Did Welsh women really wear the high crowned black hat that often appears in pictures which purport to portray historic Welsh costume? The answer is yes, but this must be qualified. It seems to the writer that 19th. century romanticism gave the tall hat an importance that it did not really deserve. The drawing above is based on a carving in Llanvetherine church near Abergavenny in south Wales and is thought to represent the wife of a vicar who died in 1621. This is, however, a very rare example and I found no further instances of such headgear in a fairly comprehensive survey of Welsh memorial church brasses. In fact, the women portrayed in these memorials are more likely to be wearing a hat which resembles the American Stetson!
The following extracts (all culled from "Letters from Wales" edited by Joan Abse, Seren, 2000) demonstrate that the tall hat was a common sight in the first half of the 19th. century, at least in north and mid Wales.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, writing from Aberystwyth in 1839. "I cannot say that I have seen much worth the trouble of the journey, always excepting the Welsh-women's hats which look very comical to an English eye, being in truth men's hats, beavers, with the brim a little broad, and tied under the chin with a black ribband. Some faces look very pretty in them."
Charles Greville, writing from north Wales in1841. "It has an odd effect to see the women with their high-crowned, round hats on in church; the dress is not unbecoming." And later: "The women, in point of costume, have no resemblance to English women. Besides the round hats which they almost all wear. and which, though not unbecoming, give them a peculiar air, a great many of them though not all of them, wear a sort of sandal on their feet ... "
Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing from north Wales in 1854. (Hawthorne made several visits to north Wales during his stint as American Consul in Liverpool). "Many of the Welsh women, particularly the elder ones, wear black beaver hats, high crowned and almost precisely like men's. It makes them look ugly and witch-like. Welsh is still the prevalent language ... "
But can we assume that such hats had remained in fashion since the 17th. century? This seems unlikely. In 1834, Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover, won a prize for an essay on the "advantages of preserving the language and dress of Wales" at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. Although of English parentage, Lady Llanover had become an ardent supporter of Welsh traditions and customs. Servants at her estate in south Wales were issued with her concept of a Welsh costume and she invented (and published) a series of costumes which were supposed to be typical of the various Welsh counties. Her aim was to revive the Welsh flannel industry but there seems little doubt that she succeeded in skewing our concept of Welsh costume. (Unwittingly, she also succeeded in skewing, for many years, our understanding of Welsh history by becoming a patron of the antiquarian and manuscript forger Iolo Morganwg - but that's another story!)
In his wonderful little book "The South Wales Squires" (published in 1926) Herbert M. Vaughan observed rather acidly: "Like many aliens of a fanatical nature, Lady Llanover ruthlessly inflicted her new fad on all and sundry. As the countryside around Llanover was wholly anglicized, she met this difficulty by importing a number of monoglot Welsh-speaking Methodists from North Cardiganshire, and their pastor with them: a step that naturally did not please the local vicar, with whom her ladyship speedily fell out". (For another viewpoint see Helen Forder's Lady Llanofer >)
See also a note on Welsh costume from the Museum of Welsh Life.
|John Weston / Data Wales 2001|
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