Sunday best

INTRODUCTION
It is possibly that many country women had only two sets of clothes – working and best.  There is very little surviving information about the differences between working clothes and best clothes. It is likely that during most of the 18th century there was very little difference between them – only that the latter were probably in better condition. As new fabrics became available and fashions changed, the working clothes might have been of cheaper, lighter fabrics which were more comfortable and easy to wash and the traditional clothes were kept for special occasions.

It is likely that most of the tourists saw only the best costumes – those worn by women going to church or chapel or on their way to market to sell their produce; there are very few descriptions or illustrations of ragged working clothes or of those worn by the very poor.

Replacing old with new
If a set of working clothes became too ragged for repair, it is likely that the best set replaced them and a new set of best clothes was acquired. It is possible that a woman with sufficient planning and savings would have gathered sufficient material in her trousseau for a life time’s clothes, assuming that it could be stored properly, but there is absolutely no evidence for such a practice. There are a few references to new clothes being given to a bride.

There are almost no records for the acquisition or sewing of new clothes – it is likely that until the 1850s, many were made locally, and paid for by barter: very few account books of shops which sold clothes survive, and many of them record the sale of accessories such as shawls and hats rather than any clothes that most countrywomen wore. It is possible that certain items of clothes were sold at market stalls – a few tourists recorded purchasing whittles or stockings in this way.

Easter Day or Whitsunday
One of the references below suggests that a new item of clothing was worn on Easter Day, but during the 20th century  this custom might have moved to Whitsunday (source: personal communication).

REFERENCES TO THE BEST CLOTHES OF COUNTRYWOMEN

This includes the costumes they wore on Sundays or on holidays and at market. In this context, holidays normally means saints days, when parishes held special events.

1798-1801 [?]
In the more unfrequented parts [of Wales] the women seldom wear any shoes, except on a Sunday, or the Market day, and even on those days they often carry them in their hands as they go along the roads.
Bingley, W., Rev,  (1774-1823), A Tour round North Wales including its Scenery, Antiquities, Customs and some Sketches of its Natural History; Delineated from two Excursions through all the interesting Parts of the Country, during the summers of 1798 and 1801, (London, 1804), pp. 490-491

1805 Breconshire
To a tale of woe they never turn a deaf ear … Many a bowl of oatmeal is given away … by those who absolutely want it for their own families, who live more scantily than the poor they support and are more wretchedly clad, the whole of their common articles of wearing apparel would not tempt even the avarice of the collectors for rag fair, if offered gratuitously to them; their Sunday dress (it is true), is rather more valuable, but here too, warmth, and not show, is consulted;
Jones, Theophilus, The History of Brecknock, (1805), vol 1, pp. 282-284

1809-1811
Their clothing both for common occasions and for Sundays and festivals are had in quite sufficiently [sic] abundance / are clean, whole and abundant. (ms. p. 14; printed version, p. 104)
Hall, Edmund Hyde, (1760s?-1824) A Description of Caernarvonshire (1809-1811)
University College of North Wales, Bangor, Penrhyn add. ms. 2942 (published in Jones, E Gwynne, (ed.), A Description of Caernarvonshire, Transaction of the Caernarfonshire Historical Society, (1952)A version of part of this is in ‘An account of the parishes of Llandygai, Llanllechid and Aber forming part of a preparatory draft of ‘A Description of Caernarvonshire’ written 1809-1811 by Edmund Hyde Hall, which forms Bangor MS 908.’ which contains slightly different wording to the Bangor ms. NLW add MS 839C

1816 Beaumaris
We were much struck with the common dress of the women here, and in Wales, who even in their Sunday finery, wear men’s black round hats, with a little cap below it; a headdress which looked very becoming with youthful round faces, but disfigured women of a more advanced age very much.
Spiker, Samuel Heinrich, Dr. Travels through England, Wales, & Scotland, in the year 1816. : Translated from the German, (1820), 2 vol. p. 35

1817 Aberystwyth
All the fashionables, both male and female, seemed to be assembled at the morning service; and their dresses were calculated to astonish the Welch from whose ancient and almost invariable costume they differed so widely. In one pew sat an English lady with a high Leghorn bonnet and trimmings, a green veil and a muslin dress; and by her side a fat Welsh woman dressed in a grey stuff gown, a large shawl, and a long thick blue cloth coat. Her head-dress consisted of a mob cap, a black silk handkerchief tied under her chin and a low black beaver hat. Methought these females formed a ludicrous contrast to each other, and their meeting seemed almost as strange as would be that of the opposite antipodes. (p. 19)
Fisher, Paul Hawkins, A Three weeks tour into Wales in the year 1817 (Stroud, 1818)

1817 (Wales)
lads and lasses in holiday attire … the studious neatness of the dresses of all the females … and the precision with which every article of their national habit was retained in its due and proper place. Freeman, G.J., Rev., Sketches in Wales, or a Diary of three Walking Excursions in that Principality in 1823, 1824, 1825, (1826), p. 96
Repeated in Leigh’s guide to Wales and Monmouthshire: containing observations on the Mode of Travelling … (1831), (4th edition 1839), p. 9

1826 North Wales [fiction]
In ‘the very interior of north Wales’ they encounter the natives in ‘their holiday habiliments, nice black hats and blue petticoats which constitute, indeed, the usual dress of the women, notwithstanding they are content to go barefoot’  and were ‘delighted with their unaffected simplicity’
Weston, Louisa, The Cambrian Excursion, intended to inculcate a taste for the beauties of nature; and to direct attention of Young People to sources of Mental Improvement. (London, 1826), p. 66-67; another edition, 1841

1826 [Lampeter, Sunday]
I saw the good folks pass the window to Church, and the women were universally dressed in men’s hats, both rich and poor; even Ladies of otherwise the most delicate appearance, who were distinguished by some beautiful lace round their necks and riding on horses.
Masleni, Thomas John, Sketch of a Tour of Scenery in Wales, 1826, NLW Mss 65a, p. 71

1827 Caernarfon
September 12th   Witnessed a Welsh wedding, found no peculiarity about it except the great attendance of friends – the couple in this instance were apparently poor, yet they were accompanied by about 50 people respectably dressed in their way – hats and caps, hooded cloaks, stout leather shoes and black worsted stockings.’
Captain Lloyd, A Diary of  Journey from Charring Cross, London, through Wales, by Captain Lloyd, 1827, NLW MS 786, p. 39

1828
Easter-Day is kept as the Sunday is generally kept in Wales, that is, with much and becoming respect to the sacredness of the day. It is also marked by somewhat of better cheer, as a festival, of which lamb is considered as a proper, constituent part. In some places, however, after morning-prayer, vestiges of the Sunday sports and pastimes remain.—It is thought necessary to put on some new portion of dress at Easter, and unlucky to omit doing so, were it but a new pair of gloves or a ribband.
Cathrall, William, History of North Wales comprising a Topographical Description of the Several Counties of Anglesey, Carnarvon, Denbigh, Flint, Merioneth and Montgomery, 1828, vol. 1, Chapter on Modern Manners, Customs, and superstitions of the Welsh,  p. 359 and following

1828 Llanberis
Black stockings, blue cloaks, and men’s hats, all admire,
Which appear’d to be every female’s attire.
From a poem describing a wedding in the neighbourhood of Llanberis, Caernarvonshire, written by a Gentleman who was present at the occasion, quoted by Cathrall, William, History of North Wales comprising a Topographical Description of the Several Counties of Anglesey, Carnarvon, Denbigh, Flint, Merioneth and Montgomery, 1828, vol. 1, p. 359

1833
their stockings are after the olden fashion, that is, without feet, and held down by a loop that passes round one of the toes; these however are only worn on working days; entire hose of excellent manufacture succeed them upon holidays and occasions of dress.
Wright, George Newenham, Scenes in North Wales, (1833), p. 149

1836 Aberafon works [Sunday] school 
All the people were remarkably clean and respectable in their dress and the contrast was so great that we could hardly believe that many of them were really the same as we had seen and pitied the preceding day [at Margam Tin works], then so squalid and dirty – now a pattern of neatness and cleanliness.
Williams, Esther, Diary, 1836, Cardiff Central Library, MS1.521, ‘Saturday and Sunday’

1836  Dolweddelan
– being the Sabbath, I met numbers of old and young in their neat, quaint and antique costume, – the faces of the young maidens sparkling under their large round hats and the children decked out in their old fashioned style.
Roscoe, Thomas, (1791-1871), Wanderings and Excursions in North Wales, (1836), p. 61

1837
[Following a description of the poor state of Welsh cottages]
Yet amid all this filth, and, as we consider, misery, the female part of the cottagers are as spruce in their national costume on Sundays and holydays, and as proud of their assortment of crockery-ware, of which an unnecessary number of jugs forms an indispensable part, as if surrounded with all the more substantial comforts of life. To look at the habitations one would marvel how a clean mob-cap, or a decent coat, could belong to people so apparently lost to all notion of comfort and neatness.
Roscoe, Thomas, (1791-1871) Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales, (1st edition 1837), chapter 3.

1843 Pwllheli
The market is held on Wednesday and Saturday; and from the circumstance of there being no town but this, of any consequence, for an extent in one direction of nearly twenty miles, the markets are numerously attended; and to a person who has never had an opportunity of seeing a large assembly of the natives in their holiday dress, it will appear remarkably striking, and different from a scene of similar nature in England, where the colour of the cloaks, gowns, coats, stockings, and every article of dress, are nearly as various as the persons who wear them: but here, on the contrary, one uniform tint pervades the whole; the men being dressed chiefly in blue, which is the prevailing colour, and the women wearing blue cloaks and men’s hats, with a white muslin handkerchief tied round the head and under the chin ; thus exhibiting one sombre moving mass of black and blue, in all its various shades and modifications.
Parry, Edward, Cambrian Mirror : Or A New Tourist Companion Through North Wales (1843) and subsequent editions, (1851 edition, p. 159)

1844
This was market day. We were delighted to see the concourse of country dames in full national costume and to hear the full tones of this noble language.
Anon, An Account of a Tour in Wales, 1844, NLW MS 10566, ff. 45, 54

1854 Merthyr Tydfil
One of the characteristics of the Welsh population remain in force to a degree sufficient to attract the notice of English persons – the wearing of black beaver hats by the women. Why a woman should wear a black cylinder on her head, and think it becoming, is for the Welsh to say. It may be all very well for Jenny Jones who lives in Llangollen to display a pretty face underneath the broad brim of such a hat but would not the face appear fully as pretty if the head were covered by something more graceful than the masculine hat? … Generally speaking, elderly women wear these hats more frequently than younger damsels, and in the western counties of Wales they are more prevalent than the eastern. There are certain county differences in these hats, some being narrower in the crown than others; having that shape which a geometrician would call a truncated cone. It is a matter of pride to have a hat of fine beaver and high price, and a matter of economy to take great care of it. Many women in the middle ranks of life wear a very common-place bonnet while at their week-day avocations, but reserve the carefully brushed and neatly banded beaver hat for Sundays and holidays. An example of this fashion has lately been mentioned to us. A thorough Welsh lady came to pay a visit to some friends in one of the border towns – a town which is in the transition state from Welsh to English. She came in her black hat; her lady friends were so unused to this headgear, that they refused to walk out with her, and she had to buy and English bonnet to wear … {suggestion that the Ladies of Llangollen wore the black-beaver hat as seen in the print of them}.
Anon, Two days on the Welsh border. Chambers’s repository of instructive and amusing tracts: Volume 4, no 63, (1854), p. 27

Advertisements