Irini, a doll’s best friend

In the early part of last century, the local women of Mytilene, wearing the island’s traditional costume, put on seven layers of underwear in order to look heavy, plumpness being an attribute of femininity at the time. In Corfu the ribbons that hung from the back of womens’ belts suggested the number of marriage proposals that each woman had received. The ways in which people dress have never been a random affair but rather the expression of a visual code in which a society’s cultural values, economic structure and social or gender stereotyping are weaved together in inventive and subtle ways. It is largely on this account that the work of Irini Printezi-Frangou seems so challenging. Her handmade dolls, adorned in reproductions of Greece’s traditional costumes, are an exercise in manual skill and detailed work but also a valuable indicator of the country’s cultural history. Printezi, who grew up in Constantinople but moved to Athens in the mid-1960s following another wave of expulsion of the Greek population from Turkey, has been collecting information on traditional costumes for the past 20 years, with the objective of recording and preserving them not through written descriptions, as is usually the case, but through something as vivid and visually appealing as dolls wearing reproductions of the actual costumes. So far she has come up with almost one hundred different costumes from all over Greece which she has matched with an equal number of different doll-characters. Finding out the specific details of each costume entails considerable research into documents, written evidence, archives, and local, ethnographic museums. But much of the necessary information is unrecorded, so that Printezi has to rely on oral tradition and on field research that involves going to the sites and talking to the locals, mostly the old ladies who wore the costumes themselves. Some of the costumes that Printezi has reproduced do not exist even in the folklore museums of each region. The traditional costume of Aegina, for example, cannot be found in any museum, and to make it Printezi relied on two engravings depicting it. Printezi also has to be aware of the local variations that are to be found in each region, as well as such small but important details as womens’ hairdos (she found out, for instance, that in Skopelos women curled a piece of their hair and pasted it just below their temples), the kinds of threads used, the jewelry of choice, and the layers of clothing that are not apparent on the surface but are there all the same. She reproduces everything by hand, painting the motifs and sowing in the fabrics and threads that come closest to the original. Printezi, who is currently working on recovering the traditional costumes of the islands of Amorgos and Kythnos, is helping to record a waning cultural tradition while also strengthening the collective identity of local communities by making them aware of their own traditions. This is the reason why after a great number of exhibits – the most recent one was a few months ago in Syros, her ancestral island – her work is in high demand and requests for further exhibits have come from northern Greece, Paros and other areas. In the meantime, however, Printezi is busy with another rather unusual activity. For the past year she has been operating a so-called doll clinic, receiving old and damaged dolls from as far back as the 1940s and restoring them to their original condition. A hard task, it involves much trial and error and coming up with inventive ways and unusual solutions in order to repair severely damaged dolls. Using her experience from working with traditional dolls, Printezi uses her imagination to sew clothes and matching accessories, handmade leather shoes, and at times even re-create an entire wardrobe of appealing combinations.

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