The surviving evidence shows that visitors to Wales recognised that women in parts of rural Wales wore costumes which were distinct to those worn in England although women in Welsh towns and those who lived near the Welsh-English border or near busy ports were already wearing English fashions made of cotton by the late 18th century. Few late 18th and early 19th century tourists reported regional variations within Wales – indeed many suggest that the costume was uniform throughout Wales, but this observation was often based on very limited evidence.
Several people who lived in Wales suggested that there were regional variations, not just from county to county but from valley to valley, and this may well have occured as a result of the distinctive patterns in the fabrics of woollen mills. However, it is not possible to identify the places where the majority of surviving examples of Welsh costume were made or worn, and the illustrations are not detailed or reliable enough to help identify differences from county to county, let alone valley to valley.
The evidence also implies that different styles of traditional costume were worn from time to time, from place to place and from class to class within Wales so it is not possible to define a single tradition which developed into a truly national Welsh costume until after the traditional costume had gone out of general use.
There is clear evidence that there were regional variations in at least some components of the costumes worn by women in late 18th and early 19th century Wales, mainly the gowns and bedgowns.
Surviving examples, images and descriptions suggest the following:
- Pembrokeshire: plain brown or red/brown flannel short-tailed gowns
- Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire: Blank or dark blue and red striped flannel long-tailed gowns
- North-west Wales: Printed cotton bedgowns
- South-east Wales: Printed cotton bedgowns
- Central south Wales (Swansea – Neath area): Check fabrics.
Welsh hats in north Wales were, initially, normally drum-shaped, while those in south-west Wales were originally taller and conical but spread to the rest of Wales, probably as a result of the marketing efforts of the English firms who made them.
A few people reported regional variations in detail:
The dress of the female in Gower is a short jacket and petticoat, with a straw hat, and a piece of coarse red cloth, about two yards long and one wide, with a deep fringe on one side, carelessly thrown over the shoulder ; hence denominated a Gower whittle. Those of Celtic origin wear a long gown, a long blue cloth cloak, and a beaver hat.
[Pembrokeshire] The Flemmings … appear determined to exhibit their different origin in their mode of dress. That of the women in the Welsh [north] part is a jacket and petticoat of checked worsted, or lindsey wolsey stuff, with a cap tied under the chin, and a large, broad brimmed, high-crowned, beaver hat: while that of the women of this part of Pembrokeshire [the south] is a thick, heavy cloth gown and petticoat, with a hood hanging from it behind, generally of a dark colour, and instead of a cap, a large handkerchief wrapped about the head and tied under the chin: sometimes they wear over it a shallow crowned beaver hat, similar to the milk maids of Gloucester and Somerset. If the addition of a cloak becomes necessary, they throw over their shoulders a whittle of the same heavy cloth with the gowns, but generally white or scarlet.
The people of South Wales are different in person, language, dress etc from those of North Wales. … their dress varies in almost every county.
Evans, John, B.A., Letters written during a tour through South Wales … (London, 1804), pp. 257, 435, but much of the first part is from Wyndham, A gentleman’s tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, in the months of June and July, 1774 … 2nd edition, (1781), p. 67.
T.J. Llewelyn Prichard wrote a novel, published in 1828, in which he described the variety of costumes worn by the servants of the main character whom he had gathered from various parts of south Wales.
Lady Llanover, whose library was catalogued by Prichard, probably commissioned the set of prints, produced in 1834 and 1835, of costumes worn by ‘girls’ in various parts of Gwent, Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire. Her essay, however, makes no mention of regional variations, but the eisteddfod prizes which she sponsored occasionally refer to distinctive patterns in fabrics (rather than styles of costume).
It is possible that Prichard deliberately emphasised the variations in costume to encourage tourists to visit Wales, but it is not known whether he influenced Lady Llanover in the content of the prints ascribed to her.
Prichard’s novel went through at least 8 editions during the 19th century. Marie Trevelyan repeated much of what Prichard had written about costume in his novel thus reinforcing the idea that there were regional variations. (Marie Trevelyan, Glimpses of Welsh Life and Character (1893), pp 167-170)
The work of Prichard and the stories associated with Lady Llanover form an interesting contrast. Squire Graspacre in Prichard’s novel collected a maid servant from each of the counties in south Wales which he had visited, (except Radnorshire which was already being influenced by English fabrics and fashions) and wanted them to retain their traditional dress. His wife insisted that the girls wore and paid for, cotton costumes which upset the girls who, Prichard believed preferred the traditional homespun. In a rage, the squire burnt these cottons, and told his wife that ‘no further liberties should be taken with their national costume’ but she responded by suggesting that the girls ‘might all walk abroad without any dress at all if he chose’. In contrast, it is implied that Augusta Hall employed Welsh speaking girls from different parts of Wales, and she may have adapted their woollen costumes to make them lighter, brighter and more fashionable, but the girls are said to have secretly changed for more fashionable costumes at the estate lodge when they went out. (Letter from Winifred Carter, nee James, 6th February, 1968 concerning her memories of what she was told about Lady Llanover. NLW Facs. 369/22).
The other surviving essay of the 1834 Cardiff Eisteddfod provides more detail:
What is called in Dyfed ‘pais a gŵn bach’ a petticoat and bedgown, forms a peculiarity in the Welsh female dress. In Flintshire, and the parts of Wales bordering upon England, these garments are made entirely from a mixture of flax or cotton and wool, called linsey Woolsey. But as we ascend the mountains something warmer is necessary to defend against the cold of winter and the sudden rains of summer. The material here is a thick flannel, nearly as thick as cloth, and striped alternately dark and dark red. In the upper parts of Cardiganshire, and in all the most mountainous districts, the skirts of the gown are made to descend almost to the ankle. In Dyfed, they are cut in an oval form, and very short, so as to appear like a man’s jacket. The skirt of the petticoat is generally hemmed with scarlet tape, which in the vale of the Teifi is called ‘cadys coch’. The sleeves are turned up above the elbow and from the elbow to the wrist loose sleeves of cotton, with a running string at each end, are generally worn. Aprons of linsey Woolsey, or of check, are used, as the gown is open before. Over the shoulders, an oblong piece of flannel is thrown, in Dyfed and other places. On week days, white flannels are generally seen, but on Sunday, all appear in their home-spun shawls, of beautiful and brilliant crimson. These red coverings made the French who landed in Pembrokeshire during the late war think that the immense multitude which they saw lining the cliffs, were all soldiers.
The Rev John Blackwell, ‘On the Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costumes of Wales.’ published in Beauties of Alun; being the Literary Remains, in Welsh and English, of the late The Rev John Blackwell, B.A., (1851), edited by G. Edwards (Gutyn Padarn), pp. 253-266.
This is one of the very rare references to costume worn in Flintshire. Most of the evidence for the wearing of Welsh costume during the 19th century shows that it was found in the western half of Wales and was far less common in the east. Llanover, in Monmouthshire was occasionally referred to as an exception to this, probably because of the influence of Lady Llanover.
The plaids peculiar to this valley will be seen in the engraving; each mountain, glen, and district, has a distinguishing pattern.
Young, William The Guide to the Beauties of Glyn Neath (1835), p. 78