The Welsh woman in her flannel petticoat, dress, apron, shawl and tall black hat is a popular stereotype found on everything from maps, books and postcards to boxes of fudge. It’s a romantic image and one that hints at a long history – however the reality is very different. This iconic costume was in fact created in the nineteenth century by a Monmouthshire woman of English descent: Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (1802-1896).
One of Augusta Hall’s major passions was to preserve and popularise a sense of Welsh identity and she spent most of her life supporting the language, literature and national institutions of Wales. She turned her home, Llanofer House, into a centre of Welsh language and culture. Here she encouraged music, dance and Welsh literature, building up an extensive library (some of the contents of which are now held by the National Library of Wales). Augusta also financed the first periodical for women in Wales (Y Gymraes, in 1850) and became patron of the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Society, a literary organisation that played a major role in the nineteenth-century revival of Welsh and Celtic scholarship.
After winning a prize for an essay on Welsh language and traditional dress at the 1834 Eisteddfod in Cardiff, Augusta began calling herself Gwenynen Gwent (‘the bee of Gwent’). This linked her identity – in name and purpose – firmly to the cause of Wales.
There was little distinctly Welsh about the clothes that Augusta based her version of Welsh national dress on, and much the same was worn by country women in England around this time too. Although black beaver hats had been worn by Welsh women from the end of the eighteenth century, the tall ‘chimney hats’ of the archetypal Welsh lady were a Victorian invention.
Augusta was so excited by her idea of Welsh national dress that she required all her maids to wear it at work. She even built a woollen mill in the grounds of Llanofer House to produce the native cloth out of which the costume was made, giving a much needed boost to local Welsh industry. At Llanofer, Augusta’s sometimes eccentric household and estate was populated almost entirely by Welsh speakers. In this way she is often credited as ensuring the survival of the Welsh language in this Anglicised area for another half-century or more.
Augusta Hall was a strong-minded and imaginiative women who played a huge role in the revival of Welsh culture in the nineteenth century. On her death in January 1896 she was remembered with affection for her long support of Welsh literary and national traditions. Today the Welsh tourist board have just as much reason to give thanks to Augusta – especially when they sell yet another doll in Welsh costume or any other tourist gift packaged with a woman in ‘traditional’ Welsh dress!
This article was first published in Herstoria, and contributed to this celebration of Women’s History Month by Claire Jones, the editor. For more information on Herstoria, visit the website: http://www.herstoria.com/