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A 'Real' Welsh Costume?

The image of the 'Welsh Lady', in a tall black hat, red shawl and flannel skirt is very well known. It has become the national costume of Wales. But how does it compare with what was really worn in the past?

Watercolour sketch of Welsh woman knitting, showing footless stockings, mid-19th century
Watercolour sketch of Welsh woman knitting, showing footless stockings, mid-19th century

What is a national costume?

Historians have to use a variety of different information to piece together what people actually wore every day. The created a national costume from clothing worn by women in the countryside. This image has ensured the survival of many elements of real Welsh dress.

Early sources of information

In order to discover the true nature of rural dress within Wales during the 18th and 19th centuries, it is necessary to investigate sources from the time. For the earlier period, the main sources are manuscript and published accounts, diaries and letters of travellers to Wales, together with paintings produced by artists who journeyed through Wales.

From the 1830s, there are more frequent accounts from those who lived in Wales, and who had an interest in the Welsh language and traditional ways of life, not only artists and historians, but also enthusiasts such as Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover.

Mass tourism

Later in the century, the arrival of the railways brought the beginning of mass tourism, which generated souvenir prints, china and, finally, postcards. Fortunately, there were also numerous photographers with a real interest in traditional culture, rural crafts and agriculture. They have recorded a lost society, and, incidentally, their clothing. Finally, there is material culture; most of the existing garments in museum collections date from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

Approach with caution

All of these sources must be used with great caution. Most of the literary sources are outsiders' accounts which concentrate on the quaint and unusual. Paintings can be romanticised and photographs often staged. The huge interest in national identity at the beginning of the 19th century within Wales, which resulted in the creation of an artificial 'standard' national dress, has for many years hidden the true, varied image of the rural population.

Rural costume

Careful analysis however can provide evidence for the actual garments worn in everyday life, particularly with regard to working clothes. It is certainly possible to identify elements of rural dress, such as the general use of woollen fabric and the wearing of aprons, kerchiefs and men's hats. Some of this survived as part of rural dress even into the twentieth century.

Workwear or national costume?

Only aprons and shawls have survived in any number. Dresses and skirts were usually worn out or re-used as rags. This is hardly surprising when one considers the condition of some of those depicted in photographs. A number of flannel petticoats, however, have survived, perhaps because, as undergarments, they were protected by skirts. Many of these are kept in museum collections as examples of 'Welsh costume'. They are in fact not garments belonging to a conscious 'national' dress at all, but real 'peasant' or rural dress, part of the flannel-wearing tradition.

Article Date: 6 July 2007

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