National costumes in the Carpathian Basin

The permanent exhibition catalog of the Lézerpont Image Museum and Workshop


Even in my childhood I was fond of the past. In the countryside where I spent my vacations in the summers, I took up searching for mementos and personal belongings from the preceding twenty to thirty years. Later, I even started repairing these objects, and I found the stories of their usage very absorbing. The curiosity evoked in those days has lasted until now. There has always been a particular area, such as typewriters or minerals, which fascinated me, and I embarked on collecting and learning about these things. Different interests came up one after the other, such as optics, or the particular tangible culture of the 1950s, and at last but not least, various costumes and clothing.

It astonishes me even now how my passion for collecting has not faded away. It happened to me many times that even if the news about the existence of certain pieces was quite promising, I would have to face the disappointing fact that, after traveling a distance of seven to eight hundred kilometers, the whole thing was a farce. In spite of it, I have never believed that these trips were useless. The stories of the people I had the fortune to hear conveyed to me experiences which have been the genuine values of my life.

Ours was the classic fate of a poor, urban family. All my vacations in the 1950s were when my parents took me to Bánhorvát to stay with our relatives for awhile. There I got acquainted with a lifestyle which I never could have experienced in any city. I found myself in an environment where everything was tidy and taken care of. Life was apparently well-organized from dawn to dusk. Tools and work processes were rational, and everyday life went on as arranged by tried-and-true traditions that the preceding centuries had polished to perfection. For me, this was quite determining and an episode for a whole lifetime. I am convinced that I became fully engaged with the recent past of Hungarian culture and developed my curiosity toward folk traditions there and then.

Years passed, and after I had finished my studies I started searching for mementos and ancient pieces, consciously under the influence of the memories I recalled. The very first items I collected were found in the bequests of my family and relatives, and later I crossed great distances to obtain certain desired articles. I drifted nearly unintentionally into the routine of collecting folk costumes. First, I just marveled at them from afar, because national costumes were not worn actively in the specific area where I collected these articles, and most particularly, where my life was going on. The tales told by my relatives and my acquaintances, as well as old photographs, had a substantial impact on me, and they aroused my interest. I embarked on collecting things: only particular pieces in the beginning, but I could make only little progress this way. During the past thirty years, as a first step, I focused on the costumes typical to my immediate geographic environment, but when I accomplished this mission more or less successfully, I switched over to the costumes of the Carpathian Basin as a consequence of an incidental, I may say "overhasty," decision. At that time I was not aware how far I would go with it… Because of this decision, and now I know it for sure, even if I keep collecting until the end of my life my mission will definitely remain incomplete.

Currently, there are more than five thousand articles listed in the inventory of my collection which are costume garments and textiles. This exhibition displays 173 complete sets placed on life-sized mannequins and another 176 garments without any headgear and footwear.

Collecting these costumes during my trips was truly riveting, sometimes giving me touching experiences that will last for a life time. Now I know that I headed the wrong direction when I collected only specific costume pieces, which I did by believing that these pieces would one day be matched with their accessories linked to very specific, complete costumes. Regretfully, it was only a vain hope that a matyó litya from the 1930s would ever be matched with a real-life skirt that had actually been worn, and which would then correspond in size and era. I concluded that not only major folk costumes differ from nation to nation, but also that social ranks within the village communities determine the character of the clothes. Costumes vary in accordance with annual events, religious celebrations, family happenings, festive and everyday occasions, and the individuals’ ages and marital status. As years passed, all these continuously changed (becoming more complicated) and consequently all these factors had external effects on the costumes. The neighboring villages, the newly arriving foreigners, the materials offered by the industry and new techniques had their own influences, just as the cities did with their bourgeois lifestyle and wears. I have observed that people started copying the costumes of the upper classes in whole or in part, and abandoned the "peasant-like", the "needy" style and the materials they had produced earlier by hand. Later, articles from shops and fairs gained popularity; these were adapted into the costumes, and thus shiny, expensive and purchasable goods became fashionable.

Old items can be collected in many ways; no homogeneous schema defines the method of collection. As regards folk costumes, I can state that the methods are very intimate. In general, the traditions of older times and generations have been preserved by people who defend these values even today. It is rare if one comes across something valuable and simply buys it. I can consider myself fortunate because many people judged my idea worthwhile, and they essentially passed me from hand to hand. This was an irreplaceable element in achieving the subsequent results, because I gained as much knowledge of the distinct costumes as possible. Many asked me to present visibly how they were worn, or I was given photographs and told when and how the costumes were worn and by whom. Nothing can compensate for these moments, nor can they be paid for. One is deeply touched by the feeling shown when people part from the precious "treasure" they have carefully looked after, because they can be convinced these are places where the treasures will be justly preserved. I heard the following statement many times, "I’m too old, none of my children or grandchildren would put it on, so it would just go to the dogs. You at least will keep it when we are already gone." This is not only joy, but also responsibility.

Being engaged in collecting assumes and requires one to learn the particular vocabulary which is almost a separate dictionary. Certain words concern the particular pieces from the particular places in respect to either the Hungarian or the minority costumes. It was my pleasure to learn appealing words, such as kecele, rezes főkötő, litya, surc, dulandlé fátyol, and I still can just reel off infinitely the list of names in oblivion.

I can say that even the final hour has passed as well. There is no hope to collect any of the folk costumes worn before the 1960s, so that the existing sets must be preserved with utmost care and affection, and must be displayed as public treasures for this reason. This also applies to the rare pieces of the national minorities and of the Hungarian minority groups living in the surrounding foreign countries.

The vast majority of the genuine costumes formerly worn within the territory of Hungary has vanished over the centuries, yet every piece of the Transylvanian Saxon dresses is outstandingly precious, as are the costumes from Torockó. Less than ten genuine full costumes that date back to the beginning of the 1900s have been preserved by nearly eight hundred people in Torockó and Torockószentgyörgy.

My personal meetings with the original proprietors of these costumes meant the most impressive experiences to me when I collected them. These were unique moments as regards the costumes from the 1920s and ’30s.

The attachment of a woman in Torockószentgyörgy to the costume that had been the wedding dress of her mother is indescribable. Torockó is a village in an area inhabited by Romanians, where Germans skilled in ironwork moved in as many as 150 to 200 years ago. Ironically, they became the most Hungarian of all Hungarians. In addition to their ironworking skills that were famous throughout Europe, these newcomers wore Hungarian costumes that were also widely known across the borders. Here, I met a lady who was 80 years old, drank strong black coffee (in secret), was a chain smoker and tried to make her living by keeping bees.

The following story tells her tale. After the exchange of numerous messages, persuasive mediation and other arrangements, she eventually met me. I showed her the photographs taken of the exhibition preparations, and we also conversed about our project plans. She also showed some photographs, told me stories, and in the meantime she grew tenderhearted about folk costumes. She did not refuse to donate a unique celebration costume to the collection. As it was, the costumes had been kept in a box for a century. When she arranged them in their places on the bed, she suddenly remarked, "Now, at last these will be brought to a place where a good fate will cherish them."

The story is just as long as the time it demanded to get to that point. She hesitated for a long time, but eventually she took out the costume from 1910, which used to be her mother’s, and which no one had any information of. “These garments were packed together in the box for long, they should remain together, true, a few hundred kilometers away…” She told me everything in great detail, how and what they were used for, where they put the hím, where they tied the shawls, how they placed the silk kerchiefs into the sash, and what they wore on their heads and in what way. She described the costume and the memories linked to it in a very devoted way, such that I was thinking how to recant my request without offending her, but she closed the case with a deliberate "yes."

It was very touching to me, when the old lady in tears told me that she had not been given the chance to say farewell to her wedding dress, so she could not give it to me then. She promised that when she could justly let it go, she would dispatch me a message. The following summer brought the dress to Miskolc. She happily gave it away, and I gave my word it would be exhibited… (No. 6). I believe it is not everyone’s privilege to experience such moments. This and further events akin to it gave me strength in grave situations, which emerged in the course of organizing the collection and exhibition.

In Eszék, where only one costume in this collection comes from, I was told that the costume had been smuggled to Hungary during the Yugoslav war, so that no one holding any "other nationality" status could find it. The contrary could have caused the "fatal end" of the costume in a better case, but perhaps that of its proprietor in the worst case. This costume (see No. 244) used to belong to an old lady who had it looked after in Hungary for ten years, because she was far too afraid to bring it back home. Just imagine how many dresses have been preserved under such circumstances.

Kéménd is one of the so-called "yoke-skirted six villages" in South Slovakia. The people of Kéménd were informed about the collection via a chain of supporters. They invited me and told me that they would like to contribute their folk costumes to the Carpathian Basin collection. When I visited them, the costumes were arranged (washed and ironed) in a way as they were supposed to be put on the mannequins. They also added terminology, photographs, and descriptions of what and how the old people wore these costumes, and where the bibliography of the Kéménd costumes can be studied. Accordingly, a tiny team of villagers, lead by a retired school-mistress and the village mayor, came to see if the costumes have been displayed authentically. As they said, “they must not be ashamed in front of the neighbors." They put everything in its place they found necessary, and went back home contentedly. Before that they promised they would return with a whole busload of villagers in the summer, because they want to see how the totally complete costumes of a little girl (No. 138), a bride (No. 126), an adult woman (No. 129), and an adult man (No. 136) have been displayed at such an honorable venue.

During my collection tours in the countryside of Upper Northern Hungary, Transylvania and Hungary, I experienced many times how different these people are in spite of their backbreaking fate. They are rich in emotions and they carry such a vitality and dignified message in their souls that we "modern citizens" can neither comprehend nor know what to do with it, so that we perceive the message rather awkwardly in a confused, and sometimes, in an obtuse way.

It makes one stop and think to realize that these people have been impoverished so much that they are compelled to part from the traditional clothes of their mothers and grandmothers. They simply have to carry them to the local market, because the question posed is to eat or to preserve the costumes. Nevertheless, the way they care about passing on a little piece of their culture, emotions and souls is quite moving.

In knowledge of the people’s stories I still feel delighted when I enter the world of the costumes. The feelings of anxiety and at the same time being uplifted entangle in me. Anyway, I cannot truly comprehend what this indeed is. I see there is wood, iron, textiles, mannequins and spotlights, but the whole thing affects me in a way I cannot explain. I am confident that this sensation must be released into the souls of the people. I think one can feel this (or as such) only in church perhaps.

Dear Visitors,

Please enter and let yourself be filled with the sensation which I have tried to communicate concerning the history of these costumes, and the venturesome and uplifting moments of the process to obtain them. With this catalog I intend to please those who are open and inquisitive toward a priceless segment of our history.
Please read it with affection and allow me to add a short remark at the end: in this mission I was endowed with, I have walked humbly all along the path, and what I created has been intended for "noble" purposes. The "mark" I may leave may falter at some points. Nonetheless, I am completely happy now that the exhibition has come alive.

György Barna