Each individual dress is a true reflection of the world’s image of a particular society. It is a complex work of art, combining not only methods of processing raw materials, weaving and finishing, but also the craftsmanship and instilled emotion of the brilliant tailors and dressmakers who spawned its creation.
Cypriot Folk Dress (as for any other country) is an important and integral part of traditional culture. Its appearance reveals to us the historical, trade-economic and cultural links which Cyprus has with countries and nations, both neighbouring and far away. Equally, traditional Cypriot dress demonstrates local traits and symbolism, as well as the borrowing and adaptation of different cultures.
It is believed that Cyprus was probably the only island state which managed to break into the wider international market with the wares of its garment workers. As we know, in the Renaissance era, noble Italians gave particular preference to the island’s beautiful fabrics.
Male and Female Dress
It must be noted from the off that traditional male and female Cypriot dress is characterised by its renowned conservatism, as well as its great diversity and picturesque appearance.
And so, each of the samples gives us information about any given group of people (communities) who resided in Cyprus; and how they differed from one another. After all, despite their local individual traits, the folk dress maintains a unified identity, preserving a commonality of the island’s history and origin in the minds of its people.
Cotton and silk were most often used in the manufacture of clothing in Cyprus, methods of cultivating, processing and weaving fabrics, which have long-standing traditions here. Wool mixed with cotton yarn was used less often to manufacture dress shirts, which were worn in mountainous regions during winter.
Fabrics for outdoor clothing were striped or chequered. Cotton fabrics, for instance, came in rich, colourful combinations, which varied from region to region. Casual clothing, as a rule, was darker in colour than those garments worn for special occasions.
The most widely used fabric for outdoor clothing was called “alatsia”: a strong cotton material with a characteristic thin vertical or horizontal stripe, filled in with a dark red, dark blue, yellow, orange or green colour on a white background. As a rule, men’s shirts and women’s dresses for casual wear were sewn from dark blue alatsia with a white stripe. In addition, dark blue was replaced with black if the garment was intended as a jacket for an elderly male; while for young men’s jackets, alatsia with a red stripe was used, on a traditional white background.
Women’s clothing was always long and included the compulsory white bloomers or long trousers, which reached the ankles, a blouse (shirt) and a top dress.
Cotton shirts, which went a little lower than the knees and had wide sleeves, were worn daily, while silk garments were only used for celebrations. Several bloomers were decorated on the lower edge with multicoloured embroidery. Smart trousers and bloomers were also tailored from silk and worn in the majority of Cyprus’ urban and rural regions, right until the end of the 19th century.
Women’s Cypriot dress was split into two main categories: urban and rural.
Women’s urban dress
Urban dress, as in other countries (also Greece), to a large extent, reflected European and Eastern influences in fashion; meanwhile, rural clothing preserved more authentic, local traits and characteristics.
The top dress “saia” which was opened from the front and had slits along the sides was tailored from homespun cotton or silk: many local women would wear it over a small blouse and puffed bloomers. The sleeves were long and wide, with a coloured or striped pattern on the inner side, which looked very elegant when rolled inwards.
From the second half of the 19th century, in Nicosia and other cities, as well as cities in Greece, variations to the so-called “Amalia” dress were steadily coming into fashion. In Cyprus specifically, this particular type of women’s dress became widely popular in rural localities. It included a luxurious silk skirt (different colours were used) and a slim fitted sleeved jacket (“sarka”), which was richly decorated.
The silk blouse worn under the jacket had a laced finish on the cuffs and around the collar.
Townswomen also often used “futas” — a rectangular piece of fabric folded diagonally and tied from the front (it was worn around the waist as a wide belt), — when visiting town bathhouses and bathing rooms.
In cities, women wore fezzes with a black silk tassel instead of printed head scarves, framed with lace, which were an essential attribute of a female villager’s dress. This could sometimes be a headscarf: the width would be folded diagonally forming a triangle at the back, with the two free ends tucked and tied high at the side of the temple, to demonstrate its laced hemming. It was adorned with decorative pins or imitations of flowers filled with pearls.
As for footwear, 19th-century townswomen wore boots and soft yellowish leather shoes, while in the 20th century, black boat shoes were introduced, which remained in fashion for a long time.
Various items of gold jewellery were an irreplaceable accessory to the dress of rich city women, — they were an important (and obvious) indicator of their high social status. Nevertheless, with festive clothing, the majority of women wore mainly silver and gilded jewellery.
Amongst other accessories, the most commonly used were pins, (“splidges”), which were pinned to a headscarf or the chest, along with numerous chains (“mimidia”), several of which had charms hanging off them — these were in the form of small Turkish coins, as well as pendants made of coral and coloured glass. Women of fashion loved wearing necklaces (“certannes”) and crosses (“scalettes”), as well as filigree “trifurenos” and different coral earrings, bracelets and rings: forged, engraved and cast jewellery.
The headwear of the affluent bourgeois ladies consisted of multicoloured silk scarves, known as “koilaniotika”, primarily in a vermillion, gold or green colour. The techniques of its manufacture were exclusive, with only the artisans from the village of Koilani (where the name originated) having the right to use them. These valued wares were mainly exported to Kastellorizo [Καστελλόριζο — one of the Greek islands — editor’s note by E.K-T].
A bride’s dress was the crown creation for both urban and rural women of fashion. Festive costumes and wedding dresses were rather beautiful, richly decorated with golden thread galloons.
The bride’s elegant image was perfected with jewellery (in a set) and the compulsory attribute for any newlywed — a red sash: it is still used today at traditional weddings and is tied around the couple.
The ceremony of “the red sash”: on the wedding day, when the bride is dressed and ready to meet her groom, musicians are singing and playing, while her parents and friends tie the red sash around her waist — a symbol of innocence.
An identical ceremony occurs at the groom’s home where he waves goodbye to his bachelor life — the so-called “final shave”, which is conducted by his best man in the presence of his entire family and remaining friends. The groom is then “dressed” in his wedding suit (while the musicians are singing and playing), and his family and friends now wrap the red sash around his waist — this time a symbol of fertility.
The jewellery set for some wedding suits includes a wide velvet or silk belt, tailored with a metal coated thread and fastened onto a silver buckle (“pookless”).
Despite the tendencies we have already discussed regarding urban wear, samples of their rural counterparts firmly preserved a relative uniformity, due to the social equality of the population in these regions.
Female Villagers’ Dress
The most expressive samples of rural dress originate from the regions of Karpathia and Paphos. In general, the clothing worn by the native women of Karpathia has long been acknowledged as the most beautiful, distinguished by its great peculiarity in comparison to other regions.
Like in the majority of Cypriot regions, “saias” were worn here. In Karpathia and Paphos specifically, you could still spot local female villagers dressed in saias at the start of the 20th century. The saias were generously decorated with multicoloured stripes and either fabric or handwoven lace. During the first decades of the 20th century, in the regions of Karpathia and Paphos, it was still acceptable to decorate the lower part of bloomers with lace fabric.
“Fustani” — these were slimly fitted dresses with folds around the waist, which were the most popular type of dress in the rural regions of Cyprus, especially in the villages of mountainous and flat plain regions. On Sundays and festive days, women wore an embroidered apron over the fustani, while on weekdays — a simple apron with no imagery.
The 1950s were a crucial moment in the modernisation of rural dress. Interestingly, in Paphos, the saia was kept for a long time, equally with the fustani, due to the acknowledged comfort in wearing them. The fact was that both types of dress had a large oval-shaped hole at the front, where the lace decorated front shirts (“trahilia”) were visible, — such a cut in the garment made it easier for mothers to breastfeed.
In summer, during the unbearable heat, especially in Karpathia, some female villagers working in the fields and gardens would simply wear a shirt with a “futas” or “zoma” (the equivalent) in the form of a diagonally folded shawl of dark coloured fabric, tied around the waist, with the pointed end at the back.
As a rule, smart dress for female villagers was also used for weddings (with the addition of specific accessories and the characteristic crimson sash). Brides would braid long fragments of thin wire (“telias”) into their hair and would hang them, similar to a veil, covering their face. In particular regions, such as Karpathia and Morphou, the bride had a special headdress, which could only be constructed by those rare adepts who had mastered this art.
A Cypriot woman’s dress was complemented by a head shawl made of very high-quality cotton, which was tied to the head (“kurukla”) and could be made in various colours: claret or dark green was intended for young women, while brown and black for the elderly. Shawls were decorated with silk thread embroidery and had ornate pieces of metal sewn to them. Later, they began to acquire patterns, with the aid of wooden prints.
In the mountainous villages of Troodos, women wore woollen shawls with a crochet lace edging, — these wares were considered the best (along with pipilla decorations). A pattern would be sewn into one corner of a festive or wedding shawl for a newlywed, which would represent either a bird: a common peacock; or a flower, — a pattern which could be seen on the triangle from the reverse side. Flowery patterns were applied to the edges of the shawl by master printers with wooden stamps.
In villages, it was very common to have jewellery of low-grade gold or items made of silver plated bronze. Female villagers, especially those residing in the mountains, wore low shod boots (“potinia”).
Men’s Urban and Rural Dress
The main item in men’s dress was thickly creased bloomers (“vraka”), identical to those worn on the Greek islands and in the coastal regions of the Eastern Mediterranean. The creases were fixed in specific places with a belt (“vrakozoni”). Vraka were tailored from a homespun twill weave, which was then coloured, after the trousers were finished, by local dyers (“poiadzidis”). The main colours used were: black (for adults and elderly men) and dark blue (for youths). The widest vraka were considered the best.
Vraka were worn in combination with a vest made of striped cotton or imported wool and velvet (this was used, for instance, by groomsmen at weddings). Men would often tie a scarf to their heads: these were dark toned for adults and light in colour for very young people. The multicoloured scarf, worn by the groom, was lace trimmed at the edges.
There wasn’t a significant difference in the dress of Cypriot men. The main components of a man’s wardrobe, which for a long time were most popularly used in combination with vraka, were: a vest (“gilekko”) and jacket (“zimbuni”). Despite their apparent similarities, various regions had their nuances, which were linked to a man’s age and social status: these could be determined by the size of the items, the colour of the fabric and the patterns used for the galloon (breast embroidery).
Let’s go into a little more detail. А chemise or shirt was intended to be worn for an outfit’s outer garment, made of darkly coloured striped cotton (for everyday socks) and silk (for Sundays and festive occasions). The silk shirt (its cut and decoration also varied depending on the region) was the main element in a groom’s dress. It was always presented as a gift from his future bride, as well as his sash, which was a symbol of their marriage and was to be worn on his neck throughout the entire wedding ceremony.
Messaoria was renowned for the expert work of its craftsman, who tailored men’s shifts and loose fitting shirts from high-quality cotton; lace imported from Europe was used to decorate them.
Vests, which were embroidered and had galloons on the neck and edges, were most often made from home spun cotton fabrics. During winter, in rural areas, knitted vests were also worn, or wool under zimbunis, while in the hot months, cotton vests could be worn on the bare body. During winter, for festive periods, men wore blue or red felt vests with an embroidered back and pockets. On weekdays, villagers would wear a dark cotton shirt under their jacket or vests, which was replaced for silk on Sundays and for weddings. A woollen sash, known as a “zostra”, black (for men) and red (for boys), was tied around the waist. On festive days and wedding celebration days, young people also wore multicoloured silk belts.
Researchers of folk dress recognise that the largest differences concerned a different part of a Cypriot’s wardrobe, namely the short, slim fitted coat (or jacket), which was worn with vraka and shifts.
The short zimbuni had long sleeves and was fastened at the front with buttons. A vertical laced slit was made especially on the back of the coat (as with a jacket) to ensure freedom of movement for its owner. In rural regions, gilekko and zimbuni were tailored from the same cotton used to make women’s clothing.
Regarding the important accessories, it is, of course, worth noting the wide belt (“zonari”), which was worn twisted around the waist. These differed depending on the age of the wearer and situation of use: for elderly men, it was made of black twill with hemmed ends; bright silk for youths, while also being an irreplaceable element of festive wear and a groom’s wedding suit. A knitted wallet was fastened to it (inside which “something bought” — “kemeri”), was carefully hidden.
As for shoes, everything was rather straightforward: in Cyprus’ rural regions, males would all year round wear heavy high-boots shod from goat’s leather (“tsagaropodines”) and reinforced with nails to protect from the multitude of snakes. A flat soled shoe, however, sewn by a master cobbler (“skarpraris”) was the most expensive detail in a Cypriot person’s attire.
In cities, men preferred boots of a European, or even “French” style (“frangopodines”). These boots were worn with knitted cotton or woollen socks.
In some regions, the groom wore special soft leather bow shoes (known as “Syrians”). For a long while, the “final touch” to the man’s traditional dress was a fez, sometimes worn with a shawl tied to one side like a triangle. Later, as we have already mentioned, men were left with only a scarf tied around the head. Meanwhile, peasants from the flat plains usually preferred wearing the “international” straw hat.
The men’s dress was completed by a simple set of silver jewellery, including pocket watches on a chain, as well as various neck chains and rings.
Greek and Turkish officials loved to wear rings with carved seals: ancient (of an antique origin) valuable stones and gems were often inserted into precious metals by jewellers.
It is well known that Cyprus, since ancient times, has had an abundance of the raw materials necessary for developing the art of weaving. With the appearance of silkworms in the Byzantine era, the manufacture of silk significantly enriched the local textile industry, which began producing silk fabrics alongside linen, wool and cotton.
Weaving has a long-standing tradition in Cyprus and thanks to historical sources from 6 BC, the names of famous weavers, such as Akisas and Elikon, have lived on till the present day.
It was strongly developed throughout the whole Byzantine era: precious Cypriot silk and woollen fabrics, which in ancient times were exported to Europe in large quantities, were renowned for their high quality. It reached its peak under the auspices of the Lusignan dynasty (1192-1489). In his “The Decameron”, the famous Italian writer and poet, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), also gives mention to Cypriot fabrics: “slaves made the bed with two sheets made of the thinnest silk and a cover of snow-white Cypriot fabric…”.
Later, during the rule of the Venetians (1489-1570), production of these materials continued to develop.
With the Turkish invasion and the advent of Ottoman rule in Cyprus (1570-1878), highly developed traditions of producing luxury fabrics, which had endured for many centuries, rapidly began to crumble. Instead of prospering, artisan-weavers, like many Cypriots, knew of only poverty and degradation. Under the weight of the circumstances, production was reduced to a level of industry where pieces were now only being woven in homes, predominantly in the hands of women.
The main textile production from cotton fabrics was located in central Messaoria, where cotton was produced in abundance. Traders from Nicosia and other cities would organise their production here and trade textile wares, which were produced either in strips or squares: in bright red, yellow, orange, green, dark blue or white, as well as with decorative borders of the same colour.
Although the fabrics manufactured there were, on the whole, similar to their Messaorian counterparts, fabrics produced in Karpathia had a brighter colouring which was wonderfully dominated by red. These materials were usually used in fashioning bed sheets, table cloths and towels, which were deemed “red” or “black” depending on the dominating colour. Aside from the numerous multicoloured calicos, this region was well known for its superb silks, used for undergarments; and its blended fabrics composed of thick cotton with silk — used for manufacturing wedding dresses: they were often decorated with embroidered fabric, which was enriched with the inclusion of coloured beads.
Western European traders have long participated in the “bulk” trading of Cypriot textile wares. Under the Lusignans, the port of Famagousta gained world recognition as one of the most prospering trade centres in the East; meanwhile, Nicosia, — where the rulers of that time resided — became the second highest ranked centre of industry on the island. Woollen and silk fabrics such as camlet, samite and others began to be produced here.
Very thin silk with natural tones (unbleached), both strong and transparent, was also widely manufactured in the coastal region of Kyrenia, especially in the villages of Lapithos and Karavas, where silk and cotton-sheet fabrics were an important source of income for village folk. In Nicosia, bed duvets for newlyweds, as well as valances and undergarments, were fashioned from thin, transparent silk fabrics, while bright coloured silk taffeta was produced especially for tailoring women’s skirts, as part of the “amalia” dress.
Byssus — the very thinnest cloth, used across the globe for embroidery, bedding and undergarments (in blended fabrics), was produced in the western valley of the Morphou region, where it grew.
Cotton and wool twill bedspreads, as well as cotton table cloths and coloured towels with geometric patterns, were all textile pieces characteristic of the mountainous regions in Paphos. Images of plant designs and figures of people were outlined, while a traditional pattern in the shape of “the cross” was situated in the central part of the composition. The best examples originated from the village of Fyti, although several others are known, also of a high quality, which were produced in the 19th century on the Karpathian peninsula.
Weaving was the main occupation of women both in rural and urban localities, especially in Nicosia, which was famous for its cotton twill and silk materials. It is worth noting that the large city bazaar in Nicosia was even named “the women’s” bazaar. Open on Fridays, one could find all types of textile items there, which had an unbelievable level of popularity and demand: the female artisans, according to the recollections of old residents, would always sell their entire produce at a profit.
In general, Nicosia wasn’t just a large centre for weaving, but the main market to sell wares in the textile industry: both for local consumption and export.
Both in Cyprus and the Mediterranean as a whole, horizontal pedal looms were used (“arkastiri”). The former “voof” pedal (vertically positioned, used in Europe from ancient times right until the early Medieval period) was positioned in special holes on the floor. The components of the updated loom were installed into a sturdy rectangular frame, where the female weaver herself would be positioned. Many of the old looms were richly decorated with carvings, with some featuring frescos. (As the elderly village ladies once told us, decorating the looms wasn’t an idle fancy, — but a vital necessity. After all, since their youth, women had spent many years manufacturing fabrics to sell and for their homes, while the simplest of patterns was called upon to bring joy to the eyes of master craftswomen).
Weaving in the village of Fyti was the most important point in the Cypriot textile industry. The origins of weaving in this locality have been lost in the ages, but it has still been constantly developed through the conditions of island life and numerous historical upheavals. The geometric patterns, which have been acknowledged since ancient times, serve as confirmation of this development. They are similar to the motifs used in Cypriot weaving and are visible on some ceramic objects from the geometric period.
In Cyprus “fyti” was an integral part of a young girl’s dowry and often provided not just a helping hand with beginning a new family life; these items, over the years, were passed down and would be inherited by her daughters.
To this day, the main traits of genuine “fyti”, which are manufactured fundamentally from natural cotton, are the coloured geometric design and texture, referred to as (“ploomia”) by weavers. The base colours used are dark blue, red, green and yellow.
Although, as already mentioned, weaving in Cyprus was typically the work of a woman, in several areas of the Troodos mountain range and particularly in the villages of the Marthas region, men also practised this art: on large looms they produced thick woollen bedcovers, as well as canvas sacks and saddle satchels for various agricultural purposes.
Printed patterns on fabrics
The printing of cotton sheet fabrics in Cyprus prospered greatly in artisanal workshops in the 18th and 19th century. Nicosia was the centre of this art, practised by masters who were from immigrant communities of Greeks and Turks. Dark-red, yellow, green and pastel blue dominated these printed patterns. The dyes used were extracted from plants grown in Cyprus or which had been imported from the East. The design, as a rule, featured floral motifs (tulips, china pinks and roses), styled images of leaved branches and flowers in pots; and more rarely — birds and animals.
Textiles in Cyprus with a printed image were used in a variety of manners, such as for covering beds and sofas, or for manufacturing pillows and drapes. Aside from local use, printed Cypriot fabrics were also popular in the middle-eastern markets of Turkey and Syria.
Printing patterns on scarves, practised by special artisans (“mantilarides”) was a continuation of the art of block printing. However, new Armenian craftsmen from Constantinople, Central Asia, Beirut and Egypt, who settled on the island after 1897, enriched habitual printing techniques with new patterns and colours. The new shapes for printing scarves, carved from olive trees, were smaller and their images were thinner. Dyes were produced from a mixture of ingredients originating from plants and animals.
The stamp patterns were named “pasmades”, with the workshop usually located in a craftsmen’s city home: men would work there, applying patterns, while women would help with decorating the scarves. It must be said that the wives and daughters of artisan printers, Greek and Turkish women, received a very good income from subsequently sheathing scarves and shawls with pipilla needle lace. Printed scarves replaced the once famous embroidered sort: these being more labour intensive to manufacture, and therefore more expensive, gradually disappeared from circulation.
Stay with us and see you next time!