Handmade Greek fashion history on show in Athens

It’s about colors, textures and handmade history, a view of an era far removed from today’s fast-fashion exploits. Layers of rich cotton garments and elaborate embroideries (reaching their creative peak when made for weddings and other festive occasions) from around Greece – ranging from Skopelos and Skyros in the Sporades group of islands to northwestern Ioannina and more cosmopolitan Athens – reflect time, place and position, as opposed to individual style.

The clothes are currently being showcased in “Patterns of Magnificence: Tradition and Reinvention in Greek Women’s Costume,” an exhibition at the Hellenic Cosmos cultural center in Tavros, southern Athens. Tracing developments in local attire from the 18th to the early 20th century, the show was developed by the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation (PLI), a cultural organization based in Nafplio, in the Peloponnese, currently celebrating 40 years of operations.

The bulk of the over 40 garments on display belong to the PLI’s permanent collection (the center boasts some 30,000 pieces exploring modern Greek culture), while the Benaki Museum loaned a number of significant garments that have gone on display for the very first time. The exhibition was previously showcased at the Hellenic Center in London, marking its 20th anniversary, and was developed in memory of Koula Lemos, the center’s late chairwoman who worked tirelessly to promote Hellenism abroad.

According to the show’s curator Ioanna Papantoniou – the PLI’s founder and life force – a 3-meter-long dress recalling the form of the Ionic chiton worn on the islands of Kasos and Karpathos, as well as a loose pleated Cretan dress formed the basis of the Aegean Sea’s dress code back in the 18th century. Moving over to mainland Greece, the dalmatic-style chemise was a dominant feature in the Balkan region during Ottoman rule, with the garment serving as the basis of layered looks both in rural areas as well as more urban centers.

In the aftermath of the Greek War of Independence, it was Queen Amalia who came up with a court fashion protocol to symbolize newly free Greece, a country moving from its Eastern past to a Western future. The “Amalia” style (which the German-born sovereign adopted in public appearances) was based on a chemise, a dress and a short fitted jacket and was a sartorial effort to promote Greek traditions through an international fashion flair. In the meantime, Amalia’s spouse, King Otto, was often spotted (and often depicted in portraits) in a signature Greek garment, the pleated “foustanella.” Later on, Queen Olga (a member of Russia’s Romanov dynasty) also urged her ladies-in-waiting to adopt stylish combos based on amalgams of local and foreign trends.

While ancient Greek clothing has often served as inspiration for contemporary designers both locally and abroad, regional local dress has also played a significant role in the work of certain Greek designers and several of their foreign counterparts, among them Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, both of whom have reinterpreted the foustanella for the catwalk. Although the Hellenic Cosmos display focuses exclusively on traditional attire, the common thread linking past and present is reflected in numerous pieces.

Greek and English display notes are a happy addition to the exhibition, which runs through September.


“Patterns of Magnificence,” Hellenic Cosmos, 254 Pireos, Tavros,

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