Known locally as ‘għonnella’, ‘faldetta’, ‘ċulqana’, or even ‘stamijna’, this traditional characteristic symbol of Maltese heritage was a kind of female headgear which resembled a cape or shawl, and which used to be worn by women of the islands of Malta.
The ‘għonnella’, which many folklore writers consider to be a traditional Maltese costume, can be described as a large hood made of rich silk or cotton stiffened at the top by means of cardboard, cane or whalebone. Part of the ‘għonnella’ rested over the head like a cloak or hood, while the rest was held by hands at the sides. The għonnella covered the head, and framed but did not cover the face. The ‘għonnella’ normally used by women for daily functions were mostly black or dark in colour. Brides wore a white ‘għonnella’, while it is maintained that peasants also used to wear green or blue ones, especially during the later years of its use.
The origins of the ‘għonnella’ are unclear. Some say that it appeared in the brief historical period during French rule, when women started to wear it as protection and a sign of modesty against the excessive gallantry of the French troups. Many maintain that the ‘għonnella’ is much older in origin. Scholars believe that the ‘għonnella’ developed from a large skirt which was thrown up over the head. It was common practice in Mediterranean countries at the time for women to put the back part of their long upper skirt over their heads as a sign of modesty. Many historians claim that Maltese women were influenced by Sicilian and Italian customs with the coming of the Order of the Knights of Saint John, and that the ‘għonnella’ evolved from typical Sicilian dress, assimilated after mourning Sicilian rituals introduced this style in Malta. An alternate legend says that this headwear developed in relation to the strict Catholic requirements for women to be modestly veiled when entering church, while others speculate that it could be a twisted version of the Spanish ‘mantilla’.
For centuries, the ‘għonnella’ was an important part of Maltese female dress. Some women had one or two ‘għonnelli’, while others were luckier and had more. Up to the First World War, the ‘għonnella’ was in general use, but between the First and Second World Wars, it began to fall out of favour, until by the 1970s, it was rarely seen at all, except among the older generation and the female members of the MUSEUM, a lay religious organisation. According to a local newspapers, everyday wear of the ‘għonnella’ totally disappeared from Maltese streets with the passing away of a local woman living in Rabat, Gozo, who died in 1991.
The ‘għonnella’ had its share of practical disadvantages. Although it did not cover the face, it limited the wearer’s vision, obstructing their movements and making it difficult for them to move quickly, especially in strong winds, when the poor women had to struggle to walk and hold tight to their ‘għonnella’ in order for it not to be blown away.
Today, the ‘għonnella’ is still popular among tourists. In souvenir shops, one often finds dolls wearing the ‘għonnella’, as a symbol of Maltese culture and tradition. The ‘għonnella’ is also featured in a number of historical paintings, as well as being worn during Maltese Feasts and other events by dancers, re-enactors and other entertainers to represent our Maltese heritage.