Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Scottish fustanella

While researching America's relationship with Greece in the 1930s, it dawned on me that Greece occupied a parallel place in the American imagination as Ireland and Scotland. In other words, the American discovery of folk Greece happened at exactly the same time as the discovery of the Irish, Celtic and other less modernized regions of the United Kingdom. Similarities in constructing the Irish and Greek modern nation-states is well known. The revival of dead languages (Gaelic and Katharevousa) and scholarly exploitations of folk culture were common strategies in nation-building. Eric Hobsbawn has addressed modern Greece, Ireland and Israel in his classic, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990).

I have always wondered what thoughts may have gone through an American's mind when first seeing the Greek "national" costume, the white kilt known as fustanella. A 1934 American film promoting Mediterranean tourism makes the connection between Scottish kilts and the Greek fustanella quite direct. Narrator James A. Fitzpatrick claims direct descent. This circuitous genealogy, no doubt, reflects popular notions of the 1930s. The film, "Citadels of the Mediterranean" (click here or here), starts in Andalusia and ends in Athens. Segments 6:06-6:50 mins. shows Greek soldiers perform a dance in the Olympic Stadium. The narrator's voice explains:

"As a matter of individuality, no army has ever excelled that of Greece in costuming its soldiers. And no army or navy has yet developed a dance like the one that was staged for us by the president's bodyguard regiment of the Greek army. The origin of this unique costume goes back to the highlands of Albania and it is preserved in Athens today almost exclusively by the presidential guard. The early Roman soldiers copied it from the Greeks and during their conquest of the British Isles it was adopted and modified by the Scottish highlanders."

During the 1930s, British and American archaeologists occasionally put on fustanellas on special celebrations. American expats like George Cram Cook, co-founder of the Provincetown Players, gave up western fashions entirely and embraced the fustanella. Cook's photo above was published in a biography written by his widow, Susan Glaspell, The Road to the Temple (New York, 1927). Humfrey Payne, director of the British School in Athens (1929-1936), was another such figure "going native" for special occasions, the local festivals in Perachora. See photos in his biography, also written by his widow, Dilys Powell, The Traveller's Journey is Done (London, 1943). The American School's photographic archive contains many images of American archaeologists sporting Greek costumes. At first glance, such cross-dressing may be interpreted as a form of orientalism. But the story seems more complicated. By wearing a Greek fustannella, British or American archaeologists also evoked their own national traditions via Scotland. For some others, wearing folk costumes was an act of rebellion, sharing with the avant-garde (such as Isadora Duncan's dressing rebellion).

The Scottish relationship with Greece is also evident in the development of particularly Presbyterian attitudes. Peter Brown first pointed this out to me in a casual conversation. Presbyterians (Church of Scotland) had a different relationship with classical Greece than Anglicans (Church of England). Classicists from Presbyterian colleges, like Princeton, had specific denominational agendas.


Bill Caraher said...


Nice post. For another angle on this check out T. Gallant's Experiencing Dominion ( where he describes how the British colonial administration found a "useful" parallel between Ionian Islanders and the Irish.


Anonymous said...

great cross-associations. thank you!

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States