The dowry

a group of people in colourful clothing stands on a hill with mountains in the background. They're gathered around a large pile of textiles in bright clothing.

Symbol of patriarchy, or totem of female creativity?

Elena Lagoudi (opens in new window) (National Documentation Center / EKT)

Paying a dowry (i.e. a payment of money or property from the family of the bride to the family of the groom at the time of marriage) is an ancient custom that is still being practised in many countries and by many communities in the world. Originally, dowries were paid to the bride or the bride's family, not the other way around! The original purpose of a dowry was to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of her labour and her reproductive potential. Somewhere before the start of the Ancient Roman period, the custom became reversed, so that the bride's family had to give a dowry to the husband’s kin.

A bride's dowry consisted of a lot of clothing, very often crafted by the bride herself, or by her family. Every button, every tassel, every belt and apron were testimonies of the bride's skill in the crafts of sewing, weaving, embroidery, etc. Clothing, bedding, rugs and wall decorations were also important items for a newlywed couple to furnish their home with.

The custom of crafting and giving dowries has held strong throughout the centuries. Crafting a dowry was often an activity that all women in a family group partook in, starting from when a girl was born in anticipation of her wedding. Young girls learned to weave at a young age, as well as stitching and embroidery, enabling them to start work on their dowry in their teen years. Women used the hand-crafted items of their dowries as canvases to weave their aspirations, wishes, and personal tastes into the fabrics that would furnish their future home. This almost transcendental exercise was like "touch-magic", crafting the soul of the weaver into their dowries, with their chosen materials, illustrations and patterns reflecting their personality and instilling a totemic significance into these objects.

Besides the spiritual aspects of weaving, the creative output was rich with information – colours, symbols, patterns and decorations that denoted social rank and status, even recorded local history and folktales, at the same time acting as a kind of protective talisman.

In traditional Greek culture, aprons, in particular, were highly symbolised. The colour and patterns in an apron played a key role as a messaging status, perhaps similar to the role that social media status updates play for us today. There were special aprons that signify that the girl wearing them was unmarried, others were worn only by newlyweds and some were only worn when trying to conceive, or when a woman was a widow or spinster. For each age or status, there were corresponding symbols promoting health, prosperity and safety and communicating to the rest of the community details about the woman’s life stages and accomplishments.

Apron with patterns for an unmarried woman., Laboratory of Folklore and Social Anthropology CC BY Apron with patterns for a woman who has just given birth, Laboratory of Folklore and Social Anthropology - Department of History and Ethnology - Democritus University of Thrace CC BY

The industrial revolution changed production and consumption patterns on a massive scale in the 20th Century. More and more textiles were mass-produced and store-bought, diminishing the need for personally crafted clothing and furniture. The position of the woman as a homemaker diminished and the tradition of passing dowry creation skills from generation to generation slowly extinguished.

Partly fueled by the feminist rhetoric of the time, partly influenced by the male-dominated modernist aesthetics and heavy urbanization, the hand-made quality of dowry clothing and rural styles no longer appealed to the modern eye. As women started grappling with public roles and careers in modern homes, their textile matrilineal heritage stayed wrapped in a closet, unadmired and unused.

It is not until the beginning of the 21st century that the concept of a dowry started being revisited as a testimony to female creativity and artistic heritage. While the early feminist rhetoric dismissed dowries as anachronistic and misogynistic, post-feminist discourse reinterprets the heritage of female creativity. Besides recognizing that women drew a big sense of accomplishment, pride and satisfaction from this seemingly menial and repetitive work while strengthening social ties with other women, contemporary feminist theory explores the role of the woman as a creator.

Dowry as a subject is being explored by many contemporary textile and mixed media female artists, who also explore social and community histories, practices, and sometimes even their own family history, as textile arts often have matrilineal heredity. New scientific and artistic practices and research in feminist anthropology are taking place, which investigate the social identity of women through their creativity, as well as the political aspects of crafts as a vehicle for female empowerment and activism, such as subversive stitching or yarn bombing.

Female craftsmanship can be finally celebrated and dowry items cherished, both as precious links to our matrilinear heritage and as a sui generis art form filled with totems of meaning, protection, incredible skill and above all, beauty.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.