Greece: General information

Greece, officially known as the Hellenic Republic, is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. It has one of the longest histories of any country and is considered the cradle of Western civilisation. It has been known as Hellas since ancient times. Due to its long history and situation, it has been settled or governed by many different peoples (pre-Hellenic tribes, Romans, Ottomans, etc.), and has affected many other cultures due to its being at one time an empire stretching from Europe into Asia as far as India (under Alexander the Great, 356—323 BCE), but also because of its cultural importance throughout the Western world.


The earliest evidence of the presence of human ancestors in the southern Balkans, dated to 270,000 BCE, is to be found in the Petralona cave, in the northern Greek province of Macedonia.The Neolithic settlements in Greece, dating from the 7th millennium BCE, are the oldest in Europe by several centuries, as Greece lies on the route via which farming spread from the Near East to Europe.

The first advanced civilisations in Europe started with the Cycladic civilisation on the Aegean Islands in 3,200 BCE. In the 8th century BCE, various city states and kingdoms arose which then spread from Greece to the shores of the Black Sea, Southern Italy and Asia Minor. The borders of the Greek empire were then extended even further when Alexander the Great came to power as he conquered the Persian Empire by 330 BCE and by the time of his death in 323 BCE, he had created one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to India. This empire then broke down after his death.

Rome annexed Macedonia in 146 BCE and then the whole of Greece in 27 BCE. The Roman Empire in the East including Greece fell in the 5th century CE and Greece came under Byzantine rule until 1453. However, the country was raided by Goths and Huns in the 4th and 5th centuries CE and was invaded by Slavs in the 7th century CE. In addition after the Fourth Crusade, part of mainland Greece was taken over by the Franks (Frankokratia), while some islands came under Venetian and Genoese rule. In the 14th century, much of Greece was lost to the Serbs and then the Ottomans. The Ottoman period lasted until 1821, when Ottoman rule was ended with the Greek War of Independence. The First Hellenic Republic was set up but after the assassination of its first governor, the Great Powers of Britain, Russia and France installed a Bavarian Prince, Otto von Wittelsbach, as monarch. He and his wife, Amalia of Oldenburg, were involved in the development of Greek traditional dress during their time on the Greek throne (1836—1862; see below). Since then, Greece has had a chequered history but retained its identity, especially with respect to its various traditional costumes.

Four main periods have influenced the traditional clothing found in Greece: the Ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern.

Ancient Period

Clothes during the Ancient period of Greek history were mainly homemade and often served many purposes (such as bedding). Elaborate designs and bright colours were favoured despite the present-day popular idea that the Ancient Greeks wore all-white clothing. The clothing consisted of lengths of linen or woollen fabric, which were generally rectangular in shape. The lengths of material were secured with ornamental clasps or pins, and a belt, sash or girdle held the garment around the waist. Men’s robes went down to their knees, whereas women’s went down to their ankles.

Clothing in ancient Greece primarily consisted of the chiton (tunic worn by both men and women), peplos (a dress-like garment worn by women), himation (a mantle or wrap) and chlamys (a short cloak).

There are two forms of chiton, the Doric and the later Ionic type. The Doric style was simpler and had no sleeves, being simply pinned, sewn or buttoned at the shoulder. The Ionic style was made of a much wider piece of fabric, and was pinned, sewn or buttoned all the way from the neck to the wrists and the excess fabric gathered by a belt or girdle at the waist.

young man in doric chiton (Capitoline Museum)
1) Young man in Doric chiton (Capitoline Museum)
Woman in Ionic chiton
2) Woman in Ionic chiton

The peplos was worn by women starting around 500 BCE. It was a long, tubular piece of cloth with the top edge folded down about halfway, so that which was the top of the tube was now draped below the waist, and the bottom of the tube was at the ankles. The garment was then gathered about the waist and the folded top edge pinned over the shoulders. The folded-down top of the tube provided the appearance of a second piece of clothing.

Pallas Athena (my favourite goddess from Greek mythology) wearing a peplos (ca. 460 BCE, Akropolis Museum)
3) Pallas Athena (my favourite goddess from Greek mythology) wearing a peplos (ca. 460 BCE, Akropolis Museum)

Byzantine period

During the Byzantine era, the designs of Greek outfits changed and more colours and patterns were introduced to the country. New embroidery trends were adopted and the usage of imported silk and other fabrics became common. Conservativeness and modesty were, however, the key features of Byzantine costumes. Heads were normally covered by a variety of headdresses and veils, and different types of shoes were in use as well. Greek dancers of that time wore short-sleeved or sleeveless dresses, sometimes with the sleeves from an undergarment showing, too. The dress skirts were flared and had differently coloured panels. The dress was held in place with a tight wide belt.

Byzantine dress changed considerably over the thousand years of the Empire, but it remained essentially conservative. The Byzantines liked colour and patterns, and made and exported very richly patterned cloth, especially Byzantine silk. Clothing was woven and embroidered for the upper classes, but dyed and  but dyed and printed for the lower ones. A different border or trimming round the edges was very common, and many single stripes were used down the body or around the upper arm, often denoting class or rank. The tastes of the middle and upper classes followed the latest fashions of the Imperial Court. Lower-class people wore simple tunics but still had a preference for the bright colours found in all Byzantine fashions. Colours were used also to convey information about class and clerical or governmental rank. The colour purple was reserved for the royal family alone.

Ottoman period

During this period, each area in Greece had its own different clothing style. The islanders, from the westernmost Ionian Islands to Cyprus in the east, wore the vraka, a type of baggy breeches that were worn in the Balkans, too. In the rural mainland areas, a popular clothing, of Greek origin, was the fustanella, a traditional skirt-like garment (again also to be found in the Balkan countries). The fustanella was also worn by the anti-Ottoman insurgents living in the mountains (klephts) and another type of anti-Ottoman Greek guerrilla fighters (the armatoloi). Some scholars think that the fustanella was derived from the chiton (or tunic). Τhe pleated skirt has been linked to an ancient statue (3rd century BCE) located in the area around the Acropolis in Athens.

As in the rest of the Ottoman Empire, the clothing of Muslims, Christians, Jewish communities, clergy, tradesmen, state and military officials was strictly regulated during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) and later. The political crises within the Ottoman Empire of the 17th century were reflected as a chaos in clothing styles. With time, the wealthy Greeks of the urban centres adopted the Western European-style dress.

Modern Period

In independent Greece, the first queen consort of Greece, Amalia of Oldenberg (1818—1875) created a romantic folksy court dress, which became a national Greek costume still known as the Amalía dress. Oldenburg is in Germany and Amalia’s design follows the Biedermeier style (Central European style between 1815 and 1848), with a loose-fitting, white cotton or silk shirt, often decorated with lace at the neck and cuffs, over which a richly embroidered jacket or waistcoat is worn, usually of dark blue or claret velvet. The skirt was ankle-length, unpressed-pleated silk; the colour usually azure. The outfit was completed with a soft cap or fez with a single, long golden silk tassel, traditionally worn by married women, or with the kalpaki (a toque) of the unmarried woman, and sometimes with a black veil for church. This dress became the standard attire of all Christian townswomen in both Ottoman Empire-occupied and liberated Balkan countries as far north as Belgrade.

Amalia dress
4) Amalia dress

Amalia’s husband, King Otto (Otto of Wittelsbach 1815—1867, first modern king of Greece) adopted the fustanella for his personal guard, which is still used by the Presidential Guard (the Evzones) nowadays.

5) King Otto of Greece wearing a fustanella costume painted by Gottlieb Bodmer
5) King Otto of Greece wearing a fustanella costume painted by Gottlieb Bodmer

Since then, mainstream Greek fashion has followed the European standards. However, completely black clothing is worn for one year when in mourning. Traditional clothing is still worn in some regions on a daily basis or just for festivities. In general, villages where the level of life is harsher or poorer will tend to have simpler costumes made from rougher materials like homespun wool or cotton. Those villages where life is economically richer have costumes made from richer, finer materials such as silk or imported fine wools, and their jewellery will often be of gold. The costumes may symbolise the marital or social status of the wearers or their occupation. In fact, in many regions, there are two or three versions of a costume. This is particularly true for women as there is the everyday costume (made from home-spun, simpler materials), the festival costume (worn on special days or holidays and is made from more expensive, finer fabrics and often has more components) and at the finest level, the bridal costume. When analysed closely, there is sometimes also a close connection between the elements of the women’s costume and the men’s costume; for example, the cut and construction of some of the women’s chemises are often very similar to those of the shorter men’s shirt.

Women’s wear

Most of the mainland female costumes have the following elements in common, though the colours and materials often vary as do the local names of the various pieces of clothing:

1) a long cotton chemise (poukamiso) as the basic garment
2) a sleeveless waistcoat (segouni). This may be short or long, white or black. It can be made of homespun or finer wool. In urban areas, they can be made of silk.
3) an apron (bodia)
4) a sash (zonari)
5) a scarf (mandili), which is often decorated with block printing or embroidery. How the scarf is tied often depends on the occasion, the temperature, or the activity that the woman is involved in. The scarf is also used to show a woman’s marital status. For example, in Kandyla, a village in the Mantineia area of Arkadia in Peloponnesus, a young, unmarried girl wears a white, block-printed scarf. A married woman who is a bit older will wear a similar style, but the colour is a bright yellow. An older woman will wear a darker, green- or brown-coloured mandili. Finally, a widow will wear a black one.
6) shoes or other foot coverings (tsarouhia)
7) various pieces of jewellery may be used to decorate the chest, head covering, neck, etc.

Picture showing the richly embroidered waistcoat, scarf, apron and jewellery of a Greek woman's costume.
6) Picture showing the richly embroidered waistcoat, scarf, apron and jewellery of a Greek woman’s costume.

Another form of Greek traditional costume is the karagouna typical of Thessaly in Central Greece. It consists of a black-fringed white underdress, an outer garment made of wool with handmade tufts at the edges of the sleeves and embroidery along the hemline, a long white sleeveless coat (sayias) with decorated trim, a richly embroidered short red wool felt waistcoat and velvet arm bands with a black or multi-coloured fringes. This is all topped by a red felt apron. The head is covered with a black embroidered scarf wrapped around the head and then twisted around the neck and decorated with gold coins across the forehead. Gold coins were also worn across their bosoms. The apron is also decorated with a brooch and silver or gold chain. The name, karagouna, came out of the way the women could move only their heads because of the weight of the costume and their jewellery.

6) Karagouna
7) Karagouna

In some villages of the central parts of Greece (Fokida region), the women traditionally wore a simple costume known as desfina (sterea helladas). It consists of a white petticoat, a white long-sleeved dress, a short sleeveless white coat decorated with black and red cord and kept in position with a dark blue striped belt characteristic of the region, a long white waistcoat as well as a bright red velvet apron tied above the waist and embroidered with yellow or gold cord. Finally, a white butter muslin headscarf ornamented with small pompoms or a ‘chenille’ fringe was also worn. Again, strands of gold coins are worn across the chest with a matching set of coin earrings.

7) Desfina
8 Desfina

In northern Greece, in Macedonia, there are various types of traditional outfit each with its own distinct features. However, they commonly have geometrical designs and are in red, black and white. Particularly the traditional costume of the Mariovo area is rated very highly as it is very decorative and embellished with metal and bead ornaments.

8) Mariovo
9) Mariovo

The Sarakatsani people of Greece, nomadic goat and sheep herders, are particularly well known for their lavish and heavily embroidered costumes. These people are a distinct social and cultural group, though still part of the collective Greek heritage. There are different regional versions of the Sarakatsan female costume, which consists of layered blouses and skirts or a pleated black woollen dress worn over a white cotton blouse. A sleeveless jacket covered by an apron and collar is worn over the black dress. This costume is completed with woollen arm and leg coverings (kalstounia) and a black woollen scarf worn on the head. Sometimes, silver earrings, belts and bracelets complement the costume.

9) Sarakatsanes
10) Sarakatsanes

Men’s wear

The main parts of the traditional dress of Greek men are listed below. The materials, cut and colours often vary.

1) a shirt (poukamiso)
2) a waistcoat (yeleko or meindani)
3) a skirt or kilt (fustanella)
4) leg coverings (kaltses)
5) leg garters (gonatares)
6) a sash (zonari)
7) a hat (fesi or koukos)
8) shoes or other foot coverings (tsarouhia)
9) various decorative belts or jewellery often decorates the chest or other areas

There are two main types of male costumes found on the mainland. The most popular (especially since the War for Independence of 1821) is the fustanella, a skirt or kilt, and its variations. The other type of costume features some sort of baggy or full-cut trousers trousers rather than the kilt. Sometimes both are present as a variant of a costume in a particular region or village.

10) Fustanella
11) Fustanella costume

The fustanella (tsolias) costume was originally worn by diplomats and warriors. The costume is based on a type of kilt (fustanella), from which it derives its name. It is mainly found in the mountainous areas of Greece (southern and central Greece), though it is also found in Southeast Europe (the Balkans). The pleated white kilt is made from triangular pieces of cloth called langolia, which are sewn together diagonally. Nowadays, the Greek fustanella kilt consists of 400 pleats symbolizing the years during which Greece was under Ottoman rule. Sometimes the kilt is connected to an upper part to help hold it up, while in other areas the kilts are worn as a separate part tied around the waist. Again, there are also variations in colour, style and decoration. Nowadays, the fustanella kilt serves as part of the official uniform of the Evzones, the Presidential Guard (see Greece: Presidential Guards 1 & 2).

In contrast, on the islands (Crete, Cyprus, Ionian and Aegean Islands) and along the coastal regions of Greece, the very full-cut baggy trousers (vraka) which reach to just below the knees takes the place of the skirts or kilts of the mainland Greeks. In this style of trousers, the fullness lies between the legs. The full vraka costume generally consists of the baggy trousers (karamani) with a white undergarment (panavaki), white shirt, sleeveless waistcoat (koumbouri), sash, outer jacket (zaka) and tasselled cap (megalo fesi). However, the vraka costume varies between the different regions in Greece. In Macedonia, the men wear trousers resembling English riding breeches with waistcoats, white linen shirts and a wide cloth belt (pojas). Cretan men are discerned by their special boots (stivania) and the Cretan style of black woven headscarf (sariki).

11) Cretan vraka costume
12) Cretan vraka costume



1) Doric chiton – By Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow) 2009, CC BY 2.5,

2) Ionic chiton –

3) The Goddess Athena wearing a simple peplos (ca. 460 BCE) – CC BY-SA 3.0,

4) Amalia dress –

5) Fustanella – King Otto of Greece Von Gottlieb Bodmer – [1]., Gemeinfrei,

6) Picture showing the richly embroidered waistcoat, scarf, apron and jewellery of a Greek woman’s costume –

7) Karagouna –

8) Desfina –

9) Mariovo –

10) Sarakatsanes –

11) Fustanella –

12) Cretan vraka costume – Greek Costume Collection by NICOLAS SPERLING (Russia 1881-1940 / act: Athens).



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