There are many ways of approaching and enjoying the exhibition of traditional Greek women’s costume titled Patterns of Magnificence, now in its last weekend at the Hellenic Centre in London.
An archaeological eye could trace the development of two main types of costume, the T-shaped dalmatic or chemise, which developed out of the Roman tunic, and the loose pleated dress hanging from the shoulder, of which there is a strikingly beautiful example from Crete.
You could simply marvel at the lavishness of embroidery – especially seen in the hems of the tunics, their striking colours including dark indigo, rich terracotta and green. You could, with a fashion designer’s eye, see how aspects of traditional dressmaking could be reinvented for a modern audience.
If you are an anthropologist or ethnographer, you might note the distinctive local traditions, especially pertaining to particular islands, each of which seems to have its own costume style. Historically, you could trace the 19th-century revival of traditional Greek costumes fostered by the first two queens of independent Greece, Amalia and Olga – who were, as is the way of these things, German and Russian respectively.
None of those approaches seemed quite right – or even sufficient – to me as I went round the exhibition space, where the costumes are shown without protective glass cases. I felt an awkwardness and confusion, which was perhaps the equal and opposite of the awkwardness I feel looking at models on the catwalk (something I do quite rarely and only when fashion shows are reported on TV).
Models are trained in a strange way not to look too human; to restrict their range of expression to a haughty pout, and their extraordinarily elongated limbs and lack of flesh often give them a skeletal appearance; if they looked too real or alive, they would presumably distract attention from the clothes, which are meant to be the focus of everything. They are parading in front of professionals whose job is to see only the clothes, not the model.
It was almost the opposite for me at the Hellenic Centre: seeing just the clothes, I could not help thinking about the women who had once worn them, decades or even centuries ago; about how different their lives must have been; about ideas of beauty, comfort and permanence that are in stark contrast to those of today.
Two things visitors quickly take in about these touching exhibits is that they were hand-woven, stitched and embroidered, mostly by the women who would wear them; and that they were for life. Devoting a lot of time to making your own clothes now seems an odd thing to do, but, I suppose, historically has been the norm. A few years ago a woman from the Lofoten Islands in Norway told me that people there were still able to make their own clothes just one generation ago.
Clothes such as those in Patterns of Magnificence formed an important part of a young woman’s dowry. As Angeliki Roumelioti explains in one of the catalogue essays, “rich girls and poor had in their dowries enough clothes to last them all their life; quite often, in fact, they had more than they needed and passed on the ones they never wore to be added to their daughters’ dowries.”
One bridal costume on show, called a chrysomandilo, and from the island of Astypalaia, was passed down through four generations of one family before being acquired by the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation.
The most magnificent costumes were reserved for weddings: apart from many layers of embroidered chemises, these included such items as gold-embroidered bodices, waistcoats with buckled belts, a fur-trimmed, embroidered tunic called the goúna (found on the island of Kastelorizo), and headdresses of the utmost magnificence. The chrysomandilo, for example, takes its name from the gold-embroidered, pearl-encrusted frontlet of the headdress. In Corfu, a bride’s headdress might consist of coils of hair bound with red ribbons and adorned with flowers, small mirrors, fine wire spirals, feathers and a long starched scarf.
Magnificent indeed; but the exhibition’s title also includes the word “patterns”. In a technical sense, patterns are used for dressmaking. More generally, a pattern is something that can be recognised and repeated over time.
The kind of magnificence intended – and achieved – in these traditional Greek costumes is remarkably stable and unchanging, through time and across social strata. Ioanna Papantoniou, of the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, explained to me that class differences showed up remarkably little in Greek women’s costumes; all the women looked magnificent, not just a few.
The idea of a fashion persisting unchanged for four generations or more now seems unthinkable, in our quick-change time when newness is all and major fashion weeks happen twice a year. But it does no harm to remember a more durable and communal idea of beauty.
More columns at ft.com/eyres