Magyar Dress /Attire

Origin and History of the Hungarian Dress

Emese Kerkay
Man's Gala Attire, Donated by Dr. M. Lippóczy, Collection of AHM
Gentleman’s National Attire, Donated by Dr. M. Lippóczy, Collection of AHM

The culture and history of a nation can be deduced through its national and folk attire. The Hungarian national costume truly reflects 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 contributions to Europe’s culture was their fashion and style, combined with decorative arts they brought.  (Fig. 1: Kalotaszeg/Transylvania Couple. The girl is wearing a beaded headdress /párta/ and turned up skirt. Fig. 2: Noble lady and gentleman. Their dresses are richly embroidered in gold. 18th century.)
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 20. century in the costumes of the nobility and the peasants.
In the Hermitage at St. Petersburg the figure of a 4th century Hunnish prince can be seen on a silver plate, riding a horse shooting arrows backwards. (Fig. 3: A Hun prince on horseback.) 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 11th or  12th  century Anonymus 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, saddles and the tasseled harnesses were all made of leather. (Fig. 4: Body guard with leopard skin cape. 18th century. Fig. 5: Various kinds of Hungarian fur coats, 19th century.) Buttons, clasps, rosettes, coins and buckle trimmings were found together with leather remnants in graves from the 9th to 11th centuries, the time when the last wave of Hungarians arrived in the Carpathian Basin. In various regions, men are still wearing vests richly decorated with metal buttons. – The Hungarians introduced the button in Europe. – (Fig. 6/a: Man in vest decorated with metal buttons, Nógrád county. Fig. 6/b: Boy’s vest, 19th century. Property of American Hungarian Museum.) 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, Göcsej. (Fig. 7: Woman of Ormánság, dressed in white homespun linen. Fig. 8: Old woman’s white dress from Göcsej.) 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. The Byzantines also liked and adopted the Hungarian “kabát” coat (khabad) and “mente” (mandyae). (Fig. 9: Aristocrat in red velvet “mente” decorated with fur and gold passementerie, early 19th century. Fig. 10: A burgher in a fur decorated “mente”, 19th century.)


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, as can be seen on a stone relief in the Cathedral of Pécs, 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 those 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 IV (1272-1290) wore them also. (Fig. 11/a: King László IV dressed in Cumanian vestment. Miniature from the “Képeskrónika”, 1358. Fig. 11/b: King László, a drawing by Mária Undi.) The typical Cumanian  – and most probably old Hungarian – 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 (doublet, a tight fitting jacket), (Fig. 12: Short sleeved doublet, showing embroidered shirt sleeves, tight trousers, buttoned on the bottom. Early 17th century.), tight trousers resembling stockings, boots, mente (mantle), kaczagány (the skin of a tiger, panther or wolf), fur cap decorated with a rosette and a bird feather. (Fig. 13: Gala dress of a Hungarian general: dolmány, mente, kaczagány, metal belt, early 18th century. Fig. 14: Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790) as a child in a Hungarian Gala Dress.)
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. (Fig. 15: Lady’s attire of 1861, consisting of crinoline skirt, laced bodice, lace pinafore and a wide mantle, all richly decorated with braiding. Fig. 16: Noble lady’s wedding dress, 1687.) 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. (Fig. 17: Esterházy László’s mente, 17th century. Fig. 18: Esterházy Orsolya’s richly embroidered dress, 17th century.)
On pictures of all ages we can distinctly notice, that Hungarians liked tight-fitting garments, which emphasized their slender build and small waist. (Fig. 19: Hungarian royal couple from a Székely mural painting. 13th century. Fig. 20: A lady-in-waiting and her page from a noble family, 16th century. The attire of the upper classes was very colorful. Black was only used in deep mourning.


The Hungarian folk costume shows a great diversity and changes 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.”  (Fig. 21: Young couple, Vajdácska, Zemplén county. Fig. 22: Young couple, groom in braided „mente” with silver buttons, Szolnok, Szolnok county.)
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 were not able to 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 Hungarians dictated the trend in folk attire 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. (Fig. 23: Richly embroidered Szűr, Bihar. Fig. 24: Horse-herd in embroidered Szűr from Hortobágy, Great Plain.) 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. (Fig. 25: The Szűr on a Persian stone relief, Persepolis.) 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 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 (racka sheep). It is lavishly decorated with embroidery and felt-applique, a design and technique with roots in Inner-Asia. (Fig. 26:  The front and back  of a Szűr pattern, Karcag. Fig. 27: Pattern of a szűr, Kisújszállás, Great Plain, early 20th century.)
 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. (Fig. 28: Suba from Decs, Tolna county. Fig. 29: Men from Bogyiszló wearing a Suba.)  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, and 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. (Fig. 30: A laid out Suba, Gyula, Békés county. Top: Shoulder embroidery of the same Suba. Fig. 31: Pattern of a Suba from Kecskemét, Great Plain.)
The KÖDMÖN also has its roots in Asia, where it is still widely worn. (Fig. 32: Back of a man’s Ködmön decorated with applique and embroidery, Pásztó, Heves county. Fig. 33: Back of a woman’s Ködmön with applique and embroidery decoration, Cigánd, Zemplén county.) 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 the Hungarians introduced this garment in Europe. Today it is mainly worn in Transylvania. (Fig. 34: Transylvanian Székely Szokmány. Fig. 35: Pattern of a Szokmány, Szék, Transylvania, 1914.)
Beside the above-mentioned overcoats, the Hungarians also brought into Europe the SHIRT and GATYA (pleated linen trousers). The men’s, and women’s shirts were made of straight cut linen pieces. 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. Today a peasant woman’s attire consists of, a shirt, several petticoats, pleated skirt, embroidered vest, apron and large kerchief, belt, headdress, footwear (boots, shoes, slippers), handkerchief and jewelry. (Fig. 36: Strait cut men’s shirts from Tárkány, Bihar, Kalotaszeg and Szék, Transylvania. Fig. 37: Patterns of wide sleeved shirts, Palóc region, Bihar, Kalotaszeg. Fig. 38: Pattern of the gatya. Fig. 39:  The patterns of a gatya, Csongrád and linen pants from Szatmár. Fig. 40: Bonnets and boots from the Palóc region.)
The Hungarian people of Kalotaszeg, Transylvania, preserved the most beautiful and ancient type folk costume. 1000 years ago it was used not only in Transylvania but also 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. (Fig. 41: Men’s traditional folk costume from Kalotaszeg, Transylvania. Fig. 42: A bride from Kalotaszeg.)


Used literature: 
Undi Mária, Hungarian Fancy Needlework and Weaving (Magyar hímvarró művészet), Budapest
Undi Mária, Hungarian Fancy Needlework and Weaving, Budapest
Czakó Elemér, ed., A magyarság tárgyi néprajza, I.-II. Budapest
Hoffer-Fél, Magyar Népművészet, Budapest, 1994
Photographs by the author and postcards 
American Hungarian Museum, No. 59, 1998