Greek clothing culture spans millennia of history. It goes back to the days of the ancients, when heroes like Odysseus and Ajax and Menelaus did war with Troy, right through the Archaic period and Hellenistic Greece, to later times when the Byzantines and the Ottomans ruled the roost in this corner of Europe.
The result is a fascinating tale of clothing that starts with the simple toga-like shawls worn by the likes of Sophocles and Plato and ends with elaborate national costumes inspired by the folksy peoples of the Balkan Peninsula. It’s a tale riddled with twists and turns, too, all intimately tied up with the story of Greece as a nation.
This guide to Greek clothing culture is a good 101 for anyone interested in the subject. It offers a broad history of what people have worn in this land of sun-scorched islands, covering everything from the ages of the Trojan War all the way to the foundation of modern Greece in the 1800s. At the very least, it’s essential reading if you’re planning on dancing the Zorba and really want to look the part…
Greek clothing culture through the ages
Greek clothing culture has morphed a lot over the last couple of millennia. There are stacks of reasons for that, from the availability of different fabrics to the trends of the ages. Back in the 5th century BC, people wore garments made solely of naturally occurring materials that could be sourced from the known parts of the world. Linen was the most common of all, but wool was also used when it got colder during the Greek winter.
Everything changed when Greece was subsumed into the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. That shifted the focus eastwards and brought in more interesting ways to make and forge clothes. Later, the Ottomans fragmented Greece even more, first by imposing strict rules on what Greek clergy and merchant classes were allowed to wear, then by disrupting communities on the mainland and the islands, something that led to a whole load of divergent clothing styles across the Aegean.
However, the biggest and most iconic changes to Greek clothing culture – indeed, the very foundation of a national dress – came in the 1800s. That was when Greece was recognized as an officially independent country. It became free to define itself through expression in art, literature, music, and clothing, so it’s hardly a surprise that this remains the most enduring moment of all for fashion buffs.
Let’s break it down a little more…
Ancient Greek clothing culture
The ancient Greeks are often depicted wearing long, flowing, pure-white garments that hang off a single shoulder and drop all the way to sandal-clad feet. Now, that might sound like a whole lot like a toga, but it’s not. The toga – a white-fabric dress that was semicircular in shape – was a much later invention of the Romans. The ancient Greeks wore a combination of clothes that provided multiple layers, although the finished article looks pretty similar in nature.
The most dominant form of dress between the Archaic Period and the Hellenistic Period (the famous ages of Greece that we all study in school) was made up of two different pieces of clothing. First, the underlayer. For men this was the khitōn (chiton). For women, it’s the peplos. The first is a tunic that fastens at the shoulder and runs to the kneecaps. The latter is a longer cut that mimics a modern maxi dress, only with a bronze pin keeping it in place at the top.
Over that goes the himation. It’s a full body covering, acting as an overlay and a cloak in one. Altogether smaller than its Roman compadre (the toga), it was used by both men and women. Men would typically wrap the cloak around their left shoulder, while women could free their arms if required. The importance of how the himation was worn was such that even Greek philosophers commented that you could tell a lot about someone’s character depending on which way they chose to fold and fix the fabric. Be careful what you wear, eh?
Greek clothing culture 330 AD-1400AD – the Byzantine era
Some of the most noticeable changes came with the Byzantine era. That lasted in excess 1,000 years in this part of Europe, spanning from 330 AD to the 1400s, so don’t expect a homogenous set of clothing traditions throughout!
However, if there was one thing that really defined the dress of the period, it was the coming of opulent fabrics from the Far East, most notably silk. Advances in fabric working also added fancy new geometric designs and resist-dyed patterns to the clothes. People started to look pretty nifty sometime around the 700s AD, something that’s reflected in the shimmering, gold-leafed mosaics found in various monasteries across the country, from Hydra to Corfu.
Another thing that was important about the Byzantine times in terms of Greek clothing culture is the advent of coloring. New dyeing tech meant that clothes could now be bright blue or deep vermillion. The regal purple was reserved for members of the imperial dynasty alone, just as it was linked to members of the imperial cult back in the Roman era.
Clothing under the Ottomans – From the 1500s onwards
When the Ottomans conquered Greece in the 15th century, they imposed strict rules on what the natives of the country were allowed to wear. Simple but hardwearing and functional garments became the norm, like the long black cloaks worn by Greek traveler merchants and the tough linen shirts and trousers that were used by Greek farmers in regions like Attica and on the more fertile Aegean Islands.
Really, this whole period is characterized by a fragmentation of Greece, not just in costume but in art, language, tradition, and culture more generally. You could sail from Hydra to the Cyclades islands, only a couple of hours on a modern ferry, and find that the people spoke differently and wore different things. It all fits with the Ottoman aim to extinguish any sense of communal national identity across the would-be homogenous country.
Greek clothing culture in independent Greece
On 25 March 1821, the nation of Greece finally found independence. It’s one of the most totemic dates in the evolution of the cultural dress, because it marks the point when fashion becomes a way to express national identity once again. That’s easy to see today, as the costumes that were defined as ‘Greek’ by the first kings and queens are still recognized as the official national outfits.
We need to make a nod to Queen Amalia at this juncture. The partner of King Otto and Queen of Greece from 1836-1867, she recognized the importance of formulating an outfit that would set the Greeks apart from their enemies in the east (the Ottomans) and the growing middle classes of Central Europe (most notably those in Austria and Hungary).
The result was the iconic Amalia dress. That’s a layered garment made up of a long, central dress known as a kavadi. On top of that, the wearer dons a second waistcoat layer, followed by an elaborate outer layer known as a kontogouni. All of these were heavily decorated, embroidered with golden threads, and swirling flower patterns, and then topped off by all sorts of dangling, jingling jewels and accessories.
Otto, meanwhile, arrived in Greece to accept ascension to the throne wearing an age-old Balkan fustanella. A little like the chiton undergarments of ancient Greece, it’s a heavy-fabric kilt with a plaited bottom and a simple construction.
That fast became the iconic male version of the national dress and is even still worn today to celebrate Greece’s independence anniversary and other special occasions. Strangely, the actual origins of the fustanella remain obscure. Some think it came from earlier Byzantine iterations of the outfit. Others think it originated in the highland towns of Albania during the Ottoman period.
Traditional Greek clothing today
When you travel to Greece today, it’s quite unlikely that you’ll spot anyone wearing any of the elaborate costumes mentioned in this guide. There are a few notable exceptions to that…
Take the gloriously OTT Changing of the Guard ceremonies that take place just off Syntagma Square in Athens. They draw big crowds of onlookers, as regimented rows of soldiers perform flamboyant marching drills in the fustanella once worn by Otto the king himself. They also have distinct Cretan tights with blue ribbons and an enlarged European-style Fez hat with a long plume of black threads coming out of its right-hand side.
You could also see some men clad completely head to toe in black garb during your travels. These are likely to be members of the Greek Orthodox Church. Higher ups in the religion recently ruled to keep the traditional garb of the church, which involves a long black overgarment known as a riassa and a headdress of complete jet black that changes depending on your rank within the church itself. Greek Orthodox priests also commonly wear their beards long and unkempt.
Greek clothing culture – a conclusion
Greek clothing culture has run the gamut from flowing cloaks of simple linen in ancient times to elaborate national costumes that fuse Cretan tights with Balkan undergarments. It’s a tale that spans, just like Greek history itself, thousands and thousands of years. What’s more, it has multiple influences. From the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire to the Ottomans that conquered Greece in the 1500s, they all played their part.
Today, it’s rare to see people wearing such traditional outfits, though you will still encounter soldiers of the official Evzones guard in Athens dressed in the national garb, along with priests and members of the Orthodox Church donning ecclesiastical wear that’s often black from top to tail.