Like music, costume is an essential component of every kind of dance, but especially of traditional dance. It is also essential to the performances staged by folk dance groups since it helps both the audience and the dancer relate to, if not identify with, the appropriate social context. In days of old the concepts of dance and costume were inseparable for the villagers: a good dancer was, above all, well-dressed.
Dance aside, costume, projecting a particular image of the human figure, is a vital clue to the understanding of its wearer and his society. In other words, the history and local conditions of an area, the articulation and values of a society, the status and personality of an individual are all encoded in his costume and can, therefore, be "read". We can "read" a costume of our own society quite unconsciously since we associate it with other messages, conveyed by the facial expressions, gestures, speech and general appearance of the individual. However, the deciphering or "reading" of the costume from another society is no easy matter, since we are neither cognizant of the personal or practical traits associated with it, nor the codification of its symbolic content.
Garments of a costume must, first and foremost, be functional: conceal or reveal particular parts of the body, hold personal effects etc. Thus, by examining the basic needs met by the costume, conclusions may be drawn concerning the daily life of those who wear it. However, each need may be met in several different ways and from these each social group makes its particular choice. The criteria governing this choice also merit attention.
For example, the need to wear shoes is determined by one's way of life. We may deduce that those people who do not wear shoes do not live in a cold climate, that the terrain of their environment is devoid of stones and thorns, that there are no poisonous snakes etc. A fisherman or housewife could go around barefoot, but not a shepherd or pedlar. Where footwear is necessary it is made of readily available materials, in an established fashion transmitted from father to son or cobbler to apprentice cobbler. Footwear not only tells us where the wearer walked but what kind of leather was tanned in the region, where and from whom the shoe-maker learnt his craft and a host of other information.
Footwear is of particular significance for the dancer since it enables him to imagine what kind of steps were possible. Heavy leather clogs (tsaroùchia), for instance, are cumbersome and make it difficult to lift one's feet off the ground, while pigskin shoes (gourounotsároucha) are considerably lighter, high boots (stivánia) permit precision of movement and slippers (kountoùres) impose shuffling steps. Dance steps were certainly influenced by the shift from home-made gourounotsároucha with thongs to tsaroùchia with tacked soles, made by a cobbler, just as they were when it became customary to present the bride with a pair of low-heeled court shoes, instead of the slippers she had hitherto worn.
Shoes were a precious commodity for the Greek peasant, acquired but once in a person's lifetime, which is why great care was taken of them and they were only worn on festive occasions. When a peasant visited another village he held his shoes in his hand and only put them on just before he got there. Since he was unused to them he danced with greater rigidity and restraint in the formal dances, in contrast to his agility in more intimate family gatherings where all he wore were knitted terlíkia or even danced barefoot.
In addition to meeting recognised needs with available resources, costume also fulfills other needs, less obvious and rational. At the cognitive level costume projects the ideal image of the human figure. If a small bosom, tiny waist and ample hips are thought desirable then these features will be emphasised by the costume, which is generally designed to present a picture of the ideal rather than the actual figure. An image perpetuated by the handing down of the same garments from generation to generation and the fact that, unlike today, there is little question of personal likes and dislikes in the way they are made: the young girl prepares her dowry under the supervision of older women, her girlfriends offer hints as she sews. This collective mode of reproduction is conducive to standardisation and not individualisation.
Costume also functions as a uniform, in the military sense: ostensibly everyone looks the same, yet the social stratum to which each belongs and his status within it are indicated by discreet differentiating symbols. First and foremost the costume states quite clearly to which regional or endogamous group its wearer belongs: e.g. Vlach, Sarakatsani, Karagouna. Within this group the costumes of each village may be distinguished since it was important for a village to preserve its identity as a distinct social unit. Collective consciousness at village level is not confined to its fields, houses and brides, but in its few dealings with the outside world it is reinforced by the insistence that things are quite different in the next village: they dance differently, dress differently, they are lazy, stupid, thieves etc. By stressing these alleged differences the village raises a protective shield which acts as a barrier to assimilation. Thus, even though the costume is basically the same, great care is taken to create some differences.
Differences in costume within the same village denote social divisions: of generation (copying or wearing the clothes of the forebears), of class (farmers, shepherds, craftsmen), of economic standing (florins on the chest, jewellery, chains), family status (child, nubile, married, widowed), personal history (pilgrimage, journey abroad, military service, expatriate relatives, mourning etc.). All are registered by characteristic symbols, known to all and obligatory for each instance. In the last analysis, the costume is a personal file containing the social and personal history of the individual wearer. It is an open book for all who are able to read it.
Despite the strictures of convention there remains some leeway for the expression of personal preferences. The colour of the dye for the material, the design of the embroidery, the slight cock of the fez, the draping or tying of the kerchief, minor variations on the basic theme, succinctly registering taste, a desire to be different from the others, to be more attractive, but never exceeding socially tolerated bounds, never inciting comment or provoking gossip. As in dancing and social decorum in general, so in costume to transgress the unwritten rules invokes criticism and reproof, particularly from the old women, the veritable "cultural police" of the village. The ultimate condemnation is to "get a bad name" or "to be talked about".
The clothes, jewellery and personal effects of the bride are the most important part of her dowry. They are borne in procession to the house of the groom within an ornamented chest which is formally placed at the foot of the bridal bed. This chest contains the woman's secret world and no-one is allowed to open it. It symbolises her installation in the house and if it is put into the street it signifies her dismissal from there. It is customary for women to be buried in their wedding finery, and men too in their best clothes, and consequently many such precious heirlooms have been irretrievably lost.
Nowadays there is a prevailing tendency to cast off the old ways and in many villages the women have eagerly got rid of the old costumes stored in their carved chests. Those which have survived are mainly in museums and private collections, in the wardrobes of folk dance groups, the storerooms of dealers, or abroad. Dispersed, dismembered and divorced from those who knew how to wear them, take care of them, store them and understand their significance, they have been reduced to museum pieces or articles to be bought and sold. For the researcher trying to decipher their covert codes, for the dancer wishing to be properly attired by making accurate copies of them, for the costumier and dress designer inspired by them, indeed for anyone interested in learning what his ancestors wore (unless he is ashamed of them), the thread has been cut. Costumes are no longer in the hands of those who could tell us about them, of those to whom they rightfully belong.
So we must try to fill this hiatus, we must sit down and talk with those old grandmothers who wore costume in their youth, that very costume her daughters gave to some passing pedlar in exchange for a plastic bucket. We must ask them the name of each garment, how it was made, where the materials were purchased, how it was worn, washed and folded, what was said about it and a host of other such questions. We must strive to salvage that body of knowledge which has been interrupted before it is irrevocably lost. Since this knowledge no longer passes to its rightful heirs (daughter and granddaughter), it must be gleaned by other agents. Not, however, state agencies for these are, by definition, diametrically opposed to tradition; any form of state intervention or involvement in cultural affairs automatically deprives them of their traditional character. This must be the mission of private bodies, whose concern, for reasons of consuming interest or self-interest, is for preserving traditional knowledge without disrupting its strictly local and interpersonal nature.
In Greece only a handful of people have shown a serious interest in traditional costume. From the outset costume has been approached as something to be collected or described, though in fact this obsession with collecting has been its salvation, since a large number of costumes were acquired by museums before falling prey to commercial dealers. In the last twenty years the latter have combed every inch of Greece, buying anything and everything traditional "for a song". Consequently costumes have been split up and scattered, some pieces are in Greek collections, others abroad, others in shops where they are cut into pieces and sewn onto modern dresses, others to dance companies. The Lyceum of Greek Women can boast the largest collection of costumes (about 2000 complete costumes), followed by the Dora Stratou Company, the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation (about 250 complete costumes), the Benaki Museum, the Museum of Greek Folk Art and the Folklore Museum of Northern Greece.
It goes without saying that an ethnographic object bereft of historical details has lost half its value. A costume, the precise provenance of which is not known, nor how and by whom it was made, nor when and where it was worn etc., can only supply limited information. This is why studies of costume have tended to concentrate on details of their making. Attention has been paid to their more impressive aspects and the enormous range of everyday costumes has been neglected at the expense of those worn by the bride and groom, since these were the most visually striking. Secondary elements, such as the kerchief, coiffure, make-up and general care of the body have been forgotten. The social and functional dimensions have been ignored, while there has been an obsession with the problem of origin (in general the less the folklorist knows about what to do with his material, the greater his concern with determining its origin). In other words, costume has been treated in much the same way as traditional dance.
It is as rash to make sweeping statements about "Greek costume" as it is to make them about "Greek dance". Both costume and dance are cultural manifestations of the immediate social environment in which they were born and nurtured, so any generalisation inevitably detracts from their substance. The only valid approach is to consider the costume (as well as dances, songs etc.) of each particular village, not even of a particular region. Only when complete records have been made, village by village, will research be on a firm footing (an approach recently implemented for traditional music by the Lyceum of Greek Women and the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation). Until then, records entitled "Songs of Macedonia" or "Songs of Epirus" will continue to mislead the general public.
The impracticability of a general approach to costume is apparent from the problem of nomenclature. In order to refer to a garment or ornament this must be named, and almost always the very same item has different names in different regions and villages. Conversely, the same name may be used for different items in different places. This is equally true for the dances, which is why a question such as "how many Greek dances are there?" is not only impossible to answer, it is utterly meaningless. So, only if monographs on the costume of each village are prepared can a "costume map of Greece" be compiled (with refugees shown in their original homeland) and thus the wider regions and lines of influence be discerned.
To facilitate such a study classifications of costumes have been attempted, though these differ depending on the taxonomic principle adopted. Ms. Popi Zora and Ms. loanna Papantoniou base their taxonomy on geographical divisions: costumes of mountainous regions, the plains, the islands and urban centres. The late Angeliki Hadjimichali preferred a morphological approach, proposing three categories for the female costumes and two for the male, based on the characteristic trait of the corresponding garment: kavádi, sigoùni, foustáni, foustanélla, vráka.
However, it is as difficult to speak about Greek costume in general as it is to describe each one of the innumerable local costumes separately. Thus only a few typical garments or themes will be considered below. The subject of costume - on the making and maintenance of which a woman lavished a good part of her life - is so rich and varied that no summary or partial presentation can possibly do it justice.
The chemise is a garment common to all costumes, male and female. It was the last to be abandoned since it was, and in some cases still is, worn under western-style clothes. Home-made, except in the towns, it is of cotton, linen or silk, mixed with hemp or wool, is usually white, often sleeved and always fastened at the neck. Both front and back consist of a single piece of material (mána), its width determined by that of the loom, with side pieces (langiólia) or gathering (soùra). Those parts of the chemise which are visible are embroidered, on the loom or with needlework, or appliquéd: the hem, the neck, the edge of the sleeves and down the seams. Sometimes there are tassels, ribbons or lace trim at the edge.
The most personal of all garments, the chemise is worn next to the body, or over a flannel vest by men, and its shape is the same for all, irrespective of class. Quite often it bears personal marks, such as tiny embroidered flowers or a monogram, or charms and phylacteries are pinned to it (such as that worn to protect the groom from impotence, which his enemies may inflict on him on his wedding night). The bride's chemise, stained with virginal blood, was shown at the window, or to her mother-in-law, or taken to her father-in-law waiting in the coffee shop. In some places they held it aloft and danced with it, firing triumphant shots into the air or at it.
The word ependytis has been devised in order to avoid using one of the numerous local names for this garment: kavádi, anterí, kaplamás, sayás, kaftáni, sigoùni, to mention but a few. For each of the characteristics described below, there are numerous exceptions. In general this garment is cut in the same way as the chemise but instead of the closed neck it is open down the front. It consists of a single width of material (mána) back and front, side pieces (langiólia) and sleeves, but unlike the chemise it is made by a specialist tailor, the terzís who dyes the cloth and then cuts out, sews and embroiders it with the distinctive terzídiko embroidery, in which gold or coloured braid (gaitáni) is sewn onto felt in spiral patterns. The overgarment, made of home-woven cotton, wool (sayáki) or bought cloth, either lined or with thick fleece-like nap on the inside, is rather wide and ankle-length, though it tends to shorten in time. Initially white, it is dyed pale blue, dark blue or black. The most prominent parts, mainly the edges, are decorated with embroidery or applique and when short-sleeved or unsleeved it is the sleeves of the chemise that are more elaborately embroidered. As the central garment in the costume, it conveys a woman's emotional state: hitched up when she is happily dancing, hanging down when she is in mourning or in church.
Since the dress is mainly designed to cover the body from below the waist, the bodice may be either single, open down the front, with straps, sleeved or unsleeved. If there is no bodice then the garment is known as a skirt (foùsta). There are as many names as there are designs: foustáni, fórema, tsoùkna, veléssi, sártza, etc.
Worn over the chemise, the dress is either of a single piece of cloth or several pieces joined horizontally or vertically, with embroidery or applique braid in contrasting colour around the hem. In some regions several skirts are worn one over the other. Particular attention is paid to the pleats (díples, pastes), which are sewn up when the garment is laundered and weighted down when it is hung up to dry. Most of the embroidery is on the front of the bodice, and is not terzídiko but women's needlework. That on the skirt discreetly distinguishes the married from the single woman and may furnish even further clues to her social status. That the dress is the quintessential female garment is apparent even from references to it in figures of speech such as "he has put on a skirt" (i.e. he does not behave like a man). In dance it is the dress which sets off the leg movements and turns, yet conceals the feet so that the woman need not execute complex steps.
Originally the apron was a practical garment intended to protect the exposed front of the skirt from becoming soiled and worn. These aprons were made of a piece of plain cotton or woollen cloth, usually had pockets and rarely any decoration. They were also worn by certain artisans or labourers, such as the galvaniser or the blacksmith, whose apron was of leather. In some places a special apron is worn at weddings by the young men assigned to treat the guests (bratímia).
By contrast, the apron donned on feast days is in no way functional and intended to be purely decorative. Whereas throughout Mainland Greece the apron is an integral part of the festive costume, it is hardly ever seen in the islands. Worn in a particularly prominent position, this garment was treated by the woman as an artist treats his canvas and on it all manner of designs were created, epitomising the symbolic image differentiating one village from another: in a way, the apron is the village flag.
It is either rectangular or trapezoidal in shape; the former comprises one or two widths of material sewn together widthwise or lengthwise, the latter from a rectangular piece of cloth to which two triangular pieces have been sewn down the sides. It is tied around the waist with a cord or woollen braid and around the three edges there are coloured braids, fringing, tassels, lace or other decoration. All kinds of cloth were used, from coarse home-spun to expensive imported materials. Sometimes an additional strip of material was sewn to the upper half where the belt buckle rests, to avoid undue wear and tear. The apron may be any colour but it must blend with the rest of the costume. It is always made and embroidered by the wearer, rarely by a professional tailor, and recent ones have embroidered designs taken from calligraphic copy books.
So varied and diverse are the head and hair ornaments that it is almost impossible to generalise about them. Usually the entire head is covered, leaving only the face free, and in the bridal costume even that is veiled until the bride is ceremoniously unveiled by her mother-in-law or the groom.
Though the garments of the costume have survived, the art of draping the kerchief has all but disappeared since it has not been passed on to the younger women. The arranging of the elaborate bridal headdress was an undertaking entrusted to particularly experienced and accomplished women. In general there was a marked distinction between the headdress of the married and unmarried woman, but there are also subtle variations according to the phase in her life cycle, phases with contingent social status and recognition: infant, young girl, nubile girl, betrothed, bride, married woman, matron with two children, elderly, in mourning, widowed. All this is indicated by the costume, but above all by the headdress. Other variations depend on situation or location: at home, in the neighbourhood, in the fields, on feast days, at church, in winter, in summer etc.
Almost everywhere in Greece the hair is plaited in two braids. Before marriage the plaits hang down the back, while married women coil them round the head in various ways. The bride's plaits are adorned with florins, jewellery, ribbons, flowers and other ornaments. A married woman always wears a distinctive folded kerchief or rolled cloth on the crown of her head, intended to give an impression of height to the hairstyle, and a ribbon, with or without coins, on the brow. Over this a scarf (or scarves) is tied. In some regions women wear a tiny cap or fez.
Kerchiefs or scarves (mandília) are square, whereas stoles (bólies) axe long and narrow. The tsembéri is a large kerchief of fine lawn and the fakióli is tied under the main kerchief. Silk kerchiefs are called kalamátes, cotton ones with stamped designs polítika, woollen ones with flowers lachoùria and large silk scarves are generally known as spaléta, though there are hundreds of names and variants. Though plain scarves are sometimes made at home, they are usually purchased from pedlars or brought from abroad by returning emigrants. Indeed, a scarf is a popular and pleasing gift. The bride presents her guests with small kerchiefs (mandilómata) and on feast days the men tie them around their neck or from their cummerbund. It is a kerchief which dancers hold so that men and women do not clasp hands, and the lead dancer always grasps a kerchief held by the second in line, in order to perform his spectacular twists and turns, while waving another scarf in his right hand.
On the islands and in the coastal villages the men wear the vráka, a kind of wide, baggy pantaloon, tied around the waist and calves, since they hang well below the knees. The vráka is very ample around the waist, forming a large foufoùla or bustle behind, a sign of affluence, sometimes almost touching the floor. The everyday vráka or kártsa is of dark blue or black woollen serge or fustan (rása), cotton or satin. Vráka for best wear may be paler blue in colour, of felt, in which case it is known as chialvári, with braid down the side seams. These are tailored by the terzís, as is the waistcoat (giléki) and the meidáni. Vrákes in the plural refers to the entire male costume. Under the influence of competition from western-style trousers, the vráka became more close-fitting and in Crete it was replaced by the kylóta, a kind of riding-breeches.
The commonest male costume on the Greek mainland consists of the chemise, a simple sleeved garment worn over the shirt, fastening at the front and often knee-length. When a belt is fastened round the waist the chemise flares out, forming folds around the hemline. These folds were considered a sign of luxury and, in the effort to make them even more ample in appearance, the foustanélla was gradually devised. The foustanélla is a kilt-like garment made up of triangular pieces of material (langiólia), hand-woven dimity or calico, six of which are sewn together to form a long piece (mána or lóxa). These, in turn, are sewn and gathered into a double strip of material, through which a cord is passed to fasten it around the waist. A full foustanélla requires as many as four hundred langiólia, that is almost a whole bolt of cloth. When the foustanélla is made of heavy material a kind of bodice (panokórmi) is attached, to hold up the weight, in which case the garment is called a kormofoustanélla. When hung out to dry, the pleats are sewn around the hem in order to keep them in place. The foustanélla is particularly impressive in the dance, since it emphasises the turns and jumps.