s Eve and fund raising events.


Rhyfel y Sais Bach (The war of the Little Englishman)

It is said that 600 men in women’s clothes drove out a reviled Englishman at Mynydd Bach, Ceredigion, in the 1820s

Williams, David ‘Rhyfel y Sais Bach’, Ceredigion, Vol. 2, no. 1 (1952), p. 39-52; Jones, David J.V. More light on’ Rhyfel y Sais Bach’, Ceredigion, Vol. 5, no. 1 (1964), p. 84-93.

Rebecca Riots

It is well known that men dressed in women’s costume when attacking toll gates during the Rebecca Riots in south-west Wales between 1839-1845. Descriptions of these events appear in contemporary newspapers and magazines, and a few illustrations show the men dressed in Welsh costume while fewer show them wearing Welsh hats. It is unlikely that the artists of these illustrations saw the events they depicted, and based their illustrations on earlier, well known, prints. It seems unlikely that a Welsh woman would allow her husband or son to wear her hat which may well have been one of her prize possessions.

The edition of the Illustrated London News, for 11th February1843 includes the famous illustration entitled ‘The Welsh Rioters’ of a man attacking a gate with an axe, accompanied by a brief description of the activities of Rebecca. (Mary Evans Picture Library)

Print: ‘Rebaccaites, or ‘Beccas.’

The “Rebaccaites,” or “Beccas,” in the second group, are men disguised in women’s large caps and hats, and having their faces blackened: sometimes they wear a women’s bed-gown, a sheet, or their own coat turned inside out ; the more grotesque, the more complete the disguise. They also wear bunches of fern and feathers in their hats; and they carry guns, pick-axes, shovels, sledge hammers, cow horns, etc. With what dexterity they use these weapons and implements, recent events have but too plainly shown.’ Artist unknown (Illustrated London News 11.11.1843).

Print published in the Illustrated London News, 11.11.1843, published in Molloy, P., (1983), And they Blessed Rebecca, p. 103,

Few other illustrations of Rebecca Rioters are known. Punch magazine produced a cartoon with Robert Peel as the gate keeper (published in Williams, David, (1955), The Rebecca Riots, frontispiece). It shows men wearing bonnets and equestrian hats.

Cassell’s History of England includes a romantic illustration of two men dressed in Welsh costume and Welsh hats. (Mary Evans Picture Library)

A French Magazine (L’Illustration Magazine of Paris) published a print in 1843 which shows no Welsh hats. published in : Herbert, T. and Jones, G.E., (1988), People and Protest, Wales, 1815-1880, p. 120; (Mary Evans Picture Library)

[We] stopped to blacken our faces and put on our women’s dresses ~ We certainly were a queer-looking lot of women with black faces, beards and whiskers peeping out under our white caps. We did not much like the dresses, and felt extremely thankful that we were not obliged always to wear such uncomfortable costumes. I remember I thought the Welsh flannel bedgown I had on was the most disagreeable garment I had ever worn in my life. [The woman author speaks as a man playing a woman during the Rebecca Riots]
Dillwyn, Amy, The Rebecca Rioter, (1880) (Republished by Hono Ltd., as The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life (2001), p. 81