The Maltese Faldetta – Ghonella
The għonnella (pl. għonnielen), sometimes referred to as a Faldetta, was a form of women’s head dress and shawl, or hooded cloak, unique to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. It was generally made of cotton or silk, and usually black or some other dark colour, although from the sixteenth century onwards, noble women and women from wealthier households frequently wore white or brightly coloured għonnielen. The għonnella covered the head, and framed but did not cover the face. The upper part of the għonnella was starched quite stiffly, and given a broad, rounded frame, formed by means of a board, cane, or whalebone. This gave the għonnella a mysterious but alluring, sail-like appearance. From a practical perspective, this broad bonnet captured much needed cooling breezes during the hot and humid Maltese summer. On cooler days, the wearer could wrap the għonnella around her face more tightly, by making a slight adjustment. The lower part of the għonnella could be worn loosely draped around the wearer’s bodice and hips, or more tightly wrapped in the case of inclement weather. It would typically fall to mid-calf length. While walking, the wearer would hold one or both sides of the għonnella clasped in her right hand.
In some Maltese villages (most notably, Żabbar and Żejtun), women wore a variant of the għonnella known as a ċulqana, which was typically blue, decorated with white polka dots or a white floral embroidery. In Għargħur, the għonnella was known as stamina. The colour of the għonnella was always very dark, mainly black. But there was another type of għonnella called ċulqana , bluish in colour with white polka dots, worn by the peasant women of Żabbar It was dotted with small white floweret’s for Żejtun womenfolk. This was not made with the same care and finesse as the għonnella. In fact it was an outer garment worn on the head and covering three quarters of the back and sides of the body. It is said that the ċuqlana preceded the għonnella. In the 18th century the għonnella worn by rich or noble ladies was white and sometimes coloured.
The origins of the għonnella are unknown. It has been described as a “western garment, worn in an eastern fashion.” Maltese historians Ciantar and Abela were of the view that the għonnella had evolved from traditional Sicilian dress:
“One cannot deny that the frequent interchange made between the Maltese and Sicilians did not influence local customs. Sicilian influence may be discovered both in the eating habits of the Maltese as well as in the costumes worn in Malta. The garb worn by the Maltese women is a case in point. The women of Malta wear a long black mantel that flows down from the head to the heels. Unlike in Sicily, the net (strascino) is not worn. Our women of the lower classes wear a mantel made of black wool. Noble women, the wives of the Professors of Law and Medicine and rich citizens wear mantels made of silk….”
According to local legend, the għonnella was first introduced to Malta in 1224 C.E. as a sign of mourning by the women of Celano in the Abruzzi region of Italy, who were said to have been expelled – first to Sicily, and then to Malta – by Enrico de Morra, acting on the orders of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, following the massacre of their husbands. There is some historical evidence of this event recorded in the chronicles of Riccardo di San Germano:
“Henricus de Morra iussu imperiali Celanenses reuocat ubique dispersos, ut ad propria redeant, et redeuntes capit et in Siciliam mittit, quos apud Maltam dirigit Imperator.”
An alternate legend, which plays on the similarity between the Faldetta and a traditional nun’s habit, suggests that the women of Malta adopted this costume in 1798, to ward off the unwanted advances of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops. However, this theory was dismissed as a fairy tale in a National Geographic essay about Malta (1935). According to yet another legend, the għonnella developed due to the strict Canonical requirement (pre-Vatican Council II) that women veil their head before entering a Catholic church. It is said that poorer country girls, who could not afford a cloak or shawl, met the veiling requirement by placing a spare skirt over their head, which gradually evolved into the għonnella. Others speculate that it is a vernacular modification of the eastern veil, in which case it likely dates back to the period of Arab rule over Malta (869-1127 C.E.). It could also be a local variation of the Spanish mantilla, in which case it could date back to the period of direct Spanish rule over Malta (1283-1530 C.E.).
There are references to the għonnella in the early records of the Knights of St. John (Order of Malta), and in eighteenth century travel books. Louis De Boiseglin, historian of the Knights of Malta wrote as follows: “The Maltese women are little, and have beautiful hands and feet. They have fine black eyes, though they sometimes appear to squint, owing to their always looking out of the same eye; half of the face being covered with a sort of veil made of silk called Faldetta, which they twist about very gracefully, and arrange with much elegance. The women even of the highest rank, unlike their husbands, constantly preserve their costume; and any one who should adopt the French fashion would make herself very ridiculous. They are extremely fond of gold and silver ornaments, and it is not uncommon to see even the peasants loaded with trinkets of those metals.” Victorian illustrator and traveller, William Henry Bartlett, was clearly intrigued by the Faldetta, describing it as follows in 1851: “Next, tripping lightly down the steps behind, is a Maltese lady, enveloped in her elegant black silk mantilla, a costume of which it may be said that it renders even the ugly attractive, while the pretty become positively irresistible: so grave, and yet so piquant, so nun-like, and yet so coquettish, are its rustling folds, tastefully drawn round the head, so as to throw additional expression into a deep dark eye, and to relieve a white-gloved hand, and taper Andalusian foot.”
The Disappearance of the Għonnella
For centuries, the għonnella was ubiquitous throughout Malta, worn by virtually all adult Maltese women. It was so popular that there were many seamstresses whose sole job was to design, cut and sew għonnielen (plural of għonnella). However, it rapidly fell into disuse in the 1940s and 1950s, following World War II. By the 1970s, it was rarely seen at all, except among the older members of the Maltese lay missionary movement, the Societas Doctrinæ Christianæ (M.U.S.E.U.M.). By the end of the 20th century, it had disappeared altogether. The Maltese “Faldetta”, now seen only in vintage postcards. Most Maltese women up to the 1930s and even during the Second World War days used to wear the għonnella. That headgear used to distinguish her from all other women of the world. The għonnella covered the head and wrapped round the body from the waist upward; it did not cover the face, but with a little move hid it from curious eyes. The għonnella endowed Maltese women with a proud and pretty appearance. It became her, showed her sprightly and honoured her in people’s eyes. The cover of għonnella was like a charm which bewitched and enticed men to yearn for a more revealing look at the eager face hidden behind it while the big and alluring eyes shot through the little hoop in the għonnella like the arrow of the Son of Venus.