The Welsh Hat - Then and Now

Niamh Rodda


Miniature hats from 1860s by Welsh hatter, John Evans. The Welsh Hat is in middle row, centre.

        Hats are often political. Though it would be understandable for someone to assume that they are made to protect someone from inclement weather, it does not take a lot of thought to see that they are often much more. From a red Make America Great Again’ baseball cap, to the bonnet rouge of the French Revolution, to any number of military hats, hats are regularly used to indicate which side you are on.  Hats, along with all fashion, are used in a huge variety of ways to communicate with others and can tell us a variety of information: nationality, gender, interests, and identity. The hat specifically is often associated with group identity; in a crowd of people the hat can be a key identifier and if worn collectively can create a striking vision. The Welsh Hat does just this, its tall black crown and stiff brim, traditionally worn by Welsh woman creates a distinct and eye-catching look that has long been used as a symbol of Welshness.

Before The Welsh Hat

There is a prevailing myth that the Welsh hat and national costume was a Victorian invention, as part of imagined Welsh heritage and yet there are plenty of accounts going back a century earlier that tell us otherwise. The Victorians may have curated a specific version of Welsh dress and cemented the idea of it as Welsh National Costume but the clothes themselves, including the hat, had indeed been around for much longer.

Before the Welsh Hat was Welsh, it was just a hat. High crowned styled hats made of felt or beaver fur were once popular across many countries. Men and woman across Britain in the latter half of the Elizabethan period, wore such hats for travelling and riding, and a wider brimmed version of the hat, ‘cavalier style, was then adopted by the middle class in the mid-part of the 17th century. At this time hats were an important status symbol. Beaver fur was the quality material used to felt hats, but felting the fur was difficult and costly and from 1670, the product was often imported from America. Samuel Pepys notes in his diary, in 1661, that a beaver hat had cost him 45 shillings. From around 1640 to 1660 a version of the beaver hat with a tall, tapered crown known as a sugarloaf became popular and looked very similar to what we would think of as the Welsh hat today. Today hats of this style are heavily associated with the Puritans and pilgrims to America, for its simple, unadorned design. Thus, even 400 years ago, the hat was steeped in meaning, from wealth and class, to political and religious leanings.

Us and Them

While the black Sugarloaf hat, along with other features that we today associate with Welsh National costume, were common across Europe and America in the 17th century, it is in the 18th century that we see a divergence in style. While elsewhere fashion trends moved on, these older looks appear to be retained by the Welsh peasantry. As fashion changed rapidly in the later half of the 18th century, this rejection of the new styles (be it intentional or through financial necessity) resulted in a notable difference in dress by the Welsh lower classes, from their English counterparts. This is documented through numerous accounts of English travellers that commented on the difference in clothing between the English and Welsh, among which are descriptions of a tall black hat worn by women. 

Painting by Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Newcastle Emlyn Costumes, 1792

Julius Caesar Ibbetson was an English painter who created a number of works depicting scenes of Welsh life at the end of the 18th century. Through these works, a distinct image of Welsh working-class women can be seen. The paintings depict an attire which is different from what was fashionable dress throughout Europe during the 1790s, and almost all the works include women wearing what we can think of as an early variation of the Welsh hat. 

In the work Newcastle Emlyn Costumes from 1792, all 14 women from the scene, as well as 2 children, are depicted wearing almost identical, black brimmed hats. While the hats may be shorter and less rigid from what we think of today as the Welsh hat, there is still a clear resemblance in style. In the inscription beneath the watercolour, Ibbetson writes peculiar drefs and costume of the peasantry, in the district around Newcastle Emlyn in Pembrokeshire. Here the English painter highlights that to him, the dress of women in Wales is distinctly different peculiarfrom English standards of dress. These outfits also have clear similarities to what one would think of as the Welsh national costume today, with their striped and checked patterns, and their shawls and aprons. In addition to its distinctive look, what is remarkable is the hats uniformity across all the wearers. At this time there was a large variety of styles in hats, bonnets, caps, turbans, hair accessories, wigs and hair styles and a huge choice in frippery to be added including flowers, ribbons and feathers. However in the works of Ibbetson, we see a singular black and unadorned style.

The striking uniformity of the Welsh dress was not lost on the Welsh, rather it became a strategic symbol of collective power. Famously it is even said to have helped defeat invading military powers. In 1797, French warships descended on Pembrokeshire in what is known as the Battle of Fishguard. Numerous reports document how hundreds of Welsh women in red shawls and black beaver hats, flanked the coastline behind the British military; creating the illusion from afar that they too were soldiers, and so leading to the unconditional surrender of the invading force. Thus the Welsh national dress as a symbol of strength and unity, and part of proud Welsh heritage, was embedded into the nations history.

National Costume

1931 Postcard reproductions of "Dull-wisgoedd Cymru/Cambrian Costumes" by Lady Llanover in 1834 (cropped)


Over the course of the 19th century, the Welsh hat along with the rest of the Welsh dress, would shift into an even more defined style. Previously, the Welsh hat was by no means the only hat being worn, partially as they were more expensive than other felt or straw hats. There were also many local variations on the Welsh hat; the tall hat was popular in larger towns such as Cardiff, Bangor and Carmarthen, while lower, flat-topped straw hats were popular in the Gower, as they allowed woman to carry cockle-baskets on their head and were better suited to the windy climate. But over the century, the hat would be consolidated into the more singular, standardised and uniform look that we think of today as the Welsh hat.

Lady Llanover (1802 to 1896) was the influential philanthropist who greatly influenced the uptake of traditional Welsh dress and worked tirelessly to promote Welsh language and culture. She wrote extensively on the matters of Welsh costume, as well as producing a series of illustrations on the subject and it is from her that we get the tradition of wearing the national costume on St Davids Day.  While Lady Llanover certainly did not invent the Welsh national dress, she worked hard to bring it from the confines of the working class, into upper class society, even so far as to insist that guests to her parties were to wear the national costume.

In 1832 the then Princess Victoria (not yet queen) and her mother visited North Wales and on their carriage ride wore Welsh hats, when passing through Bangor in compliment to the fair maids of Cambria'. Thus by this point we can see the complete transition from the traditional working wear of the peasantry, to the fashionable National costume for all classes. It is in that century then, that the hat and national dress becomes smart formal wear. Women chose to wear their best costume when selling their goods at market, as well as on Sunday to Church and Chapel. Throughout the 19th century, many Eisteddfod competitions would even have a prize for best Welsh hat. In this century, the Welsh hat has become a point of national pride. The 19th century writer, Marie Trevelyan, writes in an account of West Wales in 1893,There the tall beaver hat is still worn by some of the prettiest and most handsome woman of the principality. Very spick and span these woman look”.

It is hard to pinpoint when the Welsh hat fell out of authentic regular use, due to the tremendous popularity of the image of the Welsh Lady. By the mid 19th and 20th century there was a transition from genuine regular attire, to a costume of Welshness for public events and in the tourism trade. The Image of Welsh National Dress became a prolific theme in postcards, souvenirs, and tourism in the Welsh seaside towns. Thus people continued to wear the Welsh Hat but its meaning had once again shifted.

A Hat For Everyone

 Throughout the centuries, the use of the Welsh hat, like a swinging pendulum, shifted backwards and forwards in style from peasantry to royalty. Class was not the only cultural boundary that the hat crossed. The hat has also defied the boundaries of gendered clothing. During the 17th and 18th century, this style of hat was largely considered to be a man’s hat, socially acceptable for women only in the context of riding and traveling (acts which themselves were often seen as male activities) and yet in Wales, this binary was seemingly being ignored. In the 18th century, there were many English accounts of Welsh women described dressing in a peculiar’ manner, and stating that they wore mens hats. Mary Yorke, a traveler to Wales in 1774, attended a service at St Davids Cathedral and noted seeing an old woman with a kerchief over her head and a hat like a mans”. Despite this, during the following 19th and 20th century, the Welsh hat had become an item strongly associated with Welsh womanhood. 

Despite the Welsh hats’ tradition as a piece of Welsh womens clothing, more and more it is a piece which defies the binary, with contemporary queer artists in particular using the hat in their work as a national symbol, that can be worn by anyone. Thus, the hat that likely originated as a man’s hat in the 17th century, and was subsequently adopted by women, once again alludes a gender binary in its wearers today.  And so as the pendulum of fashion swings from one end of the spectrum to the other, so today we see it starting to swing back.

This dynamic relationship between the Welsh, clothing, and gender is nothing new. In the 1800s, girls who worked in the mines dressed in boys clothing, including trousers, to be able to crawl through the mines. While the infamous Rebecca Riots saw men dressed in womens clothing in violent protest, and as mentioned previously, Welsh women were mistaken as British military at the Battle of Fishguard. The Hat itself is in many ways is an androgynous item, its smooth black and angular features are much closer to many typical male items of dress such as a suit and top-hat, then much traditional female attire. Its angular features often sit juxtaposed with the frilly and lacy white cap underneath. This is perhaps partly why it makes for such an interesting subject for many queer artists today.

Photograph of performers from the Contemporary Dance group Qwerin. Photograph credited to Sioned Birchall.

In the contemporary dance performance group Qwerin, directed and choreographed by Osian Meilir, performers fuse traditional Welsh folk dance with the energy of the queer nightlife. The performers wear an adapted form of the national dress, complete with exaggeratedly large Welsh hats, which hang over and obscure much of the performers face, leaving them to peer out through cut out holes in the crown of the hat. These costumes, designed by Becky Davies, tell a striking visual story. In a quote from Meilir on the performance they say:

The hat creates a looming presence, making our appearance sinister and mysterious. The hats, a symbol of Welsh culture, become the very things that restricts us from physically moving forward into more vigorous and joyful dancing. By removing these hats we shed away the years of shame, burden and oppression, cutting ties with social expectations and constrictions. However, reuniting and greeting the hats towards end of the work is an act of acceptance, an acceptance of our own identity. We welcome these hats back into our arms as a symbol of progression, unity, harmony and change; moving together into a new future, a queer Wales.

In other words, the hat has become a symbol of an old Welsh Culture, but a symbol that rather than being allowed to slip away, can be reinvigorated with the zeitgeist of a new era of Welsh identity.

The Psychology of Hats

The Hat sits in a prominent position on the wearer, it frames the face and is often seen in the peripheries of the wearers view. This means they can become powerful tools in the way we view ourselves. The Fashion editor and prolific hat wearer Isabella Blow said on the subject of hats"Fashion is a vampiric thing, it's the hoover on your brain. That's why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me. Blow touches on the sometimes oppressive societal demands of fashion and conformity and how it can play on the mind; as an antidote to this, the hat performs the role of a mental and physical shield. The brimmed hat creates and demands a physical distance between people, while psychologically doing the same, creating a distinct difference between wearer and non-wearer. In essence, a hat has the potential to create a sense of separation and independent identity between the wearer and the other. This may provide some insight into the success of the Welsh hat, like a protective shield, it symbolises the protection of one’s Welsh culture and heritage.

 Finally In another quote from Blow, the intrinsic sense of identity associated with the hat is reinforcedI don't use a hat as a prop, I use it as a part of me. If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip (Treacy), cover my face, and feel fantastic”.  Thus how one dresses effects not just how others view you, but how we view and feel about ourselves. If clothing is an extension of ourselves, then loving the clothing we wear has the potential to help us view ourselves differently. For the Welsh hat it can be a symbol of strength, nationality, and pride. For wearers of the Welsh Hat today, whether it be a St Davids Day celebration, as part of dance costume, at Eisteddfod, or just for fun, allow wearing the Hat to help you feel fantastic and to connect you with 400 years of history and Welsh heritage.


Reference / Further Reading

  • British Vogue, Isabella Blow, Bibby Sowray. 4 November (2011)

  • Folk life, Welsh Peasant Costume, F. G. Payne. volume II (1964) 

  • Textile history, Welsh peasant dress-workwear or national costume?, Christine Stevens. 33 (I) (2002)

  • The costume accessories series, Hats, Fiona Clark. (1982)

  • Welsh Costume, Ken Ethridge. (1958)

  • Women in Welsh History, Derek Draisey.(2004)

  • Women's Headdress and Hairstyles in England from A.D.600 to the Present Day, Georgine de Courtais.(1986)

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