2003.12.347 Front.jpg

Time Period: 19th Century

Category: Accessories, Purse

Accession Number: 2003.12.347

Donor: Robert P. Bainbridge


This hand-stitched Greek purse was made in the 19th century. Most of the purses back in this time period were used as "tourist souvenirs." This small embroidered square bag has multiple geometric shapes and patterns stitched on top of a woven base. The shapes of the stitched embroidery consisting of triangles, squares, circles, and other geometric shapes make up this unique item. The Greek purse is made up of vibrant red, blue, and green color patterns, highlighting the tan background. The purse has a handle that has two twisted hand woven strings that allow it to be carried. The fabric is hard, and rigid due to theembroidery, but functional enough to hold small items. The measurements of the purse are its length is 7 1/2 inches (19.1cm) and the height is 7 inches (17.8cm).

According to URI's Historic Textile and Costume Collection, the tag reads Greek 19th Century, and the other tag reads Bainbridge (2003.12.347), which is the donor. Robert P. Bainbridge of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts donated multiple items of Greek folk costume to not only the University of Rhode Island, but various museums and other dress collections. His mother, Mabel Foster Bainbridge, collected laces and embroideries from all around the world in the twentieth century.


This specific purse is considered to be part of a folk tradition from the Balkan region of Greece. Located in Southern Europe, the country of Greece is located on the Balkan peninsula and includes about two thousand islands. Greece borders Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Aegean Sea, the Ionia Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.[1] The costume of Greece shows two main influences: Balkan and Ottoman. In the Balkan clothing style, layers of clothing are worn, embroidered mainly on the edges and at the neck. Most are linen, and chunky embroidery in geometric patterns are on the hems and cuffs. [2] This made it easy to then cut the garments and turn them into bags.

The Greek purse originated in Macedonia and was made from the sleeves of shirts and the bottom hems of skirts.[3] Greek women would cut of the bottom bands of skirts and sleeves and create a bag from the pieces. Greek clothing was formed out of rectangles of material and consisted of a garment and a wrap.[4] This bag was not particularly carried in the daily lives of the Greek women, but was used solely as a tourist souvenir.This bag became a well known tourist item in Attica Greece, because it was such an easy object to carry back to peoples' home place. A big part of this bag is its embroidery, which later became known as folk art. Embroidery is based off of many different components such as the colors, patterns, motifs, and different combinations the woman can use. Most embroidery consists of horizontal geometric bands around the border of the bag. The number of bands varied depending on the amount of fabric the woman had. Normally in Greek dress, there was 2-6 bands. To make the whole embroidery bigger, the woman would expand the size of each horizontal band, and to make it smaller some bands would be eliminated. A lot of the patterns used throughout Greek dress were of geometric patterns. For example, the geometric flowers called, boubakia in Greek were common features, along with small creatures, and human faces. [5]
Different patterns include bands of multiple size geometric motifs. Some patterns include a zig zag, flower buds, squares, triangles, hexagons, and rhomboids. Since Greece and Macedonia were located in the Balkan region, and a lot of the countries have primary Slavic cultures, the patterns of embroidery have been subject to Turkish and Islamic influence.[6] A lot of Greek designs looked striped because of the contrasting color thread used for the embroidery. Bands were used for a divider called presilia, which meant to cut. Patterns were considered to be deemed effective against evil spirits. Many are geometric whose origins lie within mythology.[7] The zig zag pattern in folk dress meant broken branch, which is what many believed the zig zag patterns looked like. The triangle has many meanings such as it defines sexuality and evokes fertility. Its sharp corners in Greek mythology have the power to blind the evil eye, and symbolizes the power of the trinity in religion. One of the meanings of the Greek word Rhombus is "magic circle." In embroidery the triangle is a repetitive pattern along with the zig zag row on the end of a garment. [8] These patterns were the most common in Greek folk dress, and these geometric patterns are what made up this Greek purse. Furthermore, another factor contributing to the embroidery is its abstraction. In Attica, a city of Greece, the embroideru's abstraction enables us to separate the motifs that are more realistic from those that are more complex. Unfortunately, the more geometric the pattern the harder it was to distinguish the overall composition. A lot of the embroidery work that was done in Greek folk dress resembled mosaic art pieces. The final factor influencing Attica embroidery was the color. The backgrounds of the garment were normally dark (black, blue, greens). The motifs were embroidered with more vibrant colors to attract attention. Most of the color combinations only had three or four colors stitched within the motif. The more complex motifs had 22-23 colors in a single hem. With multiple colors gathering together, the solid dark background helped give a sense of unity to the overall design. The colors being used in these embroidered designs, represented different meanings. The colors represented important symbolism in Greek culture. The color red was used for a young married woman, and the colors blue/green were used in times of mourning. To make the embroidery even more challenging, Attica women started adding gold to their embroidered costume for brides to be. Some researchers believed that woman got the idea of using gold from the people of ancient Greece. Greek men and woman wore a fustanella, a kind of white petticoat. This petticoat was accompanied by a silk, woven, gold belt. The belt was used for security because it girded the waist.[9] The idea of using gold to make oneself feel beautiful was a big part of the Greek culture when it came to embroidery and especially on the skirts. [10]

Greek women did not simply use the designs handed down from their mothers. They considered many factors like how many horizontal bands, colors, designs of motifs, the style itself when making folk costume. This folk costume became the basis of the Greek bags because the garments were reused and recycled into these tourist purses .[11] Many explanations for the variations in embroidery are because the designs for each village or groups of villages had their own distinct patterns. Just like how we associate certain regions in the United States with specific types of clothing, like Texas for example, we associate them with cowboy boots. In Greece, different villages had different colors and patterns. Some woman would travel to other villages to have their embroidery done, if they thought other villages had better embroidery then their own. This was especially the case for brides to be. They would have their dresses designed from other villages with better designs.The embroidery played a part in peoples lives. It not only came to serve as a means of identification of what village you were from, but also as a status symbol; such as if the woman was young, married or a widow.[12]

Greek folk embroideries are widely seen throughout the United States today. A great majority of the embroidered costumes have ended up in museums in the United States or were bought by wealthy woman who kept these pieces as examples of folk art. Frequently these embroideries were cut up and made into little purses and sold to tourists as souvenirs, such as these. These purses were easy to carry back to the United States, and allowed people to have a little part of Greek culture to take home with them. Other uses for the Greek embroidery, from these garments, was the creation of slippers, lampshades, rugs, or cushion covers. To conclude, the embroidery used in this bag was initially not meant to be part of a purse. Made from the bottoms of skirts and ends of sleeves , this unique tourist item truly made a impact on folk cultur, and allowed the people of today to have a greater understanding of the different cultures across the world. Greek embroidery created a melting pot of the folk heritage. As second reason there was a variation in embroidery within Attica folk costume was because the embroiderers had a right to choose whatever colors they wanted. Colors were chosen for aesthetic reasons or because the wearer wanted to be unique. A lot of woman did not wear the traditional colors of the village, they wore colors they felt would be most beautiful on them.[13]


Samantha Hatfield

Last updated:

30 April 2015
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  2. ^ Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles: A World Guide to Traditional Patterns. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.
  3. ^ Welters, Linda. "Handwoven Fabrics During the Early Industrial Period in Greece." University of Rhode Island. Accessed March 20, 2015. http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=tmd_facpubs
  4. ^ Davenport, Millia. The Book of Costume Vol 1. New York: Crown, 1948.
  5. ^ Welters, Linda. Womans Traditional Costume In Attica Greece. Kingston, Rhode Island: Peloponnesian Folklore Fondation, 1988. 65-84.
  6. ^ Roojen, Pepin Van. European Folk. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Pepin, 2010.
  7. ^ Roojen, Pepin Van. European Folk. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Pepin, 2010.
  8. ^ Roojen, Pepin Van. European Folk. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Pepin, 2010.
  9. ^ "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Ancient Greek Dress. Accessed March 20, 2015. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grdr/hd_grdr.htm.
  10. ^ GREEK DRESS." Greek Dress. July 7, 1878. Accessed March 20, 2015. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=940DE3DE143EE63BBC4F53DFB1668383669FDE.
  11. ^ Welters, Linda. Womans Traditional Costume In Attica Greece. Kingston, Rhode Island: Peloponnesian Folklore Fondation, 1988. 65-84.
  12. ^ Roojen, Pepin Van. European Folk. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Pepin, 2010.
  13. ^ Welters, Linda. Womans Traditional Costume In Attica Greece. Kingston, Rhode Island: Peloponnesian Folklore Fondation, 1988. 65-84.