Welsh Social History
Contents of this section
Welsh peasant costume
A late night service known as the Plygain would be held at many parish churches on
Christmas Eve, the church being lit by large candles and the parishioners reaching
the church in procession. On Christmas day itself the family, together with numerous
neighbours, would sit down at the big table to a feast of goose and beef, followed
by pudding. The farm plough would be placed under the table and every member of the
group would wet it with beer in recognition of its importance in their daily lives.
The bleeding of animals was common in many places on Boxing Day. Possibly a relic
of the tradition of slaughtering the cattle that there was insufficient feed for
after a poor harvest - in the Saxon calendar November was known as 'Blodmonath'
or Blood month. Another old custom was the beating of people's legs and arms with
holly until they bled! On New Year's Day the children would be out from early morning
until midday collecting Calennig - the traditional New Year's gift.
back to the
Another custom associated with the New Year was that of following the Mari Lwyd.
There has been much discussion as to the origins of this old custom which is still
practised in some places today. Some believe it was related to the wooden horse used
in Morris dancing. It is more likely, however, that all old customs that feature
a wooden horse derive from an ancient belief, common throughout Celtic Europe, in
an evil spirit in the form of a mare that had to be kept happy in order to avoid
trouble. In this ritual a procession of people led by Merryman and his fiddle would
walk through the village at night. From the cottage windows the colourful ribbons
of the members of the retinue could be seen through the darkness as they danced and
created a commotion. The Mari itself would be enough to frighten anyone: it was usually
in the form of a real horse's skull with a device that made the jaw open and close
with a snap. It would be supported on a staff and decorated with ribbons and a white
sheet, which covered the skull and the man that carried it. At each house the leader
of the retinue would knock on the door and call in verse on the occupants of the
house to give him a drink. The people in the house were required to try and answer
in verse, and if they failed the Mari would force its way into the house and demand
a drink. Composing verses at short notice in such circumstances was quite a feat,
with a noisy retinue at the door!
Behold here we come,
To ask for permission to sing.
O tap the barrel,
Let it flow freely;
Don't be too stingy with
Let us hear wise men.
How many of there are you,
And what exactly are your names?
Jenkins the parson is coming,
Upon my soul.
He will make you leave my dwelling.
The wooden horse was a common feature in old customs and beliefs in the 19th
C., There is evidence that people who had dared to sleep on the night before Easter,
when they should have been keeping vigil, being punished before an unofficial court
in the village. People would be punished for doing things that were not illegal as
such - simply contrary to local custom and tradition. In mock trials of this kind
people who had done someone a bad turn were harshly criticised, and they were expected
to admit their guilt.
back to the
Welsh peasant costume
Bedgown (Betgwn): This was a loose upper-garment, partly hidden by apron
and shawl. It was made of heavy local flannel and the gown consisted of bodice and
skirt together, the front being open to show the petticoat. At that time the word
'skirt' referred to the lower part of the gown, and 'petticoat' meant what is now
called the skirt.
The hems of skirts were finished with braid of matching or contrasting colour. Bodices
had round or 'V' shaped yokes, and were hooked, (never buttoned) at the waist. Sleeves
were long and tight fitting or sometimes of three-quarter length and fairly wide.
When the sleeves of the bed-gown were short, two detachable linen sleeves were fitted
at the elbow.
This was ankle length, fairly full generally with vertical stripes. The top was gathered
or pleated into a plain grey or black yoke to fit the waist. Two or three tucks were
sometimes added at the bottom for extra firmness or lengthening. The bottom edge
could also be stiffened with a deep hem and braid of a matching colour.
This was universally worn to protect the petticoat front and differed from its modern
counterpart in size only. The flannel colours were mainly grey and black, black and
white, or a combination of all three. It was large and comfortable and used for all
The shawl, a square of flannel folded diagonally, was worn over the bedgown to
cover the low neck-line and to add warmth to the shoulders, a smaller shawl or 'whittle'
or 'turnover', while a large shawl folded along its length was used to nurse a baby
in 'Welsh fashion'. Like all other items of dress, the shawl varied according to
locality. It seem that the favourite colour in coastal areas was red or scarlet,
while black check patterns were favoured in other regions.
This was considered a very important garment which was worn in inclement weather.
It was large enough to cover all the clothing, with sometimes an attached hood to
go over even the tall hat.
The tall beaver or steeple hat, so popular in the 19th C., and looking like a
revival of the 17th C. styles, has long been a controversial topic. It was observed
by some writers that the women among the poorer classes wore the same hats as the
men, while others recorded that steeple hats were not worn as commonly as was thought.
The glossy beaver seems to have been quite expensive, so prohibiting all but the
well-to-do from buying what was considered to be more of a luxury than a necessity.
It was a fashion seen more in larger towns such as Carmarthen, Bangor and Cardiff.
By the end of 18th C., and the beginning of the 19th C. it seems to become more popular
and was made locally, either of felt, beaver, fur or straw. Its shape varied a great
deal with the locality. Some hats were tall, some shallower and squarer, hardly tapering
at all, while others were more cone-shaped.
The straw hat, familiarly known as the 'cockle hat', was flat-topped and very popular
in Gower, so called because it was worn by girls carrying pails and cockle baskets
A neat white, frilled, mob-cap or bonnet of baby style with two strings to tie
under the chin was invariably worn under the hat. This was added protection to the
face and neck. Today the impression is given of a bonnet by sewing white lace to
the underside of the hat brim.
It was not unusual for folk to go barefoot as shoes were expensive items. Usually,
the working people, especially farm-hands, both male and female, wore clogs or wooden
soled shoes for everyday wear. The sole was made of alder with leather uppers fastened
with leather laces. When boots were owned, they were reserved for Sundays and holidays,
such was the regard by the wearers for their treasured possessions.
The Welsh national costume is worn by women on special occasions such as St David's
Day, folk dancing and eisteddfodau, but there is no evidence that Welsh women in
general dressed in such a fashion.
It seems that Welsh country folk dress remained the same throughout the 18th C..
The garments worn were not typically Welsh, but contemporary fashion developed local
characteristics and perhaps colour within the rural society. Home spun material or
flannel was used, patterned in stripes or checks.
There were no clear cut regional characteristics, although various areas specialized
in their own colour and kind of cloth. Dyes made from local vegetation were probably
Towards the end of the 18th C. there was a period of natural change where variety
crept in, as a result of closer collaboration between English and Welsh factories
and mills. From about 1830, Augusta Hall, or Lady Llanofer, as she later became,
an English-woman of great determination and influence, did a lot to standardise,
and popularize the costume. In 1834 she won a prize at Gwent and Dyfed Royal Eisteddfod
for her essay,
' The Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh language and National
Costume of Wales'. She upheld the use of lighter and more colourful materials. On
her Monmouthshire estates she even set up a woollen mill to produce the traditional
heavy flannels of Wales. She and her friends offered prizes in the eisteddfodau from
the 1830s onwards for flannel, woollen stockings, cloaks and beaver hats.
'There were ten such competitions in the Abergavenny Eisteddfod of 1853 for the best
collection of patterns for Welsh flannels, 'in real National checks and stripes with
the Welsh names by which they are known...no specimens to be included which have
not been well known for at least half a C.. The object of the prizes is to authenticate
the real old checks and stripes of Wales and to preserve them...distinct from new
It is significant that no one was worthy of the prizes. No one could have won because
there were not any 'real national ' checks or stripes.
The latter part of the 19th C. saw picture postcards and souvenir makers trying to
convince tourists that the past was still the present. Now the costume had to be
prettified: brighter colours were used: cotton instead of home-spun flannel: a blouse
and skirt instead of a bed-gown: the apron reduced to make the costume look more
'chic': bonnet strings starched and spread wide. Even the bonnet worn beneath the
hat was replaced by frills sewn under the brim itself: frills were added at the wrists
and bodice: instead of the rough, woollen shawl there was a Paisley one, thought
by many, though incorrectly, to be an indispensable part of the traditional peasant
costume. All this commercialisation was just a tourist attraction, but all over Wales
people began to interest themselves anew in a so-called national dress that had disappeared.
back to the