An ‘ethnic’ souvenir for a WWI nurse
ELENI PAPATHOMA, M.A.
Curator at Museum of Greek Folk Art, Athens, Greece
In February 2015 the Museum of Greek Folk Art in Athens, Greece, received an unusual donation. Mrs. Elizabeth Gage from Victoria B.C. Canada, 90 years old, offered four traditional garments. She inherited them from her aunt, Winifred Jessie Dowding, who acquired them while serving as a nursing sister of the Canadian Army Medical Corps in Greece, during World War I. In this essay we shall trace the story of these clothes, and suggest the different points of perspective in which they may be interpreted and presented.
Fig.1 Nursing Sister Winifred Jessie Dowding
Although the donor considered the four garments to belong together and form a costume, they actually come from different regions. They belong to traditional types of costumes, which in the Greek areas, as in all Balkans of the time, were typical for, and representative of, the specific regions in which they were made and used. They may be dated at late 19th-early 20th century and they are:
- A sleeveless, white and red, gold-embroidered coat; part of the bridal and festive costume in many villages of Attica (central Greece).
- A long white chemise with red and black embroidery; part of the woman’s costume in northern Macedonia, e.g in the Monastir (Bitolya) area (today FYROM).
- A long white chemise with red and black embroidery; part of the woman’s costume in northern Macedonia, e.g in the Monastir (Bitolya) area (today FYROM).
- A white apron with red embroidery; worn by women on the island of Crete (south Greece).
- A red fez with a black tassel; a man’s cap, common in many Balkan areas, actually in all the Ottoman Empire.
The donation included also an album of original photographs of Winifred’s service in WWI.
Traditional wear at a turning-point
The costumes we call ‘traditional’ are types of ensembles whose form is supposed to have been crystallized by the 18th century. They were in use throughout the 19th century, and they were so closely identified with specific areas or communities that they functioned as an immediate sign of recognition. Women’s costumes, in particular, were differentiated not only by place of origin, but also by marital and family status (single, engaged, married, mother, widow, etc.). Everyone conformed to the same rules as to the parts of the ensemble, their form, and the way they were worn, having some margin of freedom to choose between embroidery motifs or prints on textiles. The result was a dress uniformity so apparent that has made people speak of these outfits as ‘uniforms’. In the course of the 19th century, the radical changes in lifestyle, community structure, social and economic conditions etc. inevitably affected dress habits, too.
Fig. 6 Engraving showing types of traditional Greek costumes
By the 1910s, traditional costumes remained in use, but the European fashion style gained more and more ground in urban and, more slowly, in rural areas. And while the actual users of traditional clothes started to discard them as obsolete and inappropriate for their changed – or wanted to be changed – lifestyle, the intellectual elite and the urban bourgeoisie of the time began to treat them as folk artefacts, representative of a pure but – alas! – vanishing culture, worthy to be collected and admired as a genuine evidence of the Greek identity. Traditional clothes were sold in the workshops that made them, in shops, bazaars, or by peddlers and the owners themselves, in Athens and other cities of the time, such as Thessaloniki.
A ‘blue-bird’[i] in Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki, a major landmark of the Byzantine period, retained its role as a big city and an important port for centuries, because of its critical geographical position. Having been a much desired prize for all parties involved in the Balkan Wars, it acceded to the Greek state in 1912. Due to its historical and geographical circumstances, it had always been a multi-cultural city, where people of various origins, religions, languages and lifestyles, resided or passed through, worked and traded all kinds of commodities. Since 1914, the Great War had been bringing also refugees fleeing from the northern parts of Macedonia, Thrace and Asia Minor, correspondents and officials from Europe, America and Canada, and thousands of soldiers and nurses from France, the British Commonwealth and elsewhere[ii]. Winifred Jessie Dowding was among them.
Fig. 7 Nursing Sister Winifred Jessie Dowding, 4th Canadian General Hospital, Thessaloniki, 1917-1918
Born in England in 1884, she graduated from the Nightingale Home and Training School for Nurses at the St. Thomas Hospital in London and in 1910 she moved to Canada. In May 1915 she enlisted to the Canadian Army Medical Corps, in the general enthusiastic mobilization of volunteers for the British army fighting in Europe. She was transferred to Thessaloniki in July 1916, posted at the 4th Canadian General Hospital, where she stayed for a year. In August 1917 the hospital left Thessaloniki and went to England. She returned to Canada in September 1919, when she was demobilized.
Discovering the Balkans: disappointment and a taste for couleur locale
Soldiers, nurses and others involved in the Great War, most of whom came to the Balkans for the first time, were shocked and frustrated, not only by the dirty streets, the derelict houses, the beggars and the weather, but also by the mentality and the attitude of the locals, which usually invoked their indignation and contempt[iii]. At the same time, they were attracted by the beautiful landscape, the ‘picturesque’ villages and the fanciful costumes of the villagers[iv]. When allowed to leave camp, they took walking excursions and had picnics in the nearby mountains and villages; they visited the city and shopped for food, handy things and souvenirs.
Fig. 8 Winifred on a picnic excursion, Thessaloniki, 1917-1918
Marcelle Tinayre, a French writer sent by her government to Thessaloniki in summer 1916, described her visit at the bazaar: “Those of the expeditionary force who arrived first may have had the chance to find old carpets, arms, engraved copper pots, heavy jewelry with red and turquoise buckles, belts of solid silver, and these creamy cloths with red, blue and black embroidery, with a texture as nice as crepe, that dress the Macedonian women. After seven months of occupation, in a city where the English are paying for whatever they like at whatever price, ‘curiosities’ have become rare and the merchants’ demands exorbitant. Nowadays, the bazaar offers rough lingerie, knitwear, toilette objects for the use of soldiers, muslin mosquito nets (…), and an abundance of supposedly artistic ‘souvenirs’. These are handkerchiefs with imprinted flags, velvet gold-embroidered squares bearing inscriptions ‘Glory to the Allies!’ (…)” [v] (Tinayre, 1917: 512-513).
The most common memorabilia soldiers are known to have brought from war are of a military character: weapons, ammunition, parts of war gear, flags etc., either from their army or from the enemy’s[vi]. However, Tinayre’s description shows that many foreigners were in a quest for locally crafted items – eloquently described as ‘curiosities’. At the same time, it is easy to imagine refugees and others selling whatever they could in order to get some money. In their diaries and letters, soldiers and nurses mentioned visits to villages and refugee camps, often recorded in their photographs, too. In Winifred’s album there are about 30 photos showing locals and commented in hand-writing as “Macedonia children”, “The Balkans”, “Serbian Refugees”, “Balkan gipsys”, “Greek fisherman” and so on. This could be a further testimony to her interest in couleur locale, which seems to have been shared by many members of the expeditionary force.
Fig. 9 A page of Winifred's photo album, showing photos of locals
Fig. 10 A photo from Winifred's album, showing locals
‘Ethnic’ clothes in a Canadian nurse’s trunk
The above description outlines the context for the four garments reaching Winifred’s hands, as there is no actual evidence as to how, when, or where this happened. The donor, Mrs. Gage, suggests: “Knowing her generous spirit she possibly bought it from the owner who, at time, needed money.” Thessaloniki surely offered all kinds of goods, so the possibility of all four items having been acquired there cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, given their different origin, it would seem more probable that Winifred procured them in different circumstances and locations: the chemise, and possibly the fez, during her long stay in Thessaloniki; the Attica coat and the Cretan apron during her journey through the Aegean in August 1917. We know from her own description of this journey – in a letter to her mother, published in a Calgary newspaper of the time – that the ship stayed on the island of Crete for two days and she took an excursion to a mountainous village there.
In any case, here they were, in her trunk, crossing the ocean to the other end of the world, to be treasured for decades in her closet as a special memento of what may have been the most exceptional time of her life[vii], so different from her life before and after that it could be described as a breach of time and experience, all the more interesting as her family do not recall her talking of this.
The question of how and when she acquired the clothes is related to whether she thought of them as a ‘costume’. In any case, her niece certainly did.
A costume for folk dances parties
Elizabeth Gage, née Dowding, is the youngest daughter of Ernest, Winifred’s brother. She remembers: “I was shown the costume about 1946 where it hung in a clothes closet in the house she shared with her Mother and older sister, Florence, and it stayed there until she died in 1971.” Then, Elizabeth asked her two younger aunts if she could have it. She and her husband had already taken an interest in folk dances – Israeli, Turkish, Greek etc. – which they learned and practiced at a local dance club, the Saanich International Folk Dances Association. For almost forty years, Elizabeth would wear the ‘costume’ at parties of the dance club: “I was delighted to be the new owner of this wonderful costume which (…) always received attention and admiration”. And, mind you, “it’s heavy to wear; it’s not the most comfortable garment in which to dance!”
Fig. 11 The clothes used as a folk dance 'costume'.
“… finally going home where it belongs…”
Although she used it and took pride in it, Elizabeth felt that her ‘costume’ belonged somewhere else: “I have ALWAYS felt that this costume belonged in Greece, especially after seeing one on model encased in glass in a museum in Athens when my husband and I were there over 35 years ago. So now I will have my wish that my costume is finally going HOME where it belongs.” And in a letter later: “(…) entering the main museum in Athens I soon spotted a costume so like mine, that I knew then that was where mine belonged.”
Fig. 12 A traditional bridal costume of Attica at the Museum of Greek Folk Art
So, after she quitted dancing because of injuries, she decided to send it back “home”.
Her daughter, Wendy Blackwell, contacted our Museum. The Greek Consulate in Vancouver and the local Greek community in Victoria organized a quite emotional ceremony to receive the donation and honour Mrs. Gage. A new chapter in the life of these objects began: they arrived in Athens via diplomatic pouch; they were received by the Museum’s curator, registered in the collection, recorded and photographed, treated by conservators, and stored. They are soon to be exhibited at the refurbished permanent exhibition of the Museum, illustrating this very subject: how clothes can be used to tell stories.
Back and forth an ocean, through a century: different uses, different perspectives
I like to think of this set of objects as a bridge over space and time. In their ‘life’ they have connected places, people, events and time periods, forming such unexpected and intriguing trails and links. Four pieces of clothing: made in different places by different hands; worn by different, unknown – to one another and to us – persons; united for the first time in the trunk of a Canadian nurse as a war souvenir, travelling to England and then to Canada; kept for 52 years in a closet in Calgary, then in Victoria B.C., as an heirloom; out in the light again, worn for 40 years as a folk dance costume in Victoria and elsewhere; delivered to Athens, Greece, and registered in a museum’s collection as historical objects, prepared to become museum exhibits.
These different functions of the objects and the different meanings attributed to them give rise to different perspectives from which to interpret and present them:
Fig. 13 Different uses, different perspectives
- We can see them as specimens of traditional wear, and discuss their social and identity-defining role, their manufacturing techniques, etc.
- We can see them as war mementoes, and speak of the personal significance and the immaterial (emotional, symbolical, etc.) qualities attached to material objects because of their connection to specific life events.
- We can see them as ‘curiosities’ collected for their ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ quality, and focus on the way WWI affected people’s lives all over the world, bringing in contact, with unpredictable implications, people from completely different backgrounds who would probably have never met otherwise.
- We can see them as a performance costume used by a folklorist enthusiast, and consider the 1970s urban people’s turn to folk culture and the values they perceived it to represent.
- We can see them as cultural heritage objects returned “home”, and discuss the notion of items bearing locally defined values and being related to national identity, and the idea of a place, or rather a place-related culture, being the ‘legal owner’ of an object. By extension, we may consider the notion of a museum as “home” to, and the rightful proprietor of, an object when this has been removed from its natural habitat and turned into heritage.
Having travelled back and forth across an ocean and through a century, these objects are fascinating story-tellers.
Resources - Acknowledgements
I am particularly grateful to Elizabeth Gage and Wendy Blackwell for their help in documenting Winifred’s life and the use of the clothes. I would like to thank also Glennis Zilm and the BC History of Nursing Society (http://www.historymuseum.ca/) for their immediate and illuminating response to my questions.
Valuable documentation on Winifred’s military service in particular, and the Canadian Army Medical Corps in WWI in general, was found at the exceptional web site of Library and Archives Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/Pages/default.aspx).
All illustrations are courtesy of the Museum of Greek Folk Art and Greek Folk Musical Instruments (Athens, Greece).
Anonymous (1921), “The Salonica Expedition By One Who Was There”, in Oliver Hezzelwood (ed.), Trinity War Book. A Recital of Service and Sacrifice in the Great War, pp. 245 – 249, Toronto, Trinity Methodist Church, digitally published by Forgotten Books, 2013, available at:
Cornish, P. (n.d.), “The daily life of soldiers”, available at http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/the-daily-life-of-soldiers#sthash.Q5VvpvZS.dpuf in The British Library’s online resource on WWI (http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/)
Papantoniou, I. (2000), Greek Dress from Ancient Times to the Early 20th Century, Athens, Commercial Bank of Greece
Thoman, C. (2008), “‘A Loyal Body of Empire Citizens’: Military Nurses and Identity at Lemnos and Salonika, 1915-17/8”, in Elliott, J., Stuart, M. and Thoman, C. (ed.), Place and practice in Canadian nursing history, Vancouver, UBC Press
Tinayre, M. (1917), “Un étè á Salonique. Avril-septembre 1916”, in Revue des Deux Mondes, avril, pp. 507 – 531, available at
Welters, L. (1988), Women’s Traditional Costume in Attica, Nafplion, Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation
Canadian Nursing Sisters were nicknamed “bluebirds” because of their blue uniforms and white veils.
[ii] “Life for the troops in the Salonica expedition was oftentimes a kaleidoscope of changing scenes and variegated peoples, for in the Allied forces were Russians, Italians, Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins, in addition to the British and French troops. The streets of Salonica were the modern representation of the Tower of Babel. While, from Canada, Salonica would seem to be out of the centre of things, to those who were there it seemed the hub around which the universe was revolving, and it proved to be the wedge which finally broke up the enemy alliance” (Anonymous, 1921: 247).
[iii] “The Mediterranean postings were portals to the Orient or ‘Near East’, where the nursing sisters encountered what they perceived to be ‘strange’ exotic races, languages and cultural practices as well as competing discourses regarding imperial, colonial and national identity” (Thoman, 2008: 10).
[iv] “There are things we cannot forget, but we are glad to remember the other side of the picture, the strange and wonderful experiences of living in the Balkans, the queer and primitive ways of the natives, the intensely beautiful shores of the Mediterranean and the picturesque hill country of Macedonia” (Anonymous, 1921: 247).
[v] Translated from the French original.
[vi] “Souvenir hunting became a mania for many soldiers. This was especially true in the British Army, whose citizen-soldiers were eager to acquire mementos of what was, for most, a once in a lifetime adventure. Trophies captured directly from the enemy were the most sought-after. Some soldiers even found an opportunity for creativity – re-working battlefield debris into what we now know as ‘trench art’. (…) For those unable to make their own, similar types of handicraft could also be purchased from local people, who adapted traditional skills in metal-working or lace making to meet this new market for souvenirs” (Cornish, n.d.).
[vii] “While we often envied those who were taking a larger share on the main front, yet no one who lived through these wonderful years out east will ever regret the experience” (Anonymous, 1921: 248).