Brides may be the stars of all weddings, yet their big day attire hasn’t always reflected their personality and sense of style.
Following the Greek War of Independence, for instance, a wedding ceremony was an occasion for brides-to-be to acquire a set of new clothes, while in certain parts of the country women were encouraged to wear their wedding gear in public until giving birth to their second child. Later on, in the 20th century, wedding dresses followed the fashion flair of the times.
Tradition, customs and fashion history through wedding garments is the subject of “Brides,” an exhibition currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex. Running to April 6, the show is organized by the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation.
A long thread of creativity connects a Kifissia wedding look – reflecting the tradition of late 19th-century Mesogia villages, the elaborate outfit includes the “foundi,” a sleeveless cotton chemise, and a net of gold beads, known as the “yiordani” – to a Madame Gres wedding confection – the French couturier was known for her pleated garments – worn by Fani Dimitrakoudi in the 1980s. What lies between them are changes in lifestyles and perceptions, such as the establishment of a white color palette, for example, as the wedding gown choice. The idea comes from Queen Victoria, who opted to wear a favorite white dress when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840.
“Our initial idea was highly ambitious, the exhibition was meant to cover the entire Mediterranean region and highlight the similarities that exist across the basin, irrespective of language and religion,” said Ioanna Papantoniou, a leading costume designer, costume historian and founder of the Nafplio-based foundation. “Unfortunately, we did not succeed in finding the necessary sponsorship and so we had to limit our scope.”
Instead, Papantoniou, who curated the show, and her dedicated team decided to honor the brides and friends of the foundation who had donated wedding garments to its permanent collections. In this way the show takes on a personalized dimension as the garments making up the exhibition’s central display are accompanied by a small portrait and the maiden name of each bride. Following a fresh influx of donations in the aftermath of the exhibition’s opening, organizers are expected to host a special gala event featuring the new bequests prior to the show’s closing.
In the meantime, on display at the Benaki annex is the curator’s own wedding dress, a garment based on a model by French couture house Balmain and executed by the Georgette fashion house in Athens. It was worn by Papantoniou on January 20, 1956.
The wedding gown panorama traces the roaring 1920s, with a short gown worn by Olga Fitsiou in 1924, the refinement of pre-World War II style as reflected in a Mady Donnet model worn by Aspasia Makarova in 1936 and the elegance of the 1950s as seen in an elongated jacket worn over a tulle skirt, created by couturier Jean Desses – the Paris-based Alexandrine designer of Greek descent – worn by Elissavet Kominou-Papastratou in 1951.
“Brides” also highlights the work of prominent Greek designers spanning the 20th century: a “wave” model by the house of Tsouchlos worn by Manto Karamessini in 1950; a wedding gown by the Tsopanelli house worn by Eleni Stassinopoulou in 1957; along with embroidered wedding gowns by Yannis Vouros (for Katerina Kanaki in 1979), the house of C. Mavropoulos (for Sia Divani Drepanopoulos in 1973) and Nikos-Takis (for Cleo Kalogeropoulou in 1975).
Besides celebrating beauty and diversity, the show is part of a series of events marking the foundation’s 40 years. It also follows in the footsteps of previous exhibition projects, most notably “Ptychoseis – Folds and Pleats,” a 2004 display credited with putting fashion on the local museum radar. Tracing drapery from antiquity to 21st-century fashion, the show was part of the Cultural Olympiad, a series of events organized in view of the Athens Olympic Games.
At the same time, Papantoniou is also curating “Patterns of Magnificence: Tradition and Reinvention in Greek Women’s Costume,” an exhibition opening at the Hellenic Center in London on February 4. Running to March 2, the exhibition is organized in memory of Koula Lemos and brings together garments from around Greece, illustrating the fusion of local sartorial tradition with the Western aesthetic.
Back at the Benaki display, a collection of snapshots and official wedding day photographs can be viewed on the exhibition hall’s walls, comprising a lively mural of the displayed garments, the women who wore them and wedding guests. What makes a marriage between two people successful is often debatable, but an inspiring wedding garment seems like a fitting start.
The Benaki Museum is organizing a series of guided tours of “Brides” on February 8, 15 and 22, March 8, 15 and 29 and April 5. The tours start at 12.30 p.m. at a supplementary cost of 2 euros. Following Athens, the exhibition is expected to travel to Nafplio’s Fougaro cultural complex. For more information, go to www.benaki.gr.