Arthur Rackham, ‘To make my small elves coats’, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908
“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together,
Green jacket, red cap and white owl’s feather.”
William Allingham, The fairies, 1850
What does a fairy wear? Nowadays we may well envisage a small girl in a pink tutu with a star tipped wand. As regular readers will anticipate, this was decidedly not our ancestors’ image of faery kind. It was, nonetheless, very much as conventional.
There were some who regarded fairies as, in many respects, indistinguishable from their human neighbours. For example, the Reverend Kirk in chapter five of The secret commonwealth asserted that “Their Apparell … is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland.” Other evidence from Scotland confirms this. At her witchcraft trial on 1576 Bessie Dunlop described the fairies she had conversed with: the men dressed as gentlemen, the women in plaids; a later account of the departure of the fairies also has them attired in plaids (with red caps); J. G. Campbell likewise mentions fairies in blue Highland bonnets.
Tell tale clothes
More commonly, there was always something about their dress which betrayed fairy-kind to the humans who encountered them. Sometimes it was the style of the garments, more often it was the colour. William Bottrell in Traditions and hearthside stories of West Cornwall states that the typical appearance of the pobel vean was “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.” There is, then, a resemblance to (antique) human fashions combined with distinctive hues. This tendency to dress in the style of a century before is underlined by the story of the fairy market on Blackdown near Taunton- “Their habits used to be of red, blue or green, according to the way of old country garb, with high crowned hats” (Keightley Fairy mythology p.294).
Fairy colour ways
The quintessential and identifying fairy hue was green. For example, John Campbell of Barra in the Highlands told a story of woman seen dressed in green, observing “no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman.” Indeed, the ‘green gowns’ was a fairly common euphemism employed to avoid too closely naming the good neighbours.
In about two thirds of the cases where the colour of garments is noted in an account, it is green. Bourne in Antiquitates vulgares from 1725 states that they were “always clad in green” and, whilst this overstates the popular view, accounts from Cornwall through Wales and northern England and up to the Highlands repeatedly confirm the fairy preference. In his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song Robert Cromek embellishes this slightly, describing “mantles of green cloth inlaid with flowers” and “green pantaloons buttoned with bobs of silk and sandals of silver.” J. F. Campbell found accounts in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands of fairies in kilts, but these were green and matched by green conical hats.
Some readers will recall that green was the skin tone of the mysterious ‘fairy’ children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk in the 1100s. Katherine Briggs has suggested that the colour relates to death- and there may be something in this. Identity with nature and plant life might be another association.
Popular as green was, it was by no means exclusive. Other traditional choices were:
- red– Evans Wentz recorded Welsh fairies in “gaudy colours (mostly red)”, in “soldiers’ clothes” with red caps and some pixies at Land’s End in red cloaks (Fairy faith pp.142, 155 & 181). Professor John Rhys found that Welsh witnesses in Victorian times often referred to the Tylwyth Teg ‘the red coats’ by way of euphemism;
- white– Welsh informants told Evans Wentz that the Tylwyth Teg were ‘always’ clothed in white and Thomas Heywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels employs ‘white nymphs’ as a euphemism for the fairies (p.507);
- blue– for example, Sikes in British goblins (chapter V, part iii) describes the Tylwyth Teg seen at the ‘Place of strife,’ Trefeglws, Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, as “the old elves of the blue petticoats.” In the Suffolk story, Brother Mike, the fairies appear in blue coats, yellow breeches and red caps;
- other– on Shetland the ‘grey neighbours’ are grey clad goblins. Walter Scott records Border fairies clad in “heath brown or lichen dyed garments.” John Rhys learned that the fairy women of Cardigan dressed “gorgeously in white, while the men were content with garments of a dark grey colour, usually including knee-breeches.” Meanwhile, around the River Teifi, the fairy women were said to dress “like foreigners, in short cotton dresses reaching only to the knee-joint.” He felt this was exceptional, as generally fairy dresses had very long trains and local girls who dressed in a more showy fashion would be likened to the Tylwyth Teg. At the other extreme, some supernatural beings traditionally abandon human clothing altogether and appear dressed in skins or leaves (Briggs, Dictionary, pp.110-11). In the hands of poets, an opposite tendency applies and clothing can become highly elaborate and literary. For instance John Beaumont in 1705 decked out his fairies in “loose Network Gowns, tied with a black sash about their middles, and within the Network appeared a Gown of a Golden Colour… they had white Linnen Caps on, with lace about three Fingers breadth, and over it they had a Black loose Network Hood” (A treatise of spirits).
To summarise the matter of preferred clothing colours, we may quote the words of John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset; in 1566 he was suspected of witchcraft and gave evidence. He stated “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black. Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”
Oddities and exceptions
Lastly, some supernaturals, the hobgoblins and brownies, dispensed with clothing altogether, relying on their hairiness or coarse skin. For them, the gift of clothes was the ultimate insult which drove them away from their chosen home. You may recall Dobby the house elf of Hogwarts school, dressed in an old tea-towel. Joanne Rowling knew her folklore.
Authors and artists aside, the folklore conception of fairy dress was of relatively simple garments. Susan Swapper of Rye told her 1610 witchcraft trial that the fairy woman she met dressed in a ‘green petticoat’ and plainness seems to be the norm- as in accounts of ‘long green robes.’ Sometimes something more elaborate is suggested; Angus Macleod of Harris in 1877 relayed his mother’s description of fairies dancing: “Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet” (Wentz p.116).
A particular identifying feature, indeed, was the fairy’s cap. It is regularly mentioned, most often red, although blue and yellow are also recorded, and again allusions occur from the south-west through Wales and the north-west up into Scotland. The shape is often pointed or conical- for example, a mid-twentieth century encounter near Perth was with a “wee green man with peakit boots and a cap like an old gramophone horn on his head.” The same informant ten years later had a rather more prosaic sighting of two small men in bowler hats…
By the twentieth century, conceptions of the style of fairy clothing had shifted away from the traditional forms to something much more influenced by art- both high and popular. Strains of whimsy and of floaty, flimsy ballerina type garments became pervasive, as typified perhaps by Cicely Mary Barker, whose fairies were, in the main, genteel young ladies, dressed perhaps for an Edwardian fancy dress party.
To summarise, descriptions of fairy clothing tended to fall into one of three categories:
- the otherness of the fairies was emphasised by the brightly coloured and elaborate nature of their attire;
- likewise, their otherness was indicated by the fact that they wore clothes of an earlier era: to the Victorians they appeared dressed in the fashions of mid-eighteenth century Georgians; or,
- by way of contrast, the very vicinity and intimate proximity of the ‘good neighbours’ was shown by the fact that they wore garments almost identical to those of human kind.
Lastly, readers will doubtless have observed how long-established one image is: the pixie or gnome dressed in his green jacket and red, pointy cap is deeply ingrained in the British imagination.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).