From pleats to geometric designs and intricate embroidery, the full splendour of Greek fashion is on display at a new show called Patterns of Magnificence
The history of Greek fashion is the focus of a new exhibition at London’s Hellenic Centre, revealing the biggest collection of traditional Greek costumes ever seen outside the country. Two years in the making, the Patterns of Magnificence exhibition, which opens on Tuesday, is a partnership with the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation Museum, which boasts a staggering 45,000 items. While the selection here is much smaller, it’s rich in detail.
Most of the costumes date from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th. The vast array of designs would have been worn not only for everyday wear but for weddings and formal dances. They range from geometric patterns on a late-18th-century kaftan to velvet jackets embroidered in gold thread – work that would have taken a master craftsmen months to complete. “I wanted to call it ‘Greek chic’,” smiles curator Ioanna Papantoniou, “but you can see the influence of everything from the Roman empire to the Muslims.”
Cult brand Ancient Greek Sandals has been a huge success since launching in 2011.
This exhibition makes it clear that national dress is never singular – influences from other cultures meld to form something that we think of as distinctly “Greek”. One particularly intriguing influence is German-born Queen Amalia, who was on the throne from 1836. A fashion fan, she adapted the Greek dress of the day to feature the fashions of mainland Europe. The result was the “Amalia jacket”, a cropped, form-fitting bolero style, which used traditional embroidery. It became the statement item of Greek fashion in the mid-19th century, endlessly copied by women all over the country. “She was a style icon of her day,” says Papantoniou, “and her influence spread far – to Cyprus and the Balkans.” Marios Schwab, the Greek-born, London-based designer, who will give a talk at the exhibition on 21 February, is thrilled that stories such as these will be told to a wider audience. “I am obsessed with Greek costume, having seen these pieces in museums as a child,” he says. “This exhibition will show the younger generation why it’s so influential.”
The timing of this exhibition is canny. There is a burgeoning Greek-inspired aesthetic in fashion for spring. Ancient Greek Sandals, founded in 2011 by Greek designers Christina Martini and Nicholas Minoglou, has become a cult success. Sales of the sandals, which have been worn by Hollywood stars including Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, rose by 30% in 2013. The trend for pleats featured in collections by Burberry and JW Anderson can be traced back to Greek traditional dress too. Papantoniou says pleats are “at the base of all of the clothes”. An early example shows a kind of bodice from the 19th century with tightly packed pleats, reminiscent of those used by Anderson, covering the back. The bodice is red, which was an expensive colour to dye at the time; this piece would have been worn by a wealthy woman.
Schwab puts the continued influence of Greek style on fashion down to an essentially timeless geometry of design. The embroidery may be complicated but “the lines are very simple”. He credits the sleeve of a man’s uniform from the Attica region as an influence on the cuts of his spring/summer collection.
The sculptural use of fabrics and classical lines of Greek costume have long been familiar to fashion, of course. Designers ranging from Madame Grès to Madeleine Vionnet used pleats for designs in the early 20th century. More recently, John Galliano, Jil Sander and Jean Paul Gaultier have been inspired by the Greek design tradition. The dates of this exhibition, running over London fashion week, are no coincidence: the idea is to underline this connection – and reveal more Greek design culture to the wider world.
• Patterns of Magnificence: tradition and reinvention in Greek women’s costume is at the Hellenic Centre in London until 2 March