The Costume of Cornwall
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Work Wear of the Newlyn Area in the Late 19th Century
|This information is intended to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who is interested in the clothes worn in the late eighteen hundreds in the west of Cornwall, and also to aid the reconstruction of Cornish costume from this period. These pages are also published in book form and available through An Daras sales.|
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Museum, Truro, for permission
and Gibsons of Scilly
Sarah Thursfield for
Christina Jane for her theatrical costumier expertise;
Millie Roberts, Marjorie Holmes, Rita Howells and Mary Williams for their
Rob Hogg for modelling and for help with things technical;
Elizabeth Stewart for
Introduction:Working clothes worn in the west of Cornwall changed very little during the nineteenth century. The industries of fishing, mining and agriculture dictated very much the everyday wear of the people. Although the clothes worn reflected the styles of Queen Victoria’s kingdom, changes were slow to reach the far west, making it always a little behind the times. Regional variations within the Duchy were very strong, and even with the introduction of better communications and transport, with the event of the coming of the railway, traditional local styles hung on well into the twentieth century. The strongest evidence of what was worn in the Newlyn area at the end of the eighteen hundreds can be observed in the paintings of the Newlyn Colony of Artists who painted the local people at work in the Penzance area. Early photographs of West Cornwall also show the everyday wear of the people.
BLOUSES of late nineteenth century Newlyn were collarless, sometimes with a narrow neckband. The body was close fitting, following the line of the undergarments, and usually buttoned at the front with pearl buttons. Sleeves were slightly fuller around the upper arm, and there was no cuff. The medium or lightweight cottons used were mainly pastel colours plus dark greys and browns, and occasionally had a tiny print. They were often worn with the lower sleeve rolled up
at the time in West Cornwall had a flat, sometimes gored front, with most
of the fullness at the back, either gathered or in cartridge pleats (see
The material used
was serge, flannel or heavy cotton drill, and a button or hook fastened
the waistband. The length was
mainly just above the ankle, and pin-tucked pleats were often added to
give weight and fullness to the hem of the skirt.
Colours were dark: brown, grey and black, but occasionally beige or
PETTICOATS worn with work clothes were always a dark colour, and were made from a medium weight cotton or flannel. In cold weather several petticoats were worn at the same time
APRONS were made from heavyweight cotton, canvas or hessian, sacking. White aprons (and gooks, see HATS) were often made from flour sacks obtained from the local mill, which were boiled until they were bleached white. Brown sacking aprons (known in West Cornwall dialect as towsers) were worn for dirtier jobs, sometimes over the top of white aprons. Aprons were very wide, nearly reaching all around the skirt and were about six inches shorter than the skirt length. They were gathered into a narrow waistband and the ties passed around the back to meet again at the front in a small bow (see plate 12). This was sometimes tucked into the waistband. One of the lower corners of the apron was occasionally tucked into the waistband on the opposite side (see plate 3). This has sometimes been mistakenly interpreted as a shawl worn around the waist – a style that was never used in Cornwall at that time. To keep the apron firmly in place during heavy work or in windy weather a second tie often attached the two apron sides together across the back of the skirt, roughly eighteen inches below the waistband (see plate 4).
SHAWLS were always made from wool, usually fringed, but
sometimes just left raw-edged.
They were a plain, checked or plaided weave, and although they
could be quite bright in colour, they were mainly subtle dyes.
Working women in the Newlyn area wore short shawls at the end of
the nineteenth century; the edge fell half way between the shoulder and
the elbow (see plates 2 and
were worn quite firmly around the neck, fastening with a pin, not brooch,
just under the chin. This
caused the front of the shawl
to be open across the chest and allowed the arms full
were also worn as
headscarves (see plate 2).
were worn in West Cornwall in the late eighteen hundreds.
Straw hats were popular, ranging from large brimmed hats to straw
boaters which were worn horizontally on the head (see plates 7 and
Shallow bonnets made from dark coloured felt or straw were often
worn by older women over a white, cotton bonnet edged with a frill (see
plate 2). Most
trimmed with ribbon.
However, the most interesting hat worn by the working women of
Cornwall was the gook, from the Cornish language word kogh
meaning hood (see plate
bonnets were worn through the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth
from the sun,
and dust of outdoor work. Each
village had a different style of gook, and all the women in that village
wore the same style (e.g. the ladies of Gulval, see plate
Gooks (and aprons) were often made from flour sacks from the local
mill which were boiled until they were bleached white, or from heavy
weight, white cotton. They
were made to last, involving yards of material, string, cord or sometimes
rope to strengthen and support the shape.
century gooks were made from pastel coloured cotton, either plain
or with a small print.
FOOT WEAR for the working classes had to be hardwearing. Small-heeled, button boots were worn (see plate 4), but many women wore ankle-high, lace-up boots, like the men. Shoes were also worn – these were flat, slip-ons (see plates 2 and 7). This subject needs to be researched further.
SHIRTS were a square cut with the shoulder seam falling
a little way down the
shaped sleeves and
yokes had been worn elsewhere
in Great Britain since the middle of the nineteenth century).
The back and front were often cut as one piece, with the fold lying
across the shoulders, and a hole cut for the head and the front opening.
Sleeves were added, and the side seam and sleeve seam were sewn in one.
The front opening was short, only two or three buttons long, and the
shirts were collarless.
recommended length of a man’s shirt in the mid eighteen hundreds was
down to the knees. The shirts were
made from a medium weight cotton, and colours ranged from dark brown, rust and
grey, to beige, apricot and light grey.
made from flannel or serge and were dark colours plus beige or light
grey. They were fairly loose all
over, had a high waist, and the centre back seam was much longer in the
nineteenth century than nowadays, making the trousers baggy at the back.
Often, they were held up by braces. They
had a button fly, and the front pockets sometimes had a flap which could button
down or button up, possibly
the contents of the pocket when the wearer was at sea (see plate
Some farm workers wore yarks
– this is a Cornish dialect word meaning binder twine or straps worn around
the lower trouser leg, under the knee, to give the
trouser knee more
to prevent snakes and mice from climbing up inside!
SMOCKS were, and still are, worn by fishermen in the
west of Cornwall. Newlyn
fishermen’s smocks are ‘T’ shaped with a wide, straight neck and a
stand-up collar, or a small slit at the front with a flat collar (see plates 8
and 10). They have traditionally
been made from sailcloth or a very heavy cotton drill, so are ideal garments to
protect an outdoor worker from wind, rain and sea spray.
Colours at the end of the nineteenth century varied from greys and browns
to cream and light grey.
GUERNSEYS (knitted sweaters) were known in the Newlyn
area of Cornwall as worsted-frocks. They
were knitted on long stocking needles using navy coloured, four-ply worsted.
The style was similar throughout Cornwall: they were knitted in the round
until the armhole, then the back and front were knitted separately until the
shoulder, when both parts were knitted together, leaving the neck to be finished
later. Stitches were picked up from
the armhole and the sleeves were knitted on.
This gave the garment a ‘T’ shape, with a dropped shoulder seam.
The pattern across the chest, upper back, and sometimes the top of the
sleeve, varied with each garment, so that each fisherman wore a different
were mainly worn by agricultural workers.
They were short, but usually covered the top of the high-waisted
trousers, and they had a high button fastening at the front.
Occasionally they were made from leather or suede, but mostly they were
made from woollen cloth, back and front. The
colours were dark or browns (see plates 7
HATS were always worn, and there were a variety of styles
Cornwall (see plate
The traditional fisherman’s sou’wester shape was popular,
made usually from oiled cloth, in dark or light colours.
A large version of the
Scots’ tam-o’-shanter was very often worn
and 8). It was made from wool
or cloth and was always a plain colour, never plaid.
Round-topped, felt hats, similar to deep bowler hats were also popular (see plate
8), as were flat caps with small peaks, made from either cloth or
canvas. Straw boaters were rarely
worn by working men, but wide-brimmed, straw sun-hats were common in
by working men in the
nineteenth century were very similar to the work boots of today: they were
mainly large, heavy lace-ups, which covered the ankle.
Tall boots were
also worn, mainly by fishermen (see plate
3), who also wore boots up to
the thigh at sea. Metal shapes
(Cornish dialect) were tacked onto the soles and heels of boots to slow down
wear, and lengthen the life of the leather.
Nails were driven into soles and heels for the same reason.
The sound made as these metal-clad boots moved on the slate floors helped
to create many step dances.
In West Cornwall in the late nineteenth century children from working class families wore cut down versions of what their parents wore, but otherwise looked very similar to Victorian children from elsewhere in the British Isles.
GIRLS often wore dresses instead of a blouse and skirt, with
a pinafore over the top. This either
took the form of an apron with a bib, which had straps that went over the
shoulders to join the waist ties, or, for mainly younger girls, the pinafore
would be a loose coverall (see plate
tied at the back of the neck, and had frilled, cap sleeves.
Dress length varied from mid
calf to just below the knee. High,
button boots were popular, or ankle high, lace-up boots, which were worn with
long or short stockings (see plate
wore gooks, like their mothers, which, for economy, were often made in an adult
size, and the child had to grow into it. Children
from wealthier families wore gooks made to fit them.
Girls also wore tam-o’-shanter berets and horizontal straw hats.
BOYS wore worsted-frocks (see GUERNSEYS), like their fathers, over loose, collarless, ‘T’ shaped shirts. Trousers were also loose, younger boys wearing them at calf length (see plates 11 and 12), and all wore ankle high, lace-up boots. Berets and soft caps with small peaks were worn, and also straw sun hats.
examples of the type of clothing worn by the people of the Newlyn area in the
late eighteen hundreds can be seen in the following paintings:
Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach – Stanhope Alexander Forbes
Old Pier Steps – Stanhope Alexander Forbes
Newlyn Harbour – Stanhope Alexander Forbes
Drinking Trough – Stanhope Alexander Forbes
on Mount’s Bay – Stanhope Alexander Forbes
Broccoli, Cornwall – William Banks Fortescue
from the Fields – Fred Hall
News – Walter Langley
Mousehole, Cornwall – Walter Langley
Cornish Idyll – Walter Langley
Fisherman’s Son – Walter Langley
George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1938)
Costume of the Nineteenth Century,
A. & C. Black Ltd., 1935)
Forbes and the Newlyn School,
Abbot: David & Charles, 1993)
and Newlyn in Old Photographs,
Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1992)
Langley, Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony,
Sansom and Company, 1997)
Picture Postcards of Cornwall,
Bossiney Books, 1989)
Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1994)
Cornish Fish Industry,
Tor Mark Press, 1992)
Guernseys and Knit-frocks,