The National Costumes of Cyprus
The national costumes of Cyprus can be divided into four different types, town wear, the Karpass style, the Paphos dress and the mountain costume. Each garment displays the rich variety of locally spun fabrics, and the creative and artistic skills of the people who made them.
The main developments in Cypriot costume design took place from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. Until then women everywhere had worn the Sayia, a long tunic, open at the front and sides, which was worn over long baggy trousers and a blouse. The Sayia was made in a wide variety of fabrics from simple home spun flax, to fine silks decorated with gold thread. Interestingly, similar styles to the Cypriot Sayia can be found in parts of Greece.
Wedding outfits were traditionally a rich scarlet colour, which was obtained from the roots of the madder plant.
Changes in this style appeared in the towns as women began to wear the Amalia for the first time. This was a long flowing skirt and a short fitted jacket. The skirts were usually made in a silk fabric called sattakroutia which was widely manufactured in the main silk areas of Nicosia, Kakopetria and Yeroskipou, and dyed with natural plants dyes in vibrant shades of gold and red. Cyprus had been famous for silk since Medieval times and many households raised silkworms so that they could weave their own cloth. The jacket, which was called the Sarka was decorated with rich appliqué designs in gold and silver, and was worn open at the front to reveal a beautiful silk blouse edged with lace or embroidery.
Scarves Kouroukla, or Mandilli, were extremely fashionable throughout the island, but particularly in the Nicosia area where there was a thriving scarf industry. Squares in calico and cotton are beautifully patterned by the scarf maker (Madilarides) using carved wooden stamps painted with different vegetable dyes from plants like thorny burnet and pomegranate. Younger women often favoured shades of dark green, whilst older women wore brown. Scarves for special occasions were trimmed with a crochet edging known as Pipilla. The scarves were folded under the back of the neck and the loose ends tied on the side of the head and decorated with a flower blossom or silver scarf pin. The scarves were popular with visitors to the island who found that the patterns did not fade with wear, in fact over the years they seemed to grow more vibrant with each wash! An interesting collection of these scarves can be seen in the Folk Art Museum at Yeroskipou.
Elegant ladies in the capital Nicosia would wear the Amalia style of costume every day; the fine cloth and rich embroidery hinting at their social position. Some women from the larger villages would have similar outfits but would only wear them on special occasions like Saints’ days and on important family occasions like weddings and baptisms.
Costumes varied little between the various villages and usually consisted of a long sleeved Sayia made from woven striped cotton (Alatzia), worn with a blouse and baggy trousers underneath and stout leather boots (Potinia). One scarf would hold the hair in place, whilst a second covered the head and was tied carefully to reveal its intricate pattern or lace trim.
The Karpass area, the narrow ‘leg of Cyprus’ that is now in the area occupied by Turkish troops, developed its own local costumes and these were the most elaborate of all the rural areas. The Sayia continued to be worn, but was designed differently depending on the work of the wearer, and a beautifully embroidered apron was worn to protect the material. A young bride would often wear a beautiful beige or white Sayia which she and her sisters had decorated with gold thread and appliqué of brightly coloured felt and beads. Instead of the working apron a large colourfully striped scarf would be worn around the waist and knotted on one side. Occasionally the bride could be seen wearing a completely different wedding costume with a full cotton skirt dyed in a rich brown colour with bark from a pine tree and worn with a matching jacket with silver clasps. The local craftsman would make gold earrings, bracelets, coin decorated necklaces, and an intricately decorated cross to complete this very special outfit.
Costumes of Cyprus – Different Styles
Inhabitants of the Paphos area have continued to wear the Sayia until relatively recently. These were made from cotton with green, red or yellow stripes on a cream background, although blue with white stripes was also available. The apron was decorated in the distinctive patterns of Phitiotika, the richly woven embroidery made in the Phiti area in Paphos.
Many females in the rural areas wore the Foustani, which was a one piece dress with a pleated waist. Inhabitants of the mountain areas would make these in a fabric made from wool and cotton, for extra warmth, and usually in dark muted colours. In contrast, those who lived in the Mesaoria Plain wore dresses in jewel bright colours of red, yellow, green and orange. As many village girls would only possess a couple of Foustania in a whole lifetime they were cleverly designed with pleated waistlines to allow for pregnancy and later, for middle age spread.
The low cut neckline not only revealed the pretty blouse beneath, but was also ideal for breastfeeding. Many village women would work long hours in the fields and orchards and would often lift up the hem of their Foustani and tuck it into their waist to give them more freedom of movement and to keep them cooler. Gradually as a woman grew older, and particularly on the death of her husband, she would wear black clothing every day. She would also wear a black headscarf, under which a second piece of material known as a Skoufoma was worn, this covered her hair, forehead and ears.
Slowly as manufactured textiles arrived on the island, and Cyprus began to manufacture clothes for export to Europe, women changed their traditional costumes for modern western styles. Today, except for a few inhabitants in the more remote areas, it is unlikely that you will catch a glimpse of a woman in traditional costume, but men wearing the famous Vraqkas are more easily spotted, especially in the hilly areas of the Paphos District.
The Vraqkas are baggy trousers made, as the popular Cypriot folk song explains, from ‘forty piches of cloth’ and folded with a large pleated bustle, tucked into a belt. A wide black cumber band was worn by older men, whilst younger men favoured bright colours. A small money pouch would be tucked inside.
The Vraqkas are worn with high leather boots or on festive occasions, with shoes and long black stockings.
Traditionally when a young man was to be married, his young bride would make a gift of new Vraqkas to him, woven by herself and her family. At wedding feasts it is customary for a song to be sung by the guests in praise of the large amount of cloth woven by the bride to make a fine pair of Vraqkas for her husband.
Although there is little difference in the style of Vraqkas throughout Cyprus the jackets worn did vary from one region to another. The sleeveless waistcoat was known as the Yilekko and the long sleeved jacket, the Zibouna. For everyday wear these were usually plain, and in rural areas were often made from the same Alatzi as the women’s dresses. Wedding jackets were made from beautiful black velvet and were highly embroidered with elaborate patterns and motifs of lions and birds.
The bridegroom’s costume was an important part of the wedding dowry and would be carefully made by his prospective bride along with a selection of domestic linen that would be carried to her new home in her dowry chest. Girls would start making items for their dowry chest from an early age, and these would include nightwear for herself and her future husband, and silk underwear and neckerchiefs for him. Its was widely believed that these items would bring good luck.