Following on from Part 1 where I looked at the origins of the Welsh painting ‘Salem’ that depicted what was meant to be typical Welsh costume, my research led me to the understanding that the traditional Welsh costume had actually come about more as a marketing ploy than as a definitive look practised by the Welsh.
The popularity of the tall, wide brimmed hat started in the 1830’s, when it was a fashion in both England and Wales for women to wear such an item. Traditionally made of linen buckram covered with silk plush – the same materials that were used for men’s top hats. From the 1770’s to the 1830’s it has been commented on that women in Wales wore men’s hats – or as we would look at it now, unisex hats!
A similar style, tall and brimmed hat was worn by Princess Victoria and her mother when they visited North Wales in 1832, both wearing what was termed a ‘Welsh Hat’ when visiting Bangor. At the time there was a riding hat called the ‘Anglesea’ hat which may well have been the royal choice.
The hats were first produced in quite large numbers by two English firms, Christys of London and Stockport, and Carver and Co of Bristol. Christys was established during the 18th century and continued into the 20th but little is known of Carver and Co.
The BBC has a great clip from Welsh Icons about the history of the Welsh hat.
Some visitors to the area, in the period 1830 – 1854, recorded their observations of women wearing hats, not all are complimentary!
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 … “
There is a suggestion that Lady Llanover, (Augusta Hall, 1802-1896) brought about the introduction of a national costume, however, this is more than likely to have been mainly in her own circle and purely for festivities, publicity and for fun. So who did wear the Welsh hat? Well it seems that it was worn by successful farmers wives’ and daughters and on days to impress such as market day, chapel and as part of the ‘Sunday best’ clothes which included a bedgown – a type of over dress. By the end of the 19th century however, and rolling into the early 20th century the wearing of the costume and especially the hat had moved to very special occasions such as Royal visits or staged photographs.
Today the costume is bought for little girls for St. David’s day celebrations and is worn by women at national choir events or for the tourists.