Isabella Blouse with Original Label

September, 2020

 

According to its label, this black-patterned, embroidered blouse was made in the tiny village of Ciffer, near Nagyszombat, at the “Saint Elizabeth Embroidery Manufactories” between 1895 and 1915.  Known as an Isabella blouse, this type of garment took its name from Princess Isabella Hedwig Franziska Natalie of Croÿ  (1856-1931), whose role in Hungarian life began with her marriage to Archduke Friedrich of the House of Habsburg.  The creator of the Isabella blouse was Mária Hollósy, a Poszonykeresztúr school teacher who began instructing at and managing the workshops in Ciffer in 1892.

Ciffer Isabella blouse, 1895-1915, Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4
Ciffer Isabella blouse, 1895-1915, Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4

To Hungarians, Isabella was one of best-known and most popular individuals of the age, primarily for her patronage of the handicrafts.  It was at her initiative and under her protection that, in 1895, with the consolidation and expansion of existing manufactories, the “Bratislava and Surrounding Area Women’s Society for the Support of Cottage Industry Under the Protection of Princess Isabella”—known from 1897 onward as the “Isabella Cottage Industry Society”—was founded.

Building of the Isabella Cottage Industry Society during a charity fair, Bratislava, 1908. F 269954
Building of the Isabella Cottage Industry Society during a charity fair, Bratislava, 1908. F 269954

According to its charter, the group’s mission was to “provide work and procure customers and global markets for our embroidery products, (...) while maintaining the national character of embroidery fashionable in this area by reviving forgotten techniques and forms of work and reinstituting their instruction in schools,” primarily in the areas of Bratislava, Nitra, and Trenčín.

The blouse’s embroidered sleeve, Ciffer, 1895-1915, Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4
The blouse’s embroidered sleeve, Ciffer, 1895-1915, Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4

The society maintained manufactories and schools in Ciffer, Zavar, Piešťany-Lopašov, Dubnica, and Papradno and in 1906 employed 677 women.  Its activities encompassed two distinct and important types of work:  the production of tablecloths and folk-style garments (Isabella blouses and children’s dresses) decorated with local folk patterns for urban and aristocratic households, and, in the case of some workshops, of ecclesiastical textiles embroidered with non-traditional motifs, often on the basis of genteel needlework patterns preserved by aristocratic families or examples found in museums.  Their products performed successfully in contemporary domestic and international fairs and expositions, reaching consumers through merchants and cottage industry bazaars.  Through the princess’s personal influence and connections, the society would eventually become a household name and serve as a model throughout the Monarchy for the founding of other, similar cottage industry workshops.

The fashion history leading up to the blouse’s manufacture spans a number of important cultural and social changes.  The late-19th-century preference for blouses that permitted freer movement, for example, was predicated upon a number of concurrent social innovations:  women’s entry into the workforce, including the teaching professions, and the increasing presence of women in both sports (e.g. tennis), and occupations related to the tourist industry.  It was also likely the first time in European fashion history when garments created with the cut and decorative patterns of the traditional peasantry made an appearance in the wardrobes of the upper classes.  The story behind the blouse’s production is one of women’s integration:  the society was, fundamentally, created by women, employed women, and sought to support the female members of the poor village population.

Princess Isabella with her daughters wearing embroidered dresses from Ciffer, reproduced from the 3 April 1898 edition of the Sunday Paper
Princess Isabella with her daughters wearing embroidered dresses from Ciffer, reproduced from the 3 April 1898 edition of the Sunday Paper

In short, it represented a true women’s network, headed by the princess, who served as both financial, and intellectual leader and who often directed operations personally.  The princess was aided in this role by a body of leaders composed of the wives and daughters of prestigious representatives of the local aristocracy, who established the workshops and supported them financially through their payment of membership fees, provision of commissions and product brokerage, and organisation of fairs and bazaars. 

The Ciffer label, 1895-1915 Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4
The Ciffer label, 1895-1915 Museum of Ethnography inv. no. 74.107.4

In Ciffer, where this particular blouse was made, the network operated two workshops under the management of Countess Sarolta Zichy, one that employed women from the village, and another—Saint Elizabeth House—that used the labour of nuns. Beyond its leaders, the society included teachers, artists and pattern makers, shop clerks, and administrators who represented the first bourgeois and lower aristocratic working women in Hungary. Such, too, was Mária Hollósy, the designer of this blouse, who headed the workshop in Ciffer and once even served as postmistress. Beside her were the workshop’s employees: peasant women and girls, who worked as needleworkers and pattern makers, partly in the workshops themselves, and partly by taking the work home and returning it when completed. It was their interests the organisation essentially existed to serve, its mission being: “To create work and provide commissions, to establish a global market for the products of the domestic embroidery industry, to promote the nimble fingers and unique tastes in needlework of the women of Upper Hungary; and to market the assets of our people to the people’s benefit.”

Text: Mónika Lackner

Photo: Krisztina Sarnyai


Women’s embroidered blouse
Ciffer, 1895-1915
Museum of Ethnography; 74.107.4