Welsh National Dress

Welsh costume

The popular image of Welsh 'national' dress, of a woman in a red cloak and tall black hat, is one which largely developed during the nineteenth century. It was part of a conscious revival of Welsh culture during a period when traditional values were under threat.

The costume regarded as national dress is based on clothing worn by Welsh countrywomen during the early nineteenth century, whch was a striped flannel petticoat, worn under a flannel open-fronted bedgown, with an apron, shawl and kerchief or cap. Style of bedgown varied, with loose coat-like gowns, gowns with a fitted bodice and long skirts and also the short gown, which was very similar to a riding habit style.

Picture postcard of girls from Solva, south-west Wales, 1880-1900

The hats generally worn were the same as hats worn by men at the period. The tall 'chimney' hat did not appear until the late 1840s and seems to be based on an amalgamation of men's top hats and a form of high hat worn during the 1790-1820 period in country areas.

Lady Llanover, the wife of an ironmaster in Gwent, was very influential in encouraging the wearing of a 'national' dress, both in her own home and at eisteddfodau. She considered it important to encourage the use of the Welsh language and the wearing of an identifiable Welsh costume. She succeeded in her aim mainly because people felt that their national identity was under threat and the wearing of a national costume was one way to promote that identity.

Picture taken in Dolgellau, 1929

A further influence was the work of artists producing prints for the rising tourist trade, which had the effect of popularising the idea of a typical Welsh costume, and later the work of photographers who produced thousands of postcards. This contributed to the stereotyping of one style of costume, as opposed to the various styles which were worn earlier in the century.

Is there such a thing as a Welsh kilt?

The harpist at Llanover Court, 19th century

Although Lady Llanover created 'a weird and wonderful' costume made for her court harpist (see photograph), she was not particularly concerned with a national costume for men. As a result, Welsh men do not have a national dress, although attempts have been made in recent decades to 'revive' a Welsh kilt which never in fact existed!

Even in Scotland, there is evidence to show that the kilt as we know it today is a comparatively modern development from the belted plaid, which was a more substantial garment worn across the shoulder.

Shawls

Shawls were the most fashionable of accessories between 1840 and 1870. The most popular were the Paisley shawls whose pattern originally came from Kashmir in India.

Paisley shawl

At first plain shawls with a woven patterned border attached were the most common. Later many fine examples with allover and border patterns were woven in Norfolk, Scotland and Paris. Shawls of the middle of the century were very large and complemented the full skirts of the period. Shawls were made in other fabrics and patterns, including Cantonese silk and fine machine lace, though it was the paisley pattern which became very popular in Wales along with home-produced woollen shawls with checked patterns.

In later years, although fashionable women no longer wore shawls, smaller shawls were still made and worn by countrywomen and working women in the towns. By the 1870s, cheaper shawls were produced by printing the designs on fine wools or cotton. Even during the early years of the twentieth century woollen, knitted and paisley shawls were widely worn in rural Wales. The paisley shawl even became accepted as part of 'Welsh' costume, though there is nothing traditionally Welsh about it at all.

Carrying a baby in a shawl "Welsh fashion"

One tradition of shawl wearing which is truly Welsh is the practice of carrying babies in a shawl. Illustrations showing this have survived from the late eighteenth century when Welsh women wore a simple length of cloth wrapped around their body. When shawls became popular, they were adapted to the same use, and some women even today still keep up the tradition.

  • National Museum Cardiff

    National Museum Cardiff

    Discover art, natural history and geology. With a busy programme of exhibitions and events, we have something to amaze everyone, whatever your interest – and admission is free!

  • St Fagans National History Museum

    St Fagans

    St Fagans is one of Europe's foremost open-air museums and Wales's most popular heritage attraction.

  • Big Pit National Coal Museum

    Big Pit

    Big Pit is a real coal mine and one of Britain's leading mining museums. With facilities to educate and entertain all ages, Big Pit is an exciting and informative day out.

  • National Wool Museum

    National Wool Museum

    Located in the historic former Cambrian Mills, the Museum is a special place with a spellbinding story to tell.

  • National Roman Legion Museum

    National Roman Legion Museum

    In AD 75, the Romans built a fortress at Caerleon that would guard the region for over 200 years. Today at the National Roman Legion Museum you can learn what made the Romans a formidable force and how life wouldn't be the same without them.

  • National Slate Museum

    National Slate Museum

    The National Slate Museum offers a day full of enjoyment and education in a dramatically beautiful landscape on the shores of Llyn Padarn.

  • National Waterfront Museum

    National Waterfront Museum

    The National Waterfront Museum at Swansea tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales, now and over the last 300 years.

  • Rhagor: Explore our collections

    Rhagor (Welsh for ‘more’) offers unprecedented access to the amazing stories that lie behind our collections.