Artefact of the Month

Underskirt from Őrhalom


Gabriella Cs. Tóth

This article of women’s underclothing from the Museum of Ethnography’s Textiles and Folk Costumes Collection may not, at first glance, seem like a stand-out piece. 

Neither the material it is made of, nor its cut differ from those typically seen in Hungarian-speaking areas. Known as a ‘korcos pendely,’ the skirt—which dates to the first half of the 20th century—was worn beneath a women’s outer garments and, being cut from humble plain weave hemp cloth, stood up well to repeated washing. To make it, two swaths of cloth were placed one over the other, then the sides expanded by inserting pieces obtained from the diagonal halving of a third swath. The waistline was folded over to form a band through which a string of hemp was laced. The seams were sewn by hand using thin hemp thread. Despite its seeming simplicity, however, closer scrutiny reveals one added feature: a tiny embroidered symbol, known in Hungarian as its tulajdonjegy, or ‘personal emblem’.

Of course, this would, in and of itself, be insufficient to grant one object a place in the spotlight over any number of its peers, but it turns out that in this case, supplementary information on the mark it bears explains why the skirt has earned a featured spot among artefacts illustrating ‘problems in collection-building’ in the Museum of Ethnography’s new permanent exhibition.

In the decades following the Museum of Ethnography’s founding, collection development guidelines were generally defined in terms of aesthetic considerations alone. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the notion of interpreting an artefact as part of the broader social context finally emerged. It was for this reason that when in 1935, Edit Fél took over curatorship of the museum’s Textiles and Folk Costumes Collection, more than 70% of the 12,500 pieces it contained had been procured not on site, but from antiquities dealers and village merchants and therefore came with no indication of provenance. In general, only the place of origin was noted, leaving details pertaining to such things as production and use—aspects that would reveal information regarding the people behind the objects—unknown.

Fél had two objectives in her role as curator: to expand the collection and to give ‘voice’ to what she referred to as its ‘mute objects’. The skirt shown here and the fieldwork by which it was acquired are a perfect example of how these two aims intertwined in what is no doubt the most successful attempt to fill in missing information in the museum’s history.

Fél reported on the findings of her Őrhalom research projects over multiple articles in the Museum of Ethnography’s yearbook, Néprajzi Értesítő.

The skirt discussed here appeared in two illustrated articles, the first published in 1938 and the second in 1940. The second writing, entitled Information on Personal Emblems—Preliminary Notes on Markings in Clothing, features the skirt as emblematic of the entire topic, that is, as a piece indicative of how personal emblems were used in general in the village in question. Thus, beyond discussing the skirt, Fél uses it to help her analyse further artefacts bearing the same type of mark. It was from this article that ethnographers first learned of the custom by which Őrhalom women, who lived in extended families, washed clothes together—and how, in relation to that activity, they concealed markings of special importance in their clothing. In every household where multiple men, women, and children live together, personal emblems sewn into garments and other household textiles helped family members avoid both the accidental exchange of garments, and the conflicts such events created.

Because Fél encountered this phenomenon when it was still in practice, she was able to collect examples of every emblem used in the village, in the process learning which were embroidered on which textiles and what their—in some cases magical—meanings were. Those representing a hex or love charm—emblems like the ‘spur,’ which would cause young men to go crazy for the wearer and permitted her to marry whomever she wished—were embroidered by but a handful of craftswomen. 

At this point, however, the reader will likely be disappointed to discover that the skirt shown here displays a much simpler emblem—one known as the görbike or ‘little curve’—which saw a more general use. Most often, this emblem was embroidered into skirts and trousers in the region just below the waist cord. 

Of course, none of this diminishes the skirt’s significance from the scientific perpective:  as the above makes clear, the knowledge associated with a given artefact exists in layers. The example of the Őrhalom skirt, for its part, permits us to peer into and around the challenges that, faced by research projects of the past, continue to define the discipline in the present, at the same time offering a taste of one of the many exciting things that await the visitor at the Museum of Ethnography’s new permanent exhibition.