The traditional and most recognisable image of the Welsh national dress or costume is that of a woman in a red, black and white woollen cloak with an accompanying tall black hat.
This image is one which largely developed during the nineteenth century. During this period the traditional values of Welsh culture were under threat and the development of the image of the Welsh national dress was played a part in safeguarding Wales’ identity.
Prior to the late 18th / early 19th century there was no such thing as a Welsh national costume. During the 1830s, Lady Llanover, the wife of an ironmaster in Gwent, was very influential in encouraging the wearing of a ‘national’ dress. She considered it important to establish a Welsh national identity as at this time many felt their national identity was under threat. She encouraged the Welsh language and its day to day use and the wearing of an identifiable Welsh costume, based on the rural women’s traditional dress.
The traditional Welsh dress was primarily worn by women in rural areas of Wales and it was based on a type of bedgown made from wool and worn over a corset. This was teamed with a printed neckerchief, a petticoat, apron and knitted stockings. The dress was completed by a high crowned hat reminiscent of 17th century fashions and a red, caped cloak.
Perhaps one of the most famous historic occasions where the Welsh national costume was worn was in 1797 when the last invasion of mainland Britain took place. Not many countries can say that a foreign army was defeated by women dressed in their national dress.
The last invasion of Britain took place at Fishguard in Wales in 1797, when French troops successfully landed near Llanwnda. After a looting spree during which much wine was consumed (a Portuguese ship had been shipwrecked just a few days earlier and her cargo ‘saved’ by the locals), many of the invaders were too drunk to fight. Within two days, the invasion collapsed, and the French surrendered to a local militia force.
Strangely though, the surrender agreement refers to several thousand British redcoat soldiers coming at the French – but there were only a few hundred soldiers in Fishguard! However, in this rural area, the Welsh national ccostume was popular and hundreds of Welsh women dressed in their traditional red cloaks and black hats come to see what was happening. At a distance, it appears that the drunken French may have mistaken these women for British Grenadiers!
The day to day use of the costume also came at the same time as the growth of Welsh Nationalism, as the rise of industrialisation was a threat to the traditional agricultural way of life. Another benefit of the costume was that it was made from wool which benefited the Welsh woollen industry.
As the 19th century progressed, the wearing of traditional dress became less popular and by the 1880s the Welsh costume was worn more as an attempt to maintain tradition and celebrate a separate Welsh identity, - it is no longer worn as a day to day costume.
Today Welsh costume is worn on celebration and ceremonial days and in particular on the 1st March each year, St David's Day and by performers at concerts and eisteddfodau. It is also very important for the tourism and Welsh gifts industry.
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