Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Welsh National Costume or English straightjacket?

THE MORE I delve into Welsh iconography the more I feel like an extra in The Truman Show (a movie about a man who, without realising it, has lived all his life from birth as the subject of a reality television show).

It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the Welsh National Costume was invented by a wealthy English lady in the early-19th century to encourage Welsh women to wear wool produced in mills owned by her friends?

Influenced by fashion, comfort, cost and availability, women - not just in Wales but throughout the British Isles - were wearing garments made of cotton, milled in Britain but imported from the colonies, in place of traditional woollen clothing. As a result, the Welsh wool business was suffering and prices, both at market and at the mill door, were depressed.

Her motives probably weren't entirely as bad as it seems, and I wish I could feel more charitable towards Augusta Hall, also known as Lady Llanofer. She learnt to speak Welsh, which is more than can be said of me, and she even helped to found the first Welsh-language periodical for women. But she was an ultra-conservative hypocrite who believed that "false respectability encourages forms of dress incompatible with active employments".

My guess is that Lady Llanofer's 'Welsh' thing was, as much as anything else, motivated by a romantic fantasy of the rural idyll, a fashionable interest indulged in by the landowning gentry of the time.

Fortunately, she didn't feel the need to design a Welsh national costume for men because the extraordinary outfit in which she dressed her harpist, Thomas Gruffydd, would definitely get you bottled down the pub on a Friday evening.

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