Sunday, September 25, 2011


Lord Byron, who is famous for transgressing the bounds of ‘normal’ sexual and gender behavior both by sleeping with his half-sister and cross-dressing by western standards through wearing the foustanella, is the person responsible for bringing my foustanella-centered ontopathological crisis about my suitability to wear the said garment and my vague belief that I could resolve it, if only I could manage to wear the most authentic foustanella of them all, to a head. For viewing Lord Byron’s famous portrait at Mesolongi in an English tome, I was astounded to notice that the caption below it read: “Byron in Albanian dress.” In what way could Byron, the greatest Philhellene after John Rerakis, be used as a poster boy for those claiming another origin for this purely Greek costume? Later, on a trip to Albania, I was astonished at the sight of a foustanella clad folkloric dance troupe perform traditional southern Albanian daces. Furthermore, they too called the garment “foustanella” in their own language. It was long after this seminal moment in my life, that I discovered that the foustanella was also worn in the regions of Azat, Babune and Tikvesh by inhabitants of what is now FYROM and, even further north, in some regions of Wallachia, in present day southern Romania.
My crisis deepened. Given that my physical stature and interests disqualified me from being a pistol toting, chasm be-striding palikari, the only applicable prerequisite for being permitted to wear the article of clothing that would automatically confer Hellenic machismo upon me, was to be able to don the most authentic Greek version possible. Now, it became apparent that other claimants for authenticity had emerged and that their arguments were, at least at first glance, plausible. After all, how does one establish pure Greek credentials for an item of clothing whose very name is not Greek? The etymology of the word foustanella is definitely foreign, deriving from the medieval latin fustaneum, diminutive form of fustis, or wooden baton, referring to the spindle on which cloth was woven. Others would have the word derive from the suburb Fustat in Cairo, a traditional centre of cotton production.
To compound my quandary further, proponents of the Hellenicity of the foustanella claim that it has been around in some form since classical times, being derived from the chiton or chitonium and a pleated kilt can be discerned on a third century statue found on the Acropolis. However, scholars also contend that the garment is derived from the Roman toga or the tunic worn by legionaries. In contrast, folklorist Ioanna Papantoniou considered it to be derived from the Celts and adapted by the Romans, whereas Franz Von Felso-Silvas, argues that the Romans took the foustanella from the Albanians and introduced it to the Celts in Britain. On the other hand, the famous archaeologist of Minoan Crete, Sir Arthur Evans, posited that the foustanella preserves an Illyrian element in the Balkans. Albanian nationalists who devote pages to discussing the origin of the foustanella in forums on the internet claim that Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (who they consider to be Albanian, along with his cousin, Alexander the Great) also wore the foustanella. Confused yet?
Nonetheless, by the time we get to Byzantium, the foustanella is well and truly on the scene, in the form the pleated podea worn by Akritic warriors and attested to in pottery depictions from the reign of Manuel Komnenos. After this time, however, we lose the thread of the garment, until once more, we come up against another crisis of identity, for a document dated 1335 lists the “fustanum” as an article confiscated by the Venetians from a sailor in northern Albania. However, from that time onwards, the foustanella becomes a primary article of clothing in Greek-influenced southern Albania, not the north. King Zog, a northern tribesman who characteristically proclaimed himself King of Albania looks manifestly uncomfortable in a foustanella in his surviving photographs. The discovery of his photograph served to inspire me on another undertaking: a collection of photographs of famous people and non-Balkanians wearing the said item. Sadly, recent Friday night excursions into St Kilda with camera and spare foustanella packed securely in a backpack, have proved relatively fruitless.
The Albanian version of the foustanella is long, covering the knee and only has sixty or so pleats. It was the custom in older times to dip it in melted sheep-fat, in order to make it both waterproof and less visible. Scholars claim that it is this version of the foustanella that Albanian Tosk tribesmen introduced into Greece during the Ottoman period. At first glance, the theory appears to be plausible. The foustanella is worn in areas that also have a similar music tradition, dominated by the Tsamiko, and were historically, Albanian speakers were to be found, such as the Peloponnese, Central Greece, and some parts of Epirus and Macedonia. However contrary evidence exists to suggest that the foustanella has been worn in Epirus continuously since the Byzantine era, before the migration of Albanian tribes to the region. What cannot be denied however, is that in the writings of nineteenth century western travelers to Greece, the foustanella is considered an Albanian influence, attesting to the presence of Albanian speakers within the country.
The Greek foustanella however, differs in some, though not many respects from its Albanian counterpart, notably in the higher number of pleats, which was a symbol of wealth, given that these were difficult to produce. Captains and warlords competed to outdo each other as to the sumptuousness of their costumes, introducing gold braid and embroidery to their yileki, mendani, or other type of waistcoat. Another item of clothing, a long coat that partially covers and shields the foustanella is known as the “Arvanitkos doulamas.” No prizes for guessing its origin. Further, photos of the evzones and of the 1920’s Royal Albanian Guard are almost indistinguishable, save that the evzones skirts are indubitably shorter.
Given the above, it seemed that authenticity as a reason for wearing the foustanella eluded me. I dreamed of being able to live in a place where I could indulge my passion for wearing the foustanella openly among my peers who could appreciate my sense of style and not only on Greek national Day or the Antipodes Festival, where my forays down Lonsdale Street in full regalia seem only to evince horror in hapless tourists and subdued golf-claps from closet foustanelloforoi, who lack the necessary baubles in order to come out and wear their own with pride.
Thus when I discovered that in the Vlach village of Metsovo in Epirus, the inhabitants, wearing a stylish variant of the garb that includes a sumptuous black silk shirt are permitted to roam freely, their pleats swaying in the breeze, I was compelled to tarry to them and beg admittance as one of their number. The results were disappointing. My newly tailored one piece grey foustanella with black embroiderings was quickly identified as being from the region of Tsamanta, close to the Albanian border, I was exposed as an imposter and banished.
I find myself thus in the sad predicament of one who is neither masculine enough nor ensconced in a natural habitat where the wearing of the foustanella is permissible. Furthermore, proof of authenticity of original derivation has proved elusive. Of course this parlous state of affairs could easily be remedied by a united effort by the Greek community to being back the foustanella as daily wear for all Greek Australian males, Alex Perry included. Truly, this noble endeavour would be a sure safeguard against assimilation and surely raise fertility levels within our community as the males of our gender are finally given respite to breathe. One lives in hope.
If there is any balm in Gilead, it is in the fact that not only is a statue of Greek Marathon Gold-Medallist Spiros Louis to be erected in Berwick, in full foustanella, but I have also been able to locate a picture of sybarite Oscar Wilde caparisoned in a foustanella, which he refers to as ‘Greek dress.’ Oscar was neither masculine nor authentic. This effete fop, possessed of a penchant for debauchery, was however an absolute genius, whose prose is both intricately woven and tear-jerkingly humane. It is in his honour, then, he who opined: “Be yourself, everyone else is taken,” and more presciently: “You can never be overdressed or overeducated,” (after all quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit) that I will now wear my foustanella at every given opportunity. The only way to rid temptation, is to yield to it.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 September 2011