Why do you look… like that?
It’s most probably all about disguise and anonymity. Border was traditionally danced by underemployed rural labourers in the industrial revolution of the 19th and late 18th centuries as way of supplementing income in the winter and around Christmas. But the gentry and bosses frequently considered it an intemperate practice and little better than begging (not too dissimilar to our current practice, but now we intemperately ‘beg’ for a designated charity each year).
The tatter coats are probably an inventive way of making a costume out of a dancer’s ordinary clothes – but they also do a fine job of emphasising the spinning parts of the dance. Border dancers made do with what they had, turning their coats inside-out and further disguising them with decorative rags (that small boys sometimes tried to set alight!). To reflect this heritage, each of the dancers in Armaleggan has a slightly different personalised kit, rather than the common uniform that is customary in Cotswold morris.
The most popular theory on the facepaint is again that when labourers went out dancing in the hope of earning some beer money they used soot to darken their faces so nobody would recognise them – especially not the bosses who took a dim view of the practice. The practice of blackening the face as a disguise when engaged in frowned-upon activities such as poaching, stealing – or morris dancing -was so widespread in the 18th century that the practice was made a criminal offense, which could be punishable by death. It was finally decriminalised only in the 1820s.
Top hats are what men generally wore in the nineteenth century. Decorating the hat makes you taller, and we hope a little scarier. It would also have made your ordinary hat less recognisable. Because flowers and greenery were not as available in winter as they are at Whitsun-tide, when Cotswold was traditionally danced, Border dancers instead often used feathers to decorate their hats.