While Hungary was a satellite state of the Soviet Union for four decades, this central European country again became a democratic unitary parliamentary republic in 1989, and in 2004 it joined the European Union. Hungary is now an OECD high-income economy that offers its 10 million people a high standard of living.
Looking at traditional clothing by region, we'll examine the dress of the Great Plain, Transdanubia, and Upper Hungary, as well as Transylvania in Romania. While Transylvania has gone back and forth between Hungary and Romania, in 1947 it ended up in the hands of Romania, where it remains. Transylvania has a significant ethnic Hungarian population and is known as a stronghold of rare, old Transylvanian Hungarian folk traditions, including folk costumes.
The historians at NationalClothing.org have done amazing work recording Hungarian and many other ethnic clothing traditions with great detail, and we draw heavily from their work here.
Hungarian Folk Tradition
Hungary is well known for its cultural history and folk traditions. The diverse traditional dress of Hungary has many Renaissance and Baroque features, making it more detailed than other Eastern European traditional dress, according to NationalClothing.org.
That said, for much of history, it had relatively simple clothing with few decorations. But as the country became wealthier in the 20th century, the women making this clothing added colorful thread and more embroidery. Hungarian folk dress is rarely worn today, albeit in a simpler form for Hungarian national holidays.
The Ottoman Turks controlled central Hungary, including Budapest, for 150 years until 1699, and their influence on the culture can be felt even today.
The Great Plain
The Great Plain, known for paprika cultivation, extends from southern to northeastern Hungary. The most intricate and renowned Great Plain folk dress traditions live on among the Matyo people, who live in northeastern Hungary between the Bukk Hills and Tisza River, and the Kalocsa, who live in south-central Hungary, in Bács-Kiskun County, just east of the Danube. Both regions produce lavish, multicolored embroidery that requires great skill; the textiles that bear this embroidery are regarded as emblematic of great Hungarian folk art.
In this former cattle-breeding region known as the Great Plain, the traditional male costume is naturally shepherd’s clothing consisting of a shirt, trousers called gatya, a vest, outerwear such as a cloak, fur coat, or waistcoat, a brimmed hat, and boots, according to NationalClothing.org.
Embroidery often embellished white linen shirts and gatyas. The festive shirts of Hungarian men, especially after the 1930s, were richly decorated with colorful embroidery.
Hungarian men also wore various hats, from a high-topped, narrow-brimmed hat, to a wide-brimmed shepherd’s hat or a fur cap that were often decorated with feathers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, both hats and outerwear were rubbed with tallow or lard to make them waterproof, which also made them very heavy. The shoes of Hungarian men were leather high-heeled boots, sometimes with the spurs.
Women’s traditional costume of the Great Plain region had a lot of baroque features, from very wide pleated skirts with many petticoats to embroidered shirts, aprons, outerwear, shoes or boots, and headdresses.
The wide, bright skirt was commonly red, blue, or green. By the middle of the 20th century, women wore fewer petticoats. The skirt was always covered with an apron, adorned with a floral pattern, and often edged with white lace.
The women’s shirts were richly decorated, first with black or dark-blue embroidery, and after the 1930s, with red, lilac, green, blue, and yellow patterns. Hungarian traditional female shirts and blouses extended only to the waist, as with many other Slavic costumes. In some areas, the shirt had a collar with one frill (for little girls) or two frills (for older women).
Hungarian women from the Great Plain region usually wore black or dark vests and waistcoats as outerwear. In summer, they also used broad cloaks or mantles adorned with appliqués. In winter, females preferred short sheepskin cloaks called kis bunda, long cloaks, and suba or szűr similar to men’s cloaks. Their outerwear was decorated with embroidery, appliqués, ribbons, or other decorations. As for shoes, women wore shoes in summer and boots in winter.
Great Plain Ladies' Headgear
Unmarried girls in the Great Plain, and elsewhere in Hungary, braided their hair and wore ribbons pinned to the hairdo. They also used headdresses similar to wreaths with ribbons. Married women wore embroidered bonnets or kerchiefs. In general, there was plenty of interesting and unusual female headgear, says NationalClothing.org.
Great Plains Boots
In Eastern Europe, the most common traditional footwear has historically been the bocskor, a kind of closed leather sandal, notes NationalClothing.org. A round-, wrinkle-toed version was worn on the Great Plain. There were loops (telek) or openings on the edge of the telkes bocskor, which was fastened to the shin with thongs.
The First Boots
The word csizma (boot) first appears in the late 15th century, but it is undoubtedly Ottoman Turkish in origin and perhaps came to Hungary through south Slavs. The early boot is high-topped footwear sewn together on two sides with a pointed toe. The sole is sewn, then turned. Its heel is carved out of wood, the leather turned down over it, and a heel iron fastened to it. At first, only the upper class wore it, and the peasantry began to use only in the 18th century. But it wasn't until the 19th century that it came into general use.
The boot is generally a festive form of footwear. The men’s are usually black, and they were ornamented occasionally. The young men liked to put spurs on them, so they could beat out the rhythm while dancing. Beginning in the 20th century, the upper part was sewn together at the back.
Colorful Women's Boots
Women wore different kinds of colored boots, but mainly red and yellow. They embellished the top with embroidery, studded the heel with nails, and put a copper heel iron on it. Various other shoes have begun to replace boots during the last few decades.
Men doing work that requires standing in the cold wore the botos, made by hatmakers out of felt and broadcloth. Later botos were a leather-soled boot, only the top part of which was made of broadcloth or felt. Bakancs (ankle boots) appeared at the beginning of the 16th century and was used for work.
Ottoman-style 'Papucs' (Slippers)
Light footwear, or papucs (slippers), were worn more often by women than by men. Wearing slippers was originally confined to the southern Great Plain, where the best slipper makers worked (Szeged). Ottoman Turkish in origin, these appeared in the 16th century, when the Ottomans ruled this region. It consists of an upper part covering the foot and the sole. The slippers of younger women and girls have higher heels and the upper part is richly embroidered; they wear colorfully knitted stockings with the slippers on holidays. Older women and men wear lower-heeled or heelless slippers. Men fasten them to their feet with thongs.
In Transdanubia, which covered the third of the country east of the Danube, the traditional dress was influenced by neighboring Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia, according to NationalClothing.org. The influence was mutual, and some features of the Hungarian folk dress can be found in these countries' national attire.
In Transdanubia, the traditional clothing was brighter and had more embroidery. You could see some embroidery even on male underwear as well as the fringed bottom. Men’s folk costume consisted of an embroidered shirt, wide trousers, a bodice or vest, a hat, and boots.
The older shirts were very short and didn’t even cover the waist. In the mid-20th century, men began to wear longer shirts. The trousers, or gatya, were linen; they were the usual width for everyday wear, but special occasion drawers were five to six times wider. Trousers were decorated with embroidery and fringe on the bottom.
Outerwear resembled a bodice worn over a shirt, a sheepskin vest, or a szűr (the frieze mantle used by poor men).
In some areas of Transdanubia, floral embroidery was popular among both men and women. Men wore richly embellished outfits, and their shirts could be very festive and colorful, with a lot of embroidery and ribbons. Men also wore aprons embroidered with floral patterns.
Brimmed hats and small fur caps were the male headgear. But on special occasions, they pinned large bouquets of flowers to the caps. On their feet, they wore shoes or boots.
Women's folk costumes varied greatly from district to district and village to village. The most interesting and diverse piece was the headdress, which could be quite tall and elaborately decorated. Hungarian women have a variety of headgear that shows marital status: unmarried girls, young wives (up to 35 or wives who don’t have kids yet), and married females (older women).
The traditional women’s outfit consists of a linen embroidered shirt, a puffy linen skirt, an apron, a bodice, a waistcoat or other piece of the outerwear, shoes, and a headdress.
The shirt was short, usually just past the waist. But in some villages, women used very short blouses which didn’t reach the waist. The skirt was wide and often made of linen, but festive skirts could be made of velvet or blue satin. A skirt, always worn with many petticoats, could be plain or richly patterned. An apron, often in festive silk or linen with embroidery, patterns, and lacing, usually covered a skirt or a dress.
The women also frequently wore bodices of linen, cotton, silk, or other fabrics. Sometimes it was one piece with a skirt and worn over a shirt and an underskirt. On their feet, women wore red leather boots.
Transdanubian women loved their headdresses above all. There were plenty of them in various shapes, colors, and materials. Young girls often wore one or two braids with long, trailing ribbons in them. Another variant of headgear: a ribbon tied over the forehead. In some areas, Hungarian unmarried females used a headdress called a pille, which was a kind of small beaded cap on a rigid base.
Married women used kerchiefs, coifs, and other headdresses. For example, the pacsa was made from starched and embellished white linen. Women rolled their hair on a piece of wood or cardboard and wore the pacsa on top. Usually, the hair of a married woman was covered or at least knotted.
But young wives without children yet had the privilege of avoiding coifs and kerchiefs. They might use bright, gilded ribbons to tie over the forehead, while the hair was knotted into a bun. Married women up to 35 wore a red headdress with wide red ribbons; women from 35 to 40 years old added blue ribbons to the red ones; females up to 50 used colorful ribbons in blue, green, and white; and older women wore a white headdress without any ribbons.
In Upper Hungary, which covers the top northeast of the country, the men’s traditional clothing was rather simple, consisting mainly of a dark broadcloth suit, outerwear (a suba, szűr, or various sheepskin garments), and boots, says NationalClothing.org.
In some areas, men wore wide embroidered shirts with wide pantaloons with embroidery and fringe on the bottom of trousers, boots, and high hats with ribbons and other embellishments. This particular costume is similar to ones used in other regions of Hungary. Aprons embroidered at the bottom might be worn on special occasions, for instance, by bridegrooms on their wedding day.
Women’s modest traditional dress was embroidered in rich colors. Women wore several layers of clothing that might include an undergarment, a shirt, a skirt, a wide apron, a shawl, a bodice, shoes, and a headdress.
The shirt was embroidered, with short puffy or long wide sleeves. On holidays, females preferred to wear two shirts: an undergarment and a top blouse made from fine, thin fabric. A shawl, tied across the chest or not, was often worn on top of all this.
The mid-calf to ankle-length skirt could be made from brocade and velvet for special occasions and less expensive material for everyday use. Underneath, there could be five, six, or more petticoats. A wide apron covered nearly the entire skirt and was usually sewn from the same fabric as the skirt itself.
The bright, festive neck of the bodice was high, closed, and embellished with a lot of embroideries. Outerwear was made of sheepskin. Festive garments were decorated with fox and another fur, braiding, or other elements. Women wore shoes in summer and boots in winter and for holidays. Stockings were used with both.
Young girls braided their hair and decorated it with ribbons and flowers. Married women wore very beautiful and festive bonnets. Some headdresses were quite beautiful and were embellished with embroidery, beads, gold and silver yarn, ribbons, and more. Bridal headgear could be truly extravagant. Jewelry consisted of a necklace of colorful beads. but older women often weren’t allowed to wear them.
In some areas of Hungary, the national costume was so richly ornamented, expensive, and valued that women sometimes preferred to work for years to get a complete costume for themselves, choosing clothing over food or other necessities.
Transylvania, Romania, is one of the many areas in western Romania with a significant Hungarian population, and it is a stronghold of old Transylvanian Hungarian folk traditions.
Bordered by the Carpathian mountain range, Transylvania has gone back and forth between Hungary and Romania. A 1947 treaty placed all of Transylvania within Romania, landlocking its large ethnic Hungarian population, which accounts for about 30 percent of the Transylvanian population.
Centuries-old Transylvanian folk dress traditions have barely been touched by Western influences, which makes this traditional clothing very special, according to NationalClothing.org.
Men usually wore short shirts that were belted with a wide, decorated leather belt. Early men's shirts were loose, collarless, and without cuffs; later they became embroidered linen shirts with collars and cuffs.
Transylvanian men wore breeches (gatyas) or wide pleated trousers (full gatyas) with their shirt. The tight breeches were made from homespun cloth early on, but later men preferred factory-produced fabric. Transylvania was the only region where ancient-cut breeches could be seen in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such trousers were used in Western Europe in the 15th century; at that time, they were made from homespun cloth and consisted of two legs that were not sewn together.
Very often, a dark leather, broadcloth, or fur vest with a few decorations went over the shirt. Young men sometimes filled the neck opening with a white neckerchief, while older men wore black cravats. Outerwear could be a kuzsók, a sleeveless fur coat made from sheepskin and embellished with embroidery. But men also used sheepskin cloaks called (suba), frieze coats (guba), embroidered frieze mantles (cifra szűr), woolen coats (daróc), long leather coats, or ornamented special-occasion waistcoats.
Until World War I, Hungarian men wore their hair long and covered the head with a wide-brimmed, felt hat or a tight fur cap. In summer, they donned straw hats. Young men often decorated their special-occasion hats with beads, ribbons, and bouquets of pearls, gyöngyös bokréta. The footwear consisted of laced sandals worn with woolen puttees in winter and boots.
For women, the traditional Transylvanian attire usually consisted of a blouse, a petticoat, a skirt (at first, only petticoats), an apron, a bodice, a headdress, and boots or sandals. The shirt or blouse was richly embroidered on the sleeves, cuffs, and neckline; embroidery was also applied to the bottom of long, linen shirts. Mostly, Hungarian women wore short blouses, the bottom of which wasn’t visible from under the skirt. The neck and cuffs of the shirt were often finished in a short ruffle.
Hungarian traditional skirts were quite wide and pleated. Centuries ago, women wore one or several petticoats, with no skirt on top. But later, white embroidered petticoats were used with skirts. Both were lavishly pleated with large folds. There were many kinds of skirts, but they tended to be relatively short. In some areas, the skirt color represented the marital status of the woman: Girls wore red skirts, young wives wore blue, and older women preferred black skirts. If the skirt was worn with a bodice or a vest, the color of both items should be the same. Sometimes the skirts could be quite colorful, with red, blue, black, and brown stripes. The women’s bodice could be embellished with embroidery and braid trim.
The apron worn over a skirt was also wide and often pleated. Young girls usually wore white aprons embellished with lace at the hem. Older women chose aprons in a different color from that of the skirt. But aprons were worn only with some kinds of skirts; some didn’t require an apron.
Headdresses varied by age. Girls didn’t cover their head, preferring to braid the hair into one or two braids and tie it with ribbons. Married women knotted their hair and wore bonnets (csepesz) or kerchiefs on top. Female outerwear consisted of a sleeveless fur coat or sheepskin vest, a short frieze coat, or similar warm, feminine clothing.
Women wore laced-up sandals for work and leather boots decorated with embroidery. Festive boots were usually red, while everyday shoes and boots were black.