American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
April, 2005

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Morris Costume & Warfare

A brief examination of how Morris costumes were affected 
by England's participation in wars.

Andrew Bullen


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Captain Richard W. Palliser,
Irish Hussars

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Handsworth Sword
Dance Team



Because the rural population (the main participants and audience of ritual celebrations) were called upon to fight England's many wars, I believe that it was inevitable that military dress-- particularly the balderic-- came to influence Morris costume. Even the word "kit," our word for Morris costume, bells, etc., has a military connotation to it. The word originally meant  a round wooden tub. It entered the English language in 1275, probably from the Middle Dutch kitte meaning a "jug, tankard, wooden container." By about 1780, the word had taken on its present meaning (a collection of personal effects, especially for traveling), describing the containers and bags that soldiers used to carry their food, clothing, and other individual needs.

This emphasis of costume shift can be clearly seen in illustrations of Morris dancers from the time:

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Notice the costume of this Munich Morris figure, carved by Erasmus Grasser in 1480.  (N.B. You can buy your very own reproductions of the complete set of these figures at this site.)

Not much had changed in costume for Morris dancers when the Betley Window was created c. 1621.

More about the Betley Window, and its origins can be found here, in an article by Mike Heaney in Musical Traditions. 

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Finally, notice this detail from The Thames at Richmond by David Vinckeboons, painted around the same time. Notice the dancers' costume is not that much different from the spectators.' Even the gentleman at the top left of the painting is dressed in much the same manner as the dancers, if not sharing the same quality of dress.

This is a detail from an anonymous painting entitled The Dixton Harvesters, painted c. 1720. Notice the major change that the figures are wearing baldrics. Costume emphasis has changed in the 100 years separating this work from the Vinckeboons painting above, adding a distinctly military cast to the costume.

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Detail from a photograph of the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers, 1895.

The baldric, worn since medieval times by swordsmen and mounted soldiers to carry a sword came to be a common part of the Morris costume around the time that the flintlock rifle and socket bayonet became a part of the common British soldiers' weaponry in 1660.

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British Infantry, Ca. 1805

One ribbon of the baldric supported the rifle cartridges, while the other supported a bayonet and sheath. I believe the introduction of the flintlock rifle and its distribution to the common soldier produced a major costume change in Morris dancing around 1660, when flintlock rifles became widely available. So many men from Morris areas in England fought in the world wars of the 18th and 19th centuries-- the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars-- that they brought back the notion of the baldric as a "kit" element, a uniform for special occasions.

The opposite happened as well. The dancers of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, most of whom were part of the same family, suffered similar  devastation in the First World War. In Marcia Rice's book, Abbots Bromley, she relates:

"Abbots Bromley must never forget that the horns were 'out' once during the Great War... [T]he Wakes of 1915 saw the Horns, and here is Mrs. Bentley's story. At the time of the Wakes in 1915, four of her five sons were at home on leave. They were all in the Lincoln Regiment and were on their way from Leighton Buzzard to France...Jack [Bentley] was leader with blue horn. Arthur had white horn. David and Alfred also danced and others joined them... Arthur was killed at Loos, David at Arlas." (pp. 78-79)

On page 76, there is a photograph of the dancers proudly posed in their B.E.F. khaki uniforms, holding the horns as to begin the dance.

Photo and Illustration Credits

Handsworth Sword Dance Team: Rattle Up, My Boys: The Story of Longsword Dancing. Trevor Stone.
Captain Richard W. Palliser:
British Infantry:
Moriskentanzer: Postcard, Munchner Stadtmuseum
Betley Window: Postcard, Victoria and Albert Museum
Thames at Richmond: Russell Wortley. John Jenner and Andrew Richards. Cambridge Morris Men. 1980. p. 7
The Dixton Harvesters: Russell Wortley. John Jenner and Andrew Richards. Cambridge Morris Men. 1980. p. 9
Headington Quarry Morris Dancers: Russell Wortley. John Jenner and Andrew Richards. Cambridge Morris Men. 1980. p. 14

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689