Artefact of the Month

Traditional Felted Overcoat from 1896


Edit Katona


The Budapest Museum of Ethnography holds numerous works of master craftsmanship—frequently referred to as ‘star artefacts’—that feature almost ubiquitously in its exhibitions and publications as representative of Hungarian folk art.  One stand-out example of these is a Bakony region man’s felt overcoat (or cifraszűr) made by specialist tailor Ferenc Jády, which—before being gifted to the museum—featured in a display erected for Hungary’s 1896 Millennial Exhibition.

In 1896, one of the main attractions at the millennial celebrations held in Budapest’s City Park was known as the Ethnographic Village, a cluster of twenty-two peasant dwellings and village community buildings brought in from various parts of the country.  It was here, on a mannequin representing a swineherd in a house from the Veszprém County village of Szentgál, that the Jády overcoat was first presented to the public.  According to a contemporary report:  ‘The traditional folk costume is a thing of the past....  This explains why only elderly family members are shown in this house....:  granny by the brick oven, old Mr. Nyírő by the window.  The latter is reminiscing about days past with Andris the swineherd, who has come in from the farm for his week’s ration of bacon.’

Widely held to be the most intrinsically Hungarian of clothing items, the cifraszűr gained popularity around the end of the 18th century, when successes in agriculture and sweeping new regulations governing the relationship between landlords and peasants had improved circumstances for many, allowing commoners to spend more on decorative clothing.  It was this that prompted tailors specialising in the production of modest outer wear from thick felted wool to begin crafting more distinctive pieces, decorated as lavishly as the rough material would permit.

As this positive turn in economic circumstances was felt first in the western half of the country, it is no coincidence that it was from there that the fashion for coats ‘fancied up’ [or ‘tcifrált,’ hence the ‘cifra’ in cifraszűr] with felt appliqué and decorative stitching first spread.

Changes in shape and ornamentation most affected the garment known as the köpönyegszűr, the type of szűr worn as a greatcoat.  Sewn from rectangular pieces of stiffly fulled felt, the coat was furnished with side panels so wide, it could not be worn normally, but was instead cast about the shoulders in the manner of the mantles sported by contemporary noblemen.  Because the front edges were folded back, the two sides did not meet.  Thus, a buckled strap was used to hold them together and prevent the garment from sliding off the shoulders.  The exaggerated collar, which fell low over the back of the coat, featured two wheels of felt at the corners, a reminder that in the past, one had been able to tie the two sides together to form a hood.

Ornamentation on the coat was intensified by appliquéing pieces of felt in bands of increasing width from its structural lines outward along the felt strips (vócok) used to protect both its seams, and the places subject to wear and tear.  For the purposes of embellishment only, the remaining undecorated areas were filled in with larger pieces of appliqué featuring botanical ornamentation—a new element in the evolution of the garment.  Most often, decoration was executed in red felt, the contrast with the white base colour defining the entire mood of the coat.  The term cifra, however refers not to the coat’s appliqué ornamentation, but the horse-shoe patterned embroidery that encircled its lower hem.  These geometric motifs preceded the flower-patterned embroidery (termed virágozás) that would appear on the garment much later.

The fanciest felt overcoat of Transdanubia was the swineherd’s szűr, worn by the herdsmen who grazed their animals year-round in the open air, including the swineherds for which they were named, in addition to highwaymen and even some villagers.  This type of szűr differed from the overcoats of other regions in that it was both shorter and looser, while also sporting the largest collar.  Its vestigial sleeves were cut short and fitted with bottoms of felt so that they might be used as pockets.

One of the production hubs for the Transdanubian swineherd’s szűr was the city of Veszprém, where the felt overcoat reached the pinnacle of its popularity during the Hungarian ‘Age of Reform’. Whereas a few decades later, the specialist tailors of Somogy County would continue to develop their own distinctive style, in Veszprém, the process fell into decline.  As can be seen on the rather elegant museum piece produced for the purposes of the exhibition, the waning number of craftsmen there, while not opposed to all novelty in terms of the cut of their garments, were adamant in adhering to traditional modes of ornamentation. 

A period in Hungarian history commencing in 1825 with the reconvening of the Hungarian Diet and founding of the Academy of Sciences. Following centuries of foreign rule, it was the intellectual and legislative processes that marked this era that would eventually bring about the emergence of a Hungarian national identity.

Extreme in its proportions, the Bakony region swineherd’s szűr features a voluminous, trapezoidal collar that arches into a dovetail configuration.  By flaring the inserted side panels and rounding the hem, the entire piece has been made to resemble a bell, a form balanced out by the downward taper of its folded-out front.  Thus tailored, the swineherd’s szűr—worn about the shoulders and, whether from a desire to appear dashing or to compensate for its extreme fullness, slid down to one side—lent its wearer an air of power and dynamism.  Most conspicuous, however, was the cinnabar red appliqué work, contoured in black thread and bordered by a broad band of embroidery, that blossomed out from and completely dominated its light-coloured surface.  Further references to the heyday of regional szűr-craft can be seen in the characteristic ‘I-I’-shape appliquéd where the two parts of the side panel are sewn together, the amply sized bouquet of tulips and roses appliquéd in back near the bottom, and the intertwined horseshoe-and-bar motif embroidered along its hem. Regional master tailors had also added bird motifs to their repertoire, seen here next to the most impressive tulip in the appliquéd flower bouquet. The virágozás (floral embroidery) on this particular piece does little to affect the overall look of the garment, remaining fairly understated with respect to the flamboyance of the overall composition.

In the near future, the Museum of Ethnography’s Bakony cifraszűr is set to occupy a distinguished place in the permanent exhibition at the institution’s brand new building in City Park, representing the Hungarian Millennial Exhibition as part of the unit on collection history.

Photo:  133044 szűr front, back, and posterior ornamentation

51.31.270 Depiction of a Transdanubian swineherd’s szűr on a mirrored box

carved by Zsiga Király, 1840