The costume used in the earliest days of the rapper sword dance and its predecessor sword dance in the Tyne Valley is poorly documented. The early descriptions refer to the dancers wearing white shirts with ribbons attached, but do not go into any more detail than that; it has been speculated that this is because the white shirts and ribbons were merely worn over normal work clothing – few pitmen in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century could have afforded the luxury of special clothing for a seasonal dance tradition.
The early accounts of the dance sometimes also describe the characters. The Captain (later Tommy) is described as being dressed in animal skins or in the same costume but with a fox skin hat, and the Bessy (later Betty) as being in “the grotesque habit of an old woman.”
The best known illustration of this early costume is in Ralph Hedley's painting “The Sword Dancers” shown below, which dates from 1880 and shows the Earsdon sword dancers performing at Tanfield near Winlaton in County Durham (some authorities believe the dancers are actually from Winlaton).
Cecil Sharp spoke to Ralph Hedley about the painting, and was told that “the dancers wore white shirts decorated with bows and rosettes of coloured ribbons, black breeches of alpaca or satinet, knee-ribbons and striped stockings and shoes tied with ribbons. The Captain wore a wide-awake hat with peacock's feathers, an old-fashioned tail coat, breeches, and striped stockings. The Bessy was dressed in women's clothes as shown in the picture.”
The traditional rapper kit, largely still used to this day, probably evolved at some time between 1880 and 1910. When Cecil Sharp visited Tyneside in 1910, the teams he visited had adopted the more modern costume now regarded as traditional, although the Earsdon team told him they had only recently adopted it for a performance at Alnwick Castle in front of King Edward VII in 1906.
The traditional costume was a decorated version of the nineteenth century miner's working clothes, and usually consisted of shirt, trousers or hoggers – knee-length short working trousers used by pitmen in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see photo) – and knee-length socks. The hoggers were often dyed bright colours or decorated with gold strips to differentiate them from ordinary workwear.
This costume was then usually decorated with a sash around the waist, and often also by the addition of ribbons, rosettes, waistcoats or ties, each village team attempting to achieve an appearance distinct from their neighbours.
It is often forgotten that before Primitive Methodism became widespread during the course of the nineteenth century, the Durham miner was known for the flamboyant and colourful way in which he dressed. The traditional type of rapper costume is nothing more than an evolution from the older local custom. Perhaps as the converts changed their manner of dress to one of dark sobriety, the rapper dancers (of whom the Primitives disapproved) became more colourful in reaction.
The Winlaton, Swalwell and Murton sides wore trousers, the others breeches or hoggers. Ties were a trademark of High Spen, Westerhope, Swalwell and Washington. Murton and Wylam dressed their Tommy in a policeman's uniform, while most others favoured highly formal dress such as top hats and tail coats.
The Beadnell men had an entirely different kit based upon the working clothes of local fishermen, with blue jerseys, navy trousers and a pink sash decorated with rosettes worn across one shoulder.
A good example of the traditional kit is shown in the photograph below, taken of the Westerhope team after winning the Cowen Trophy at the North of England Musical Tournament in 1921.
The majority of men's rapper sides and some women's rapper sides use kit derived from the traditional costume described above. Decorations such as rosettes are far less in use than previously, but otherwise little has changed. Teams use different colour schemes of hoggers, sash and shirt to develop their own corporate look, just as they did in the early twentieth century. The Newcastle Kingsmen, Sallyport, and Pengywn (shown below) are good examples of “traditional modern” kit.
Many teams, especially women's teams, have adopted kit very different to the traditional variety; good examples include Black Adder, Short Circuit and Silver Flame, shown below.
A few women's teams in the past adopted bizarre and gimmicky costumes, but these are thankfully nothing more than an embarrassing footnote in the modern history of rapper.