On the Trail of a Greek Bourgeoisie Clad in Traditional Garb

Posted by Vivian Florou

Vivian Florou here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about  high-society Greek women in the decades between the two world wars. The traditional festive costumes that they wore on their social outings defined the aspirations of their class. Florou explores this fashion trend within the intellectual context of the period and the so-called “Generation of the Thirties.” Vivian, who studied archaeology and cultural heritage management, co-edited with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Jack L. Davis, a collection of essays, entitled Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (forthcoming later this year). In that volume she explores the social life of two American couples (Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, and Bert and Ida Hill) who lived in the neoclassical mansion that now houses the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation on 9 Ploutarchou street in Kolonaki, Athens.  

 

On Sunday evening, the 25th of October 1931, Antonis Benakis and his wife received representatives of the International Council of Museums in the grand ballrooms of the newly established Benaki Museum, his former residence. A page of the daily newspaper Πρωΐα (Proia) the next morning preserves forever in a caption to a sketch the particular event that distinguished that reception: “Κυρίαι και δεσποινίδες της κοινωνίας φέρουσαι διαφόρους ελληνικάς ενδυμασίας επέδειξαν εις τους ξένους την χάριν και την αρμονίαν των ελληνικών αμφιέσεων.” (Madames and mademoiselles of society in Greek costumes of various kinds demonstrated to foreigners the joy and harmony contained in Greek apparel.)

From their names on the sketch we learn that these were women of the Greek elite of that period. What were they doing dressed in clothes so foreign to the experiences of their daily lives? Why were they swirling the heavy fabrics of their garments amidst the foreign representatives? Did their behavior simply reflect a folkloric movement or was it an expression of “committed art” set against an historical backdrop? This clipping from Πρωΐα of 1931 inspired me to look for photographs that shed light on the appropriation of folk art by the Greek bourgeoisie in the interwar period (1919-1938), but also earlier, in the 19th century.

Sketch of women in traditional dresses at the gala in the Benaki Museum. “Πρωΐα” newspaper, October 26, 1931

Sketch of women in traditional dresses at the gala in the Benaki Museum. “Πρωΐα” newspaper, October 26, 1931

After the foundation of the Greek state in the 1820s, the spirit of romantic nationalism that had earlier inundated the rest of Europe would prevail in Greece too and would bring with it a broader interest in the folk cultures of the newly constituted nation states. An example of behavior characteristic of this period was the formulation by the Greek Queen Amalia (1836-1862), and then by Queen Olga (1867-1913), of a conventional language of dress inspired by folk tradition, which would operate as a unifying symbol for their subjects and would visually inscribe in apparel the aspirations of the elite of that era (Macha-Bizoumi 2014, 48-55; Politou 2014, 56-63). For these reasons Queen Olga decreed a new attire for Ladies-in-Waiting at the Royal Court, one that was based on traditional garments of northern and eastern Attica. Read the rest of this entry »