France may be known for its berets, and Spain for its mantillas, but few national costumes are linked to as strong a sense of national pride as Georgia’s chokhas.
Dating from the Middle Ages, the chokha is a calf-length, wool coat for men inherent to the Caucasus, distinguishable by the bandoliers sewn across the breast and its tapered waist cut. Accessories typically include a hood, tall leather boots and a belt holding a long, embossed dagger, called a khanjali.
But this is no party costume. Nearly every Georgian household has photos of ancestors adorned in chokhas. Once a symbol of resistance to Bolshevik Russia’s 1921 takeover of an independent Georgia, the chokha has now come to represent a Georgia reborn, a country that revels in its cultural individuality.
Increasingly worn by Georgian men at weddings and official functions, the eye-catching coat is finally experiencing a comeback.
“When you love your chokha, you love your country. When you love your country, you love your traditions,” elaborated 60-year-old Rezo Sulava, a leader of the All-Georgia Chokha Society.
The chokha revival is taking place in parallel with a resurgence of interest in other mainstays of Georgian culture – the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgian folk dancing, and choral singing.
Holding onto the country’s chokha tradition, though, has not always been easy. By the early 20th century, European fashions had replaced the chokha; in Soviet times, the coat was largely a stage costume, mostly worn in public by Georgian folk dance ensembles.
“The chokha has been in a terrible coma and we’re trying to resurrect it,” said Luarsab Togonidze, a folklorist and co-owner of Samoseli Pirveli ( “First Clothes”), a slick Tbilisi boutique that specializes in the recreation of traditional Georgian clothing.
By studying museum collections, old photographs and private wardrobes throughout the country, Togonidze and his business partner, Levan Vasadze, created a chokha atelier (prices start at 200 lari, about $113 ) for a growing niche market.
That market – among it, the glitterati of Georgian artistic and theater circles – turned out in number at a February 6 fashion show Samoseli Pirveli staged in a champagne factory outside of Tbilisi.
Sashaying and swaying through the crowd, dancers from Georgia’s Sukhishvili and Rustavi folk dance ensembles showed off embroidered, Sleeping-Beauty-style wedding gowns for women, fitted, cropped jackets with cummerbunds for men, and, of course, chokhas.
But, unlike many Georgian traditionalists, Togonidze caters to customers looking for more contemporary takes on these long-established looks. His designers also create made-to-order dresses inspired by chokhas – a fashion statement embraced by many of the women attending the Samoseli Pirveli fashion show.
Some Georgians, however, feel that altering the design of the chokha is tantamount to sacrilege.
“Women shouldn’t wear chokhas,” asserted All- Georgia Chokha Society leader Sulava. The society’s 1,000 male members, or “chokhosanebi” (literally, “chokha people”), are headed by the powerful Patriarch Ilia II and act as the patriarch’s honorary guards, attending all religious celebrations and national festivals in uniform.
Set up in 1952 as an attempt to protect Georgian traditions from Soviet encroachment, the league today tries to preserve Georgian traditions from globalization.
“The chokha emphasizes I am a Georgian. It is a spiritual costume,” Sulava elaborated.
Sukhishvili dancer Tea Darchia, though, rebuffs that disapproval. “Pants were made for men and women wear them. Why can’t we wear the chokha?” Darchia posited.
Others, though, like event organizer Sandro Kakulia, believe that wearing the chockha has become trendy for the wrong reasons. “It’s fashionable now, not because people love the symbol, but they are following a trend. It’s elitist,” Kakulia said.
But unlike most fashion trends, wearing a chokha demands a certain responsibility. Even boutique owner Togonidze, who is not a Society member, says “there’s something magic” to wearing a chokha. “It has an effect on your behavior. People treat you differently.”
Chokhosanebi follow a code that regulates everything from the color of the chokha they wear (burgundy, white, black and gray are the standard colors), to how it is worn (with high-collared shirts always buttoned to the top), to how men must sit with their khinjalis (not dangling between their legs and not pointing up at a neighbor).
Some, however, argue that such reverence reflects an unhealthy understanding of Georgia’s traditions, by promoting living in the past rather than looking to the future.
The Indie-rock group Dervishebi (Dervishes) performs a parody of the classic Georgian song “Suliko” in electric-colored chokhas and Converse high-tops -- much to the ire of Georgian traditionalists and conservative members of the Orthodox Church.
“Everyone has their own relationship with the chokha,” said Dervishebi singer Guga Gegetchkori. “It’s only a national dress, that’s all. It’s not holy. It’s like a t-shirt.”
Boutique co-owner Togonidze concedes that “chokha radicals” can get carried away.
The chokha may be a strong representation of Georgian national pride, he commented, but fans should keep their passion in perspective. “It’s the 21st century,” he said. “You don’t have to overdo it.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.