This boldly graphic and visually playful mummer’s costume is an especially rare surviving artifact of British folk tradition. Historians of British folklore date the rise of mummers’ plays and sword dances to the eighteenth century and the height of their popularity to the second half of the nineteenth century. Both the publication of the short, rhyming texts that characterize mummers’ plays and the growing interest in vernacular customs throughout the nineteenth century resulted in the widespread dissemination of this tradition. The plays and dances were performed at specific annual festivals, primarily between Christmas and Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night). While mummers’ plays were generally performed indoors within a local manor house or village pub, sword dances, which required more space, were held outside.
Three distinct but related types of plays dominated during this period: the Hero/Combat play, performed throughout most of Britain; the Recruiting Sergeant (or Wooing) Play, associated with the East Midlands; and the Sword Dance play, found primarily in Yorkshire and northeastern England. In all these regions, performances occurred in both larger towns and smaller, rural villages. Commonalities among the three types include some of the same stock characters—a Quack Doctor and a Fool—as well as fanciful costumes, both representational and nonrepresentational, that served to partially disguise the male participants.
This loosefitting, three-piece costume is of heavy, natural linen decorated with a variety of symmetrically arranged whimsical appliqués in dark and light blue, red, brown, and black felt, and trimmed with wool braids, fringes and white and silver lace. The disparate and disproportionately sized motifs that cover the pointed, tasseled cap, jacket and trousers include diamonds, hearts, dots, and diamond-and-heart clusters; stars, wheels, horses, and ducks; long-nosed, pipe-smoking male profiles; plump devils with pitchforks; and a spindly, flag-waving man balancing on one leg atop a cantering horse. The back of the cap displays the initials “T.F.” (probably signifying “Tom Fool”) and the date 1829, also in wool felt appliqué. The choice of motifs, their groupings and balanced placement reflect careful deliberation and originality; indeed, it was not uncommon for these costumes to be stored and reused over a period of many decades.
In its components and decoration, the costume is most closely related to those worn by members of a sword dance group from Bellerby, Yorkshire. A published photograph of the group from about 1872 shows six dancers in matching elaborate, quasi-martial outfits and two other men—the “fools” or clown-like characters—in lightcolored caps, loose jackets and trousers, all densely covered in appliqués that include geometric shapes and human figures. The motifs seen on this 1829 example illustrate the influence of historical, theatrical precedents, notably the Harlequinade, derived from the Commedia dell’Arte and widely popular in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, as well as familiar objects of nineteenth-century rural life. The inclusion of devil figures is unusual as the character of Beelzebub is generally associated with the Hero/Combat and Recruiting Sergeant plays, but it may be that the original wearer of this costume had particular reasons for emphasizing this motif. In the Sword Dance tradition, the amateur or semi-professional participants entertained their audiences with complex footwork and formations created by interlocking their metal or wood swords. According to an early nineteenth-century description of sword dancing in Yorkshire, “the Toms or clowns, dressed up as harlequins in the most fantastic modes [made] antic gestures and movements to amuse the spectators” (Stephen Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (1997), p. 197). At the end of a performance, the entire group would have boisterously solicited the crowd for money.
This costume is also related to an example dated to 1893, now in the Costume Museum, Nottingham. Known as the Cropwell Boy’s Costume, from Cropwell, Nottinghamshire, and collected at that time by T. Fairman Ordish, an authority on British folk customs, the white linen shirt features red and black silk and wool patchwork silhouettes of farm animals, men, women, and ploughs.
The evident humor and decidedly jaunty appearance of this mummer’s costume are fitting expressions of the revelry and gentle mischief-making in which workingclass men and youths indulged during the cold, mid-winter months.