Today’s news that the Cornish are to be granted minority status – in the same way as other Celtic groups in Scotland, Ireland and Wales – is a historic moment in the campaign for recognition of Cornwall’s unique identity, of which traditional clothes are a significant part. Here are the three most important Cornish dress customs, according to Dr Merv Davey, a Cornish historian specialising in folk tradition and identity.
Tartan may be most commonly associated with Scotland, but the Cornish, like many Irish and Welsh people, believe that they have just as much right to use it as an emblem as anyone else. “Checked cloths can be seen worn by fisherfolk in the Newlyn paintings of the 1880s and 1990s, so it is inspired by history” says Davey, “but modern tartan was invented in the 1960s. It’s a postmodern experience – people wear it to demonstrate their Cornishness; they aren’t worried about whether the tradition is five years old or 500 years old.” Created by the poet EE Morton Nance in 1963, traditional Cornish tartan is black and gold with slim red-and-blue stripes. Worn at rugby matches, weddings and ceilidhs, its popularity has surged, he says: “as part of a growing interest in Cornish language and identity that has been enjoying a revival in the 20th century”.
The fishwife’s bonnet and shawl
“The fishwives were dramatic people,” says Davey. “They were often young, good-looking women with their own incomes – they were quite powerful – which was very unusual during Victorian times.” The black bonnets and striking, brightly coloured shawls that they wore have become an important part of Cornwall’s traditional costume.
The bonnets worn by the women who worked in Cornish mines – the “Bal Maidens” – are called “gooks”. “The Bal Maidens lived parallel lives to the fishwives. They had their own money and they spent some of it on clothes.” These working hats, worn as protection, in part, from the sound of the mines, were starched and whitened and “prettified for Sundays” and have played a big part of Cornish culture ever since. On Saint Piran’s Day, Cornwall’s national day, on 5 March, “people have processions and parties and many will be wearing gooks,” says Davey. The bonnets will be out, no doubt, later today, when the announcement is officially made. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” says Davey about Cornwall’s new status. “I had a tip off it was coming and was up at 5am reading the news. It is beyond our wildest dreams!”