“A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
For ten years at the end of the 19th century British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled around Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, always on the lookout for fabrics and costumes to bring back to London (either for their own collection or to sell on).
The couple were on Astypalaia (the Greek Dodecanese) in March 1886 and bought one of these stomachers (also plastron) that Mabel Bent is describing; it remained in her private collection until the end of her life, when her nieces sold it to the famous retailer Liberty & Co., who gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1930 (inv. no. T.150-1930). It is not on display.
“The women here wear a beautiful dress. Their heads have a long yellow scarf wound round and hanging in loops below the waist, behind and in front, over a little cap covered with beads and spangles and very large earrings of silver; a shirt with embroidery round the tail and very large sleeves like those of Nisiros. These they tie up to their shoulders when at work. Their dress is made of a fine cherry-coloured cloth; a full skirt, echoing the embroidery of the skirt, down the front is let in about half a yard of blue cotton. Round the tail of the skirt is turned up about 8 inches of course white flannel and above that about 8 inches of the blue, so really there is not so very much red. The jacket is of the same red, square backed to the waist, where it branches out to 2 points which are left open and above the slit 3 big silver buttons all tight together. A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.
“I photographed a bride. Her head was covered with a sort of mitre of gold and seed pearls and gauze scarf; dress velvet, silk shirt, jacket fringed with immense silver buttons and big blobs of glass which looked crystal, and on the back there was a quantity of silver. 3 pairs of silver gilt and pearl earrings larger than bracelets. She had 2 holes in her ears. I took 6 photographs.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
Incidentally, we have here a good example above of how Theodore relied on Mabel’s notebooks (her ‘Chronicles’) for his own writings. Here is an extract from his 1887 article on Astypalaia: “In front a sort of bib is worn down to the waist, embroidered and bespangled, and sometimes covered with gold coins. At the end of this is sewn a bit of white calico, which looks as if it was intended to tuck in, but it never is.” (Theodore Bent, 1887, ‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65)
The photographs Mabel mentions have not been traced, but her stomacher/plastron was to feature in the Burlington exhibition of Greek/Turkish embroideries in London in 1914 (item 81, pp.19-20 in the catalogue), where it is described thus: “There is no embroidery round the neck or down the V [of the dress], but the opening is covered by a separate garment. This is an oblong plastron embroidered in silk and wool on linen with a pattern of pairs of leaves. At the top is a border of beads and gold thread, and the whole surface is covered with sequins of coloured tin.”
The plastron is well described on the V&A’s own site, from where the top illustration is taken (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Mabel’s collection is now dispersed, but perhaps the star exhibits are back in Athens – some iconic dresses from Karpathos – in the Benaki Museum. The V&A in London has a representative selection of the embroideries and there are also a few other items in the Harris Museum, Preston, UK.