While sorting through an old collection of glass slides I came across a set of four showing women in traditional Welsh dress. The glass slides form part of the WC Rogers Collection (D/D WCR) held at West Glamorgan Archive Service. The slides measure 12×16.4cm but each slide contains between 14 and 15 images.
On further investigation; I also discovered the original volume amongst a different collection (D144/1). The volume contains the same four pages of images of women in traditional Welsh dress (the rest of the volume contains local views).
The volume identifies James Andrews as the artist and photographer. The photographs were most likely taken at his studio in Swansea which was located opposite the Royal Institute of South Wales sometime in the 1880s, with the view of producing a series of prints and postcards for the rising tourist trade. The sale of postcards added to the effect of popularising the idea of a typical Welsh costume. However, this set displays the various styles of dress worn by women in Wales during the nineteenth century.
The women are wearing striped flannel petticoats, worn under flannel open-fronted bedgowns, with an apron, shawl and kerchief or cap. The style of bedgown varies, with loose coat-like gowns, gowns with a fitted bodice and long skirts and also short gowns. Some are wearing tall black hats, others a smaller bonnet.
The popular image of Welsh national dress, of a woman in a red woollen cloak and tall black hat, is one which largely developed during the nineteenth century. It was part of a conscious revival of Welsh culture during a period when traditional values were under threat.
The women in these images most likely sold their wares at Swansea Market. They are displaying a variety of produce: from plucking chickens to carrying milk as well as your traditional Welsh mam carrying her baby. Those who wore traditional costume when selling their goods at market may have done so in an attempt to indicate that they spoke Welsh and to show they sold local produce.
From the 1880s, when the traditional costume had gone out of general use, selected elements of it became adopted as a National Costume. From then on, it was worn by women at events such as Royal visits, by choirs, at church and chapel, for photographs and occasionally at eisteddfodau. It was first worn by young girls as a celebration on Saint David’s Day from around 1910.
We will never know whether these images were taken to sell as postcards to tourists or if they were taken as a celebration of Welsh women, wearing traditional Welsh dress to sell local Welsh produce at market. Either way, I am very glad to have rediscovered them. Happy St David’s Day!
Katie Millien, Archivist, West Glamorgan Archive Service