Bridal dresses in traditional Greek culture are colourful, rich and vary a lot, depending on the region, the climate, available sources for textiles, as well as local traditions.
The one thing they have in common is over-accessorising: jewels and complex embroideries cover the whole body. Apart from the obvious decorative purpose and the indication of the family’s wealth, these decorations carried strong symbolism. Wishes for abundance and fertility were carried by symbols such as pomegranates, birds and boats (in particular in island cultures), and other symbols such as crosses, colorful stones and two-headed eagles had an apotropaic role, guarding the young bride from evil.
Unlike modern romantic love, for most of history, weddings were closer to a business deal, in which two families joined forces for a beneficial arrangement or alliance.
Wedding dresses were chosen to present the bride’s family in the best light, in terms of wealth and social status. It was expected for them to carry all these symbols and messages through decorations, layering, colours and fabrics.
In traditional Greek culture, each costume contains messages that are known and interpreted by members of the community to indicate if a woman is single or married, newly-wed, has children or is a widow.
An example of this complex semiology are the 40+ motifs decorating Thracian Sarakatsani costumes. Any combination of these motifs indicates not only the place of origin, but also social status, profession and detailed marital status.
For the most special occasions in women’s lives, their wedding, bridal costumes were made by hand, using the best and rarest luxurious fabrics available, depending on the region.
In urban areas, they preferred gold, while in villages they went overboard with colour, with a particular emphasis on red. The bridal costume had a lot of layers and its materials usually included wool, which is pretty heavy.
Together with the headdress, the silver or gold-plated belt and the assortment of jewelry, the costume would weigh around 30 kilos, probably making the ‘special day’ a very uncomfortable experience for the bride.
The ‘metaphysical’ aspect of the bridal costume is mainly concentrated on the headband and the shirt: the excessively decorated headband is believed to bring happiness and good fortune and traditionally is a gift of the groom or the mother-in-law.
Because the shirt comes into direct contact with the naked body, it absorbs a power as a form of ‘touch magic’, gaining most of the magical properties. For this reason, it is often traditionally red and is purified by a priest in church.
Sometimes, aspects of the bridal costume originate back to ancient times, such as the Roumlouki region, where the style of the headdress is supposed to date from the time of Alexander the Great. Tradition has it that he honoured women for their courage as helpers in battle by letting them wear his warriors’ helmets.
Everything was made special for that day, not only underwear, but also towels, pillows and bed linen, sleeping gowns.
EXPLORE MORE: Wedding traditions from Eastern Europe
The colour white begins to be introduced in the early 1920s, in the form of a veil worn over the traditional headband.
This addition may be a distant echo of the white wedding dress introduced in Europe after Queen Victoria’s marriage, who made this unusual choice at a time when colours were more the trend. Queen Victoria wrote about her wedding dress in her journal: “I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.”
Wearing white was quickly adopted by fashionable brides in Britain and Europe and was thought to symbolise purity and virginity.
By Elena Lagoudi, Hellenic National Documentation Centre
This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.