Black for wedding, white for mourning – colours of Hungarian folk costumes

Hungarian folk costumes are traditional clothes that ‘wear’ the characteristics and customs of different regions. The main territories are: Transdanubia, Upper Hungary (or Upland), the Great Plain and Transylvania. There are lots of regions within these territories, having their own folk costumes. The world of colours and motifs of these clothes are fairly varied. Durability was an important aspect when they were made, thus several generations were able to wear them – which is unfortunately unimaginable nowadays in the world of ‘fast fashion’.

Janó Ákos: Suba, Kiskunhalas (1955) - Thorma János Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s rich decorations were not typical until the 19th century. For lack of pigments, it was not usual to apply colours. Although there were natural pigments – red, yellow, green, blue and brown –, wearing colourful clothes was not widespread during weekdays. People spared their fancy clothes for feasts. Home-made clothes usually remained in their original ecru white, grey or brownish colours. The ecru colour, which is called rustic nowadays, symbolised poverty, thus people did not prefer it – unlike today’s fashion mainly in home decor fabrics.

Later, due to industrialization and factory production, colourful clothes and vivid colours started spreading, and the colour palette of filet silks was also enlarged. The development of the presently well-known decorated folk costumes started that time. The ecru was also ‘cleaned’ owing to the use of washing-blue. The washing-blue actually functioned as a bleaching agent (lacking Vanish or Clorox), which served for removing the yellowish shade from the textile. Most of us might find this expression familiar from Attila József’s poem (Mother).

Mohácsi sokác népviselet az 1940-es évekből - Csorba Győző Könyvtár, PDM

The most typical decoration on fabrics was the red pattern. Besides that, yellow and blue were also often used, but green was very rare. Purple and pink spread later as well. Black also came into general use in villages as a festive colour, as a result of bourgeois influence, so much that it also appeared in the wedding dress fashion for a period – but usually, the amply decorated, colourful dresses were more general to ornate brides. (The festive costumes were so popular that sometimes a woman’s wardrobe contained only five casual skirts but thirty gala dresses.) A black bride may seem odd for us; as well as the fact that mourning people used to wear ecru for a long period of time – and people in half-mourning wore green or blue clothes. Women could wear half-mourning costumes after the usual mourning time or when their husbands or sons were enrolled into military service. But it could also mean discordance or wrath within the family.

Colours and ornaments indicated the age and the marital status (in case of women); even a person’s social status could be defined from them, because they functioned as status symbols. Besides the colour symbols, floral and vegetal symbols had important roles, too. These ‘codes’ carried a lot of information and were known by every inhabitant of a village. The youngest and/or the wealthiest ones wore the most ornamented costumes – and the red colour mainly; as the red was the colour of youth, life and love (painted eggs – which are fertility symbols originally – are usually red as well).

Matyó népviselet, Mezőkövesd (1910) - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Sometimes the decoration turned into flamboyance – the extra laces, ribbons, pearls, spangles, the so-called ‘glitterings’ made dresses much more expensive. For example, during the 1920s, using ‘glitterings’ in the Matyó clothing became fashionable and not only among the wealthier but also in the poorer social strata. These poor youngsters (most of them were lads!) often starved due to their ornamented clothes. A sanction called ‘glitterings-burning’ was taken in the February of 1925, when the intellectuals and clericals of the city Mezőkövesd built a bonfire of ‘glitterings’ on the main square and burnt them in public. Thus, they wanted to protect the traditional Matyó folk art from the incongruous decorations. Later, the community also convicted and limited the use of ‘glitterings’.

Ornaments changed in inverse proportion to a person’s age. Women who reached the age of thirty left ribbons and the red colour gradually and started wearing modest green, blue and claret colours. Men and older women, who wore less decorated and solid clothes typically, preferred the blue. Painting clothes with blue colour is related to a profession of great traditions: it is called blue-dyeing. This ancient textile printing process appeared in Hungary in the 15th century. The patterns of this technique are applied on the fabric by an inhibitor and then the whole fabric is dyed with indigo. The paint does not dye the patterns due to the inhibitor, thus they remain visible. The large-scale textile industry ousted small workshops from the market, but they survive as a branch of folk art nowadays.

You can rarely see traditional folk costumes in full flash nowadays. Elderly people still wear them in villages on festivities. Young people also appear in local folk costumes on folk dance shows in order to safeguard their traditions. Nevertheless, certain motifs live on thanks to the design trends and the mainstream fashion, but already without the complex symbology, according to aesthetic aspects.

Regional distribution of folk costumes that can be found in the gallery

TEJ

Translated by Zita Aknai

Source: Szín+Kommunikáció