It is somewhat invidious to distinguish women’s working costume from other costumes because most women worked most of the time and even when they wore their best clothes, they were often still working, mostly by knitting.
It seem likely that most women in rural areas, (other than the gentry and the wives of professional men), had two sets of clothes – their daily, working clothes and their best clothes, and it is probable that until at least the middle of the 19th century, these were very similar, the difference being that their best clothes were, by definition, newer, in better condition and had more frills than their working clothes.
Women in rural areas were normally only seen by visitors when they were on their way to or from market, church and chapel, when it is assumed, they wore their best clothes and it was the traditional versions of these that visitors found interesting. There are few descriptions of what rural women wore at home because they were not normally seen there by those who described or drew them, or what working townswomen wore because they may well have worn the same sorts of clothes as townswomen elsewhere in Britain and were not worth noting.
Most descriptions and illustrations of costume are of women in good quality ‘Welsh’ costume, but there are some of women in dress more suitable for heavy labour. The women are often shown wearing a high-necked blouse, long skirt and apron, all three of which appear to be plain, dark colours, with few stripes or checks. The shawls, however, were normally striped or checked, but often worn folded lengthways rather than diagonally, forming a distinctive mantle around the top part of the body.
The working costumes worn by women in the heavier industries – particularly mining – were generally ignored by visitors. It would be safe to assume that most of these were made of heavy duty fabrics, unattractive, dirty and much repaired, and not based on traditional styles.
Illustrations of Welsh women in working costume include:
Ibbetson‘s watercolours of women at Paris mine, breaking ore
Cockle women (south-west coast of Wales)
Women carrying large wicker baskets of peat on their backs
Mr and Mrs S.C. Halls’ Book of South Wales, the Wye and the Coast (1861 and ). What is unusual about this collection is the number of illustrations showing Welsh hats, and of these, several showing women in the field or at the beach (with women gathering oysters and mussels): these are almost the only known pictures of women at their normal work, other than going to or from market with their wares for sale which is the subject of most of the other pictures. However, it is only the women at market who wear shiny hats: the remainder look as if the hats are either old and battered or of felt.
p. 313, ‘Mussel Gatherers’, Seven women in a variety of hats including one in a rather dented Welsh hat, another in a low hat with broad brim.
p. 315, ‘Oyster Woman’ Woman in Welsh hat with basket in hand and another on her back.
p. 282, Pit Hands. The women have a variety of headgear, but not Welsh hats
Wirt Sykes (1836-1883, American Consul in Cardiff, 1876-1883) published a number of illustrated accounts of Wales in American Magazines and books. They include women in Tall Welsh hats in fields and working on beaches, but like the Hall’s illustrations, most of the hats appear to be of felt rather than silk.
Rambles and Studies in Old South Wales, (1881) Reprinted by Stewart Williams, (Barry, 1973). This was based on his illustrated articles published in American magazines such as Harpers and some have been republished in ‘Exploring The Wild Welsh Coast 100 Years Ago’ edited by Stuart D Ludlum, (Thames and Hudson 1985)
Coloured postcard, ‘Welsh Fisherwomen’, probably at Tenby 1904 (postmark). The hats are made of felt. (Ceredigion Museum, 2007.87.2)