Exhibition: Welsh Costume – the Truth Behind the Myth, The Abergavenny Museum, Abergavenny, until March 28 2009.
You might have struggled to believe it while the Welsh rugby union team was sweeping to victory over their English counterparts last Saturday, but the Abergavenny Museum reckons a traditional Welsh costume “consists of a tall black hat, a bedgown, an apron and a shawl.”
They’ve invited Michael Freeman, who has spent years researching Welsh hats and outfits in a collection of 1,500 images, to present his findings for this show, loaned from the National Library of Wales.
“My main concern with this research was to find out whether people actually wore these clothes or whether they were an invention for the growing tourist trade in the 19th century,” reports the curator at Aberystwyth’s Ceredigion Museum.
“I have travelled all over Wales to view some of the most brilliant collections of Welsh textiles. I have seen at least 220 Welsh hats held in museums and private homes across Wales and also some beautiful bedgowns which were a distinctive element of Welsh costume.”
Lady Llanover, a 19th century Welsh icon who lived locally, built a woollen mill nearby and encouraged her friends and servants to wear fashions from the valleys.
“It could be argued that there was nothing especially Welsh about this dress since people all over Europe wore similar outfits during the 18th century,” admits Freeman.
“But this form of dress survived longer in Wales than elsewhere, and people like Lady Llanover encouraged women to wear traditional costumes to support the Welsh textile industry, which was struggling at the time.”
It found favour with tourists in the late 1800s, enamoured with the unusual designs and distinctive accompanying hats.
“At this time there was a significant increase in mass tourism, and this might have been the main drive for the popularisation of a national costume,” explains Freeman.
“It is commonly thought that Augusta Hall, or Lady Llanover as she became known, was a driving force behind the reinvention of the Welsh costume in the 19th century.”