Have you ever wondered why we do the things we do the Greek way? Well, this column will hopefully shed some light on the dreaded “T” word–“Tradition.”
Tradition to be Dissected: The Tsolia Outfit
As a girl I remember visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square in Athens. There was where I witnessed my first live tsolia. There are two “fluri” guards at the Tomb that keep watch over it 24/7 changing their guard every hour. They mechanically walk back and forth from one station hut to another, clogging their huge “tsarouhia” the wooden clogs (the ones with upturned front with a puffy blue pom-pom on top.)
I mean these guys are huge, macho, killing machines. But pou sto kalo, did they get that dorky costume from? A puffy white skirt with a tight velvet cap that turns the most handsome guy into a doof (if not something worse.) And on top of that they wear those long white stockings–woolen ones at that! And the shoes? The shoes are an outright fashion crime. It seems to me quite ironic and just plain wacky to have the elite guard of the Greek state decked up in some gay-looking outfit. Instead of rifles, they look like they might need a matching clutch bag or something. Give me a break! These guys are CUTE gia onoma tou Theou! And they are macho, the ultimate example of Greek handsomeness. So giati sto dialo are they dressed in frilly skirts, hot ugly kaltson, and those ridiculous poofy shoes?
A rundown of the history of the Tsolia costume will explain why. First of all, the tradition of macho men wearing skirts dates to ancient times. In antiquity (think of the Romans) men wearing skirts was the norm (the expression would have been “who wears the skirts in this house”). In fact, the macho Romans with those mini-mini fucchia skirts amply revealing their well-defined things would make fun of the Gauls, those barbarian French, because they wore BRAIES or wide pants! (This word would later morph into the Greek VRAKA.)
Therefore, wearing a foustanella, the white, pleated skirt, was actually a macho thing to do for those “kleftes” in the mountains of central Greece. If you’ve forgotten, the kleftes (“thieves” in Greek) were the rough and tumble guerilla fighters in the northern and central parts of Greece that waged rebellions against the Turks during the 1821 War of Independence. (Before that they would just gang up on wayward travelers and make their living robbing them.) The costume had folk and traditional origins, but after the War of Independence it was adopted as the official Greek man’s national costume. Eventually it became the official dress of King Otto’s court in the late 19th-early 20th century.
The tsolia outfit has much symbolic significance. The foustanella is made up of many triangular shaped pieces of cloth sewn together diagonally. (These are officially called “langiolia”.) It is made up of 400 pleats that symbolize the years Greece spent under Ottoman domination.
- the waistcoat called a fermeli
- the kiousteki, a special piece of jewelry that keeps the fermeli closed
- the leg garters called gonatares (kai gamoto tis gonatares sou!)
- the sash called a zonari
- the fesi or koukos, the hat
- the blouse called the poukamiso
- the leg stockings called, what your mother calls them, the kaltses
- and of course, the tsarouhia, the pom-pommed wooden clogs
So in keeping with the macho tradition dating back to ancient Greek times, the “tsolia”, though out of place in our modern man-wears-the-slack kind of culture, is nevertheless still a very masculine symbol. The costume, now just a costume, was the uniform for the leanest-meanest fighting machines the Greek state had to offer. It even symbolically reminded the soldiers of the struggle to end Ottoman oppression. We have just lost the cultural context. But just in case you still think a man in skirts is not handsomely sexy, check out Mel Gibson in the kilt as William Wallace (Or better yet, I dare you to take a peek under the foustanela).