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 Welsh hats at market, chapel and church and at special events when they wore their ‘Sunday best’ clothes which included a gown or bedgown.
Most of the illustrations and descriptions of Welsh hats are of women at, or going to or from market. It has been suggested that the Welsh hat was worn by those who wanted to distinguish themselves from the poorer women by wearing a headgear which could not possibly be worn when carrying loads of goods or pitchers of water on their heads (as is shown in many images of Welsh women). (Gibbs, Michael, ‘Wales for Sale’, Minerva, The Journal of Swansea History, X, pp. 49-55) However, at least two prints show the Welsh hat carried by its ribbons from the waist while the owner carried goods to market on her head.
The prints by Rock and Co. and Newman and Co. of the 1840s to 1870s show women attending church and chapel in Welsh hats. Curnow Vosper’s painting of Salem, dated 1908, which shows all four of the women in the chapel wearing Welsh hats has reinforced the idea that women wore Welsh hats at worship. However, the prints, which were produced for the tourist market, are almost the only evidence that they were worn in this way, and Salem is looking back to an ideal, perhaps unreal world. Of the 71 references to hats worn by women written between 1729 and 1871, only one refers to wearing hats in church, and this was in reference to high-crowned hats, rather than Welsh hats.
The use of Welsh hats by women who lived in towns is difficult to ascertain since most of the pictures of women wearing Welsh hats in towns are of market women who almost certainly came from their farms to sell their produce.
Pictures of women wearing a Welsh hat while working in agricultural activities are very rare, but there are some exceptions, particularly in Mr and Mrs Hall’s Book of the Wye, (1861).
It is possible that the Welsh hat itself was not as popular as the mass of 19th and 20th century prints and photographs suggest. Most illustrations, even where large numbers of people are represented, show small numbers of women, if any, wearing Welsh hats. Many of these illustrations of women in Welsh hats were produced by English companies for an English market, and it is possible that the Welsh hat was included because it was already an icon of Wales and made the pictures distinctive and easier to sell, and not necessarily because it was commonly worn by all women at special events.
By the end of the 19th century, the Welsh hat was normally only worn for special occasions such as Royal visits and celebrations and by choirs and for staged photographs.
There are a few photographs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries showing large numbers of women wearing Welsh hats for special occasions and they give some indication of the numbers available in West Wales at the time. The women in these photographs may well be wearing old hats possibly ones bought when they were young or inherited from their mothers. The large group of women standing on the steps around the cross at St David’s, Pembrokeshire to greet the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh in 1882 were all wearing Welsh hats. 70 women in Welsh hats are included in the photograph taken at the celebrations to mark the centenary of the Fishguard Invasion in 1897. There is also a photograph of 22 Aberaeron women in Welsh hats celebrating the relief of Mafeking on the 9th May, 1900 and another of the cast of the play Aelwyd Angharad performed by members of Tabernacl, Aberystwyth in 1911 which includes 30 women in Welsh hats.
Many of the photographs of choirs of women wearing Welsh hats date to the 1920s and later, and many are wearing card hats covered with black cotton, probably especially made for the performances.
There is almost no evidence that children wore Welsh hats before the beginning of the First World War: it is thought that most of these were home-made, or mass-produced of felt.
One exception is mentioned by Francis Kilvert in his diary in 1870. He notes that one of his parishioners in Clyro in Radnorshire, Hannah, wore a tall Welsh hat till she was grown up. (Kilvert’s diary, 14th October, 1870).
The Urdd (Welsh League of Youth) established in 1922, does not seem to have had an interest in preserving the Welsh hat. It is not mentioned in the extensive history of the movement and only one photograph in the published history of the movement shows a Welsh hat (while another shows a witch’s hat). However, some of the competitors at Urdd Eisteddfodau, both individuals and choirs, dressed in a version of Welsh costume, with hats especially made for the occasion. Griffith, R.E., (1971), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 1 (1922-1945); Griffith, R.E., (1972), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 2 (1946-1960); Griffith, R.E., (1973), Urdd Gobaith Cymru, cyfrol 3 (1960-1972); Davies, Gwennant, (1973) The Story of the Urdd, 1922-1972
There are a few illustrations of men wearing Welsh hats. Some of these were involved in the Rebecca Riots but a few are cartoons or photographs of visitors to Wales who wore the Welsh costumes which photographers had available for women to borrow when having their portrait taken.