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Origin and History of the Hungarian Dress
By Emese Kerkay
The culture and history of a nation can be deduced through its national and folk costumes. The Hungarian national costume truly reflect the nation's history of thousands of years.
The Turanian people Hungarians included of Eurasia were not only skilled warriors, but were well organized, had a legal system and advanced artistic culture. Not only did they influence the development of Asian culture but the European as well. One of the most important and valuable contribution to Europe's culture was their fashion and style combined with decorative arts they brought.
The Hun princes, who played a great role in history, are recognized from metal reliefs. On these we can observe, that their clothing show an astonishing resemblance to the ancient Hungarian attire, which was partly preserved up to the 20th century in the costumes of the nobility and the peasants.
In the Hermitage at St. Petersburg the figure of a 4th century Hun prince can be seen on a silver plate, riding a horse shooting arrows backwards. His attire looks exactly like the one Hungarian noblemen wore later on -fashion, cut and small details included. His knee long doublet (dolmány), fastened with a belt, is the same as are the tight fitting trousers and high boots. The clasp on his hat, the brooch, the belt, the edge of his boots and the harness show how those small metal pieces found in great abundance in 1100 year old Hungarian graves were used. Even his mustache looks like the one Hungarian men still favor.
In the 12th century Anonymous mentions in his chronicle that in the "old country" there was such an abundance of martens, that not only noblemen, but even shepherds, cow and swineherds decorated their clothing with fur. The ancient Hungarians dressed mainly in leather. Their trousers, boots, coats, fur hats, caps, belts, sabre-taches and the tasseled harnesses were all made of leather. Buttons, clasps, rosettes, coins and buckle trimmings were found together with leather remnants in graves dating from the time of the conquest. In various regions men are still wearing vests richly decorated with metal buttons. (The button was introduced in Europe by the Hungarians) It has to be mentioned that the Hungarians still like to wear leather and fur. The kaczagány (wild animal skin thrown loosely over the shoulder), the ködmön, bekecs and suba (made of sheepskin) were used for the past eleven centuries.
Our ancestors knew the art of tanning and bootmaking, had skilled furriers and saddlers. They knew how to make felt or szűr-cloth, which they used for their tents, blankets, carpets and clothing. They wove linen for their underwear and lighter clothing like shirts, trousers (gatya). The women wore two ankle long chemises fastened with a belt. The top one being decorated with embroidery. The women in Hungary are called fehérnép (white people) because they dressed in white linens. Even today there are regions where the folk costumes are completely white: Ormánság, Csököly, Barcaság, Torockó. In some regions they dress in white for weddings, in others for funerals. They carried bathtubs even to camp to keep themselves and all their white clothing clean. This was mentioned by Byzantine and German chroniclers as a peculiarity.
When Christianity was introduced in Hungary, ancient religion and customs were forbidden and persecuted. Therefore, for some time the beautiful and rich clothing brought from the East, was abandoned by the nobility, but never by the peasants. After a while the upper classes returned to wearing the traditional attire which was still very close to their heart and soul. In the 11th century Hungarian gentlemen wore shirts embroidered with beads, a coat thrown over the shoulder (mente) with clasps, peaked caps, embroidered leather or fur jackets (ködmön), and high boots. During the last thousand years, several decrees were issued, which prohibited the wearing of these extraordinarily expensive clothes, dear to all the people.
In the 13th century, after the Mongol invasion, Cumanians settled in Hungary. Their vestments had a great influence on Hungarians, mainly, because King László also wore them. The typical Cumanian garment reached to the ground, was tightly fitted around the waist, and gathered at the hips. Some folk costumes still resemble this outfit. Women started to wear the heavily pleated skirts in this period.
During the Anjou-era in the 14th century distinguished foreigners were attracted to the Hungarian court. They took such a fancy to the Hungarian attire, that they not only wore it, but made it also fashionable abroad. In the past thousand years the typical Hungarian men's attire consisted of the dolmány (a tight fitting jacket), tight trousers resembling stockings, boots, mente, kaczagány (the skin of a tiger, panther or wolf), fur cap decorated with a rosette and a bird feather.
In the past millennium the lasting pieces of women's clothing were: under and over-shirt with pleated sleeves (embroidered or decorated with beads), a tight-fitting, heavily decorated vest, long pleated skirt with lace or velvet borders, an apron also decorated with lace or embroidery. The women also wore the mente, fur coats and hats, richly decorated headdresses. Girls didn't cover their hair but wore a párta, a beautiful crown-like headdress. It is interesting, that these garments were worn by the upper and lower classes alike. The difference was only noticeable in the quality of the fabric and execution.
Much attention was paid to the harmony of color and decoration. This is the reason why folk costumes and the clothing of the upper classes alike are so picturesque and tasteful. On pictures of all ages we can distinctly notice, that Hungarians liked tight-fitting garments, which emphasized their slender build and small waist. The attire of the upper classes was very colorful. Black was only used in deep mourning.
The Hungarian folk costume shows great diversity and change from region to region, even village to village. However, many pieces of the ancient attire are still used in every part of historical Hungary. This common trait can be attributed to the basic character of the Hungarian race. Undi Mária writes: Their seriousness and dignified bearing demands a close- fitting, unobtrusive form. The peasant dress has therefore to be worn the same way by everyone according to rules. It has to be put on tightly and straight. If the attire slips or is loose or baggy, it is regarded as a great indecency. Individual ideas, picturesque looseness, or ingenious caprice, which make the dresses of the Latin people so charming, are entirely unknown and unacceptable among the costumes of the Hungarian people. Therefore the peasant dresses are neat, even stiff, like a uniform. A peasant dressed in his best clothes thinks himself to be a beautiful statue, and takes great care to be dressed tidy and correctly. If painted or photographed, he would not bend or move; he likes to see himself statuesque and stiff. Consequently, our peasant attire is constructively designed and is architecturally beautiful. It is picturesque because of brightness, harmony of color and decoration. This architectural design suits exactly the soldierly appearance of the folk, and entirely expresses their psychological and physical world. Their self- consciousness and pride is emphasized by their love of pomp. The people spend more on their clothes than they can afford.
This peculiar trait of the Hungarians is a tradition brought from the East and nothing could change this in the past thousand years. Oppression, poverty, fashion, political trends, alien surroundings could not alter this ancient characteristic of the people.
The Hungarian folk costumes of the different regions changed over the centuries. However, there were some garments which were worn throughout the Carpathian-basin. It seems, that the trend in folk attire was dictated by Hungarians to the other ethnic inhabitants in this geographical area. Instead of describing the different regional folk costumes, some of the favorite pieces, worn by everybody, will here be presented.
The szűr is an ancient type coat with origins in Asia. It can be seen on a Persian relief of nearly 2000 years. Its owner wears the szűr thrown over the shoulder the same way Hungarian men do. King St. Stephen (997-1038) already mentions in his laws the wool-weavers who made the felt for the szűr. It is the most important piece of clothing of the Hungarian peasant and shepherd.
The szűr served him as coat, protection against the sun, wind and cold, at night it was his pillow and cover. It was also his Sunday-best worn to church and weddings. The design of the szűr is simple, consisting of 12 straight cut felt pieces. The natural colored felt is woven of sheep's wool. It is lavishly decorated with embroidery and felt applique, a design and technique with roots in Inner-Asia.
The suba is as old as the szűr and also of Asian origin, as can be seen on old Ephtalite medals in the British Museum. They look the same as those worn today by men and women in Hungary. No matter how expensive a suba is, a young man must get one when he marries. He will wear it proudly for the rest of his life. The suba protects his owner against cold, frost, snow, the heat of the sun. Shepherds use it as a shelter or blanket. The suba has a complicated cut and is made exclusively by Hungarian furriers. When laid out it is round in shape, and requires up to 12 sheepskins. The ornamentation of the suba consists of exquisitely embroidered stylized flower groups which are in harmony with the shape and flow of this extraordinary garment.
The ködmön also has its roots in Asia, where it is still widely worn. It is a coat made
of the skin of the Hungarian racka-sheep. The ködmön richly decorated with embroidery and leather applique was and is favored by men and women alike in every part of Hungary. King Kálmán (1100-1116) prohibited by law that priest wear the extremely fancy ködmön, yet King Mátyás (1458-1490) ordered 8000 pieces for his army. During and after the Turkish occupation, soldiers used them as a mente, thrown over their shoulders.
The szokmány is an ancient, tightly fitting short coat of the peasant attire. It is made of rough, home-woven frieze or szűr-felt, dyed brown, gray or black. Most probably this garment was introduced in Europe by the Hungarians. Today it is mainly worn in Transylvania.
Beside the above mentioned overcoats, the Hungarians also brought to Europe the SHIRT and GATYA (pleated linen trousers). The man's shirt was made of straight cut linen pieces like the one from Kalotaszeg. The gatya is heavily pleated at the waist and favored by the Hungarian peasant everywhere, especially in summer.
At the time of the conquest the women wore long under and upper shirts fastened with a belt. The pleated skirt was added in the 13th century.
A peasant woman's attire consisted of, a shirt, several petticoats, pleated skirt, embroidered vest, apron and large kerchief, belt, headdress, footwear (boots, shoes, slippers), handkerchief and jewelry.
The most beautiful and ancient type folk costume was preserved by the Hungarian people of Kalotaszeg, Transylvania (click for picture). One thousand years ago it was used not only in Transylvania but probably everywhere in Hungary. It is the attire of an ancient horsemen culture. Even the skirts (muszuly) of the women were designed for riding. The costume is unique in cut, construction, line and color composition, and cannot be compared to any other European clothing. Over the centuries all influence for change was rejected. We can be thankful to the people of Kalotaszeg who preserved a piece of the Hungarian past of long ago.
Used literature: Undi Mária, Hungarian Fancy Needlework and Weaving, Budapest