On the left: János Kilián, guitarist of the punk band Modell “S” in 1982. #125258 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán

The Fashion of Resistance

Blue Jeans Acid Washed in the Bathtub, Haversacks, and “Alföldi” Slippers—Anything but Mass-Produced Items!

Fashion has been a favorite topic of discussion even back in Socialist times when bold dreams met a rather modest reality and modest means compared to the present or to the Western world. However, in spite of the fact that there was hardly anything to buy, or perhaps because of it, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised by the stylish and original outfits of the people in the photos taken in the years of shortage economy.

Whatever could be found on the shelves of department stores in late socialism, people usually disliked it. Even when there were a few well-made and nice items—a pair of shoes, a coat, a shirt or a blouse—people disliked them anyway because they were sold by the state department store, because they were boring by default, and because there was a lack of choice. Those more informed who knew more or less what was hip from Western movies and magazines (only more or less, as most Western movies were shown in Hungarian movie theaters after a few years’ delay), disliked them even more. Not to mention the people who had some recollections of the style and the well-made, quality clothing items of their parents and grandparents.
The outdoor stadium called Kisstadion (Small stadium) on Istvánmezei Road in Budapest in 1974. #88421 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
However, browsing the Fortepan archive, we do not see uniformly or homogeneously dressed crowds of people. One can even get lost in some of the photos because of the interesting clothes, the clever details, or the interesting accessories. Those who disliked store-bought, mass-produced clothing but wanted to dress well, had items custom-made—this was still the time of good old seamstresses, tailors, and shoemakers. Another solution was to knit and crochet for oneself, or to know which “friendly” country to visit in order to buy a better version. We sat down with designer Péter Klimo who had worked as a costume designer, stylist, and fashion designer in the old days, to talk about the trends young people followed and how and where these were to be found. He was also the source for many of the photo captions in this article.
The members of the band Volán, Imre Papp (Mityó), András Batu, László Baranszky, Ernő Kiss, and Ádám Végvári, at corner of Petőfi Sándor Street and Szervita (Martinelli) Square (Budapest) in 1970. The photo was taken at the time when the shops on the ground floor of the former monastery turned tenement house hit by a bomb in World War II were demolished. #202681 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Rubinstein
Kós Károly Avenue (Népköztársaság Way), with the Széchenyi Baths in the background, around 1970. #78205 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Rubinstein
“We saw some tourists from abroad in Budapest and at Lake Balaton, and sometimes we travelled too; you did not have to go very far to get a taste of the Western feeling: Yugoslavia offered a lot of pleasant surprises back then,” Péter Klimo begins. “Every now and then we could lay our hands on a copy of magazines like Bravo or Interview, and we heard about the musical Hair, as well.”
Singer László Aradszky, in the early 1970s. #60047 Photo: Fortepan / Gyula Nagy
Members of the rock band V’Moto-Rock: Sándor Herpai, István Lerch, Ferenc Demjén, and János Menyhárt at Klauzál Square (Budapest) in 1981. #126037. Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
“In the West, young people dressing alternatively rebelled against the disingenuous/hypocrite bourgeois way of life. In Hungary, too, there was an obvious sense of social criticism if someone did not want or refused to dress in the uniform pieces sold at the clothing sections of department stores like Verseny or Corvin Áruház, to fade into the greyness of everyday life in socialism.” The newspapers indeed wrote in a horrified tone about the young men wearing cowboy jeans and leather slippers, and their thick black shags or long hair held down by a ribbon “like an Indian lady’s.”
The showcase of the students of the textile department of the Hungarian School of Applied Arts (currently, Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design) at the end of the 1970s, with fashion sketches on the wall and sample models on the mannequin. In the school, the curriculum was ideologically set but in reality, students had considerable artistic freedom. After graduating, they were employed by clothing factories as textile designers. #89421 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
One of these young men, an “especially shaggy and puzzling looking hitchhiker” was interviewed in 1972 in a TV show called My Channel. The young man had a clever comeback at one of the questions about his appearance. According to him, a striking look is nothing more than a hobby like collecting stamps. And there were many people who could not refrain from their hobby or passion, even though an out-of-the-ordinary appearance was punished in school by a warning letter from the head teacher, or by ID checks by the police, who could also make young men remove their earrings right away if they wanted to.
1972. #18743 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
According to Péter, the Ecseri flea market was an important destination for young people dressing alternatively. At the time when all the shirts you could buy was made out of nylon—for the more adventurous, colorful ones with patterns, for the more moderate, monochrome ones—only at Ecseri could you get to buy items made of natural materials like cotton and poplin. Those most in-demand were the antique ones with embroidered initials. A decent intellectual would exclusively wear white.
1970. #89843 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
1978. #89845 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
“The boxy canvas suits of the 1950s were sought after, too. In the 1980s, the renowned avantgarde fashion designer Tamás Király recreated these models in angin (a ticking stripe fabric used to cover throw pillows or matresses), and sold them with huge success in his boutique, New Art Studio, on Petőfi Sándor Street.”
The flea market on Ecseri Road, around 1962 . #177469 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bojár
Fashion designer Tamás Király in the late 1980s. #40705 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
Different types of work uniforms were also fashionable. Until the 1950s, extremely simple and practical working clothes were preferred. A few decades later, when “dress codes” became far less strict, the more adventurous youngsters started to add the old working clothes models to their wardrobes. “The people wearing these boxy and baggy items signaled to the world this way that they were dressing according to their own fashion rules, and that they did not want to follow the “official” fashion trends. They picked up blue dungarees and white medical scrub pants (usually dyed another color at home) at industrial and occupational uniform stores.”
Typesetters at Pátria Press in Dombóvár in 1981. In the printing factory, uniform gray gowns were no longer in trend but individual clothing. In this photo, one can see both streetwear items serving as workwear and workwear models that were popular streetwear items among people dressing alternatively. #13981 Photo: Fortepan / Tibor Erky-Nagy
The “Super Concert” of August 22, 1981, on Hajógyári Island (Budapest). Second on the left, Gábor Presser, the fourth, László Benkő, next to him Feró Nagy, and on the right János Bródy. The concert-documentary film “One day of rock’n’roll” by László Sántha and Jolán Árvay was shot during the event. #125945 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
A work clothes store at no. 6 Vámház (Tolbuhin) Avenue, in the first half of the 1970s. #103718 Photo: Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára (Budapest City Archives) / Urban Planning and Architecture Department of the Executive Committee of the Metropolitan Council. Archive reference no. HU_BFL_XV_19_c_11
“Shoes were a tough problem. One could somehow sew or make someone sew a dress or shirt for them according to their taste, but not a shoe… At the Ecseri flea market, one could buy old leather shoes, real handmade ones with iron heels from an old style called ‘Budapester’. When you arrived somewhere wearing one, everyone would look up, as the leather squeaked and the iron clacked on the stone floor at each step. Rumor had it that it was worth wearing a pair of these shoes on a trip to the West as one could sell them for a really good price there.”
The flea market on Ecseri Road in the early 1960s. #67593 Photo: Fortepan / Magyar Rendőr Magazine
Although earlier, sneakers were mere accessories at gym classes at school, they slowly transformed into streetwear in alternative circles. While a 1952 article in the newspaper Vas népe disapproved of sportsmen and women wearing training pants and shoes on the street before and after training, in 1974, another magazine, Magyar Ifjúság stated that sneakers or training shoes had become a streetwear item and therefore shoe factories would have to adjust to the new trend. But first, they would have to learn the opinion of the youth, so members of the Youth Fashion Committee would attend summer camps and ask around. (The committee was created in 1970 in order to advance modern, practical, and culturally appropriate clothing for the youth.)
János Kilián, Endre Rónaszéki, and Tamás Ványi, members of the punkrock band Model “S” at the doors of the cultural center Ikarus on Margit Street (Buda), in 1982. #125743 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán.
The scuba diving base of the Hungarian Defense Association (Magyar Honvédelmi Szövetség—MHSZ) in Tiszaliget, Szolnok, around 1971. #118489 Photo: Fortepan / MHSZ
Those who could not get in to the party on the closing day of the Buda Youth Park in 1984. #125542 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
“Alföldi” slippers—a handmade pair of slippers manufactured by the Alföldi shoe company—would become a cult item a few years later. Its success was due not only to being comfortable but also to the switch of functions. The young people rebelling against the older generation most probably liked the fact that they were often asked: “Why are you wearing slippers on the street?”
ID-checking at the Városliget Lake (Budapest) in 1982. In the photo, most probably staged, the volunteer police guard wears such a perfect outfit that she could have posed for a fashion magazine at the time. #66778 Photo: Fortepan / Magyar Rendőr Magazine
At the entrance of no. 76 Csengery Street a 76. in the late 1970s. #202852 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Rubinstein
The appearance of the first blue jeans in Budapest was also related to the Ecseri flea market: such goods arrived only there in the beginning and were sold at exorbitant prices. In 1978, Hungary started to produce jeans, too, under the label Trapper. At around the same time, the clothing factory “Május 1” (May the 1st) was contracted by Levi’s to produce jeans for the international label at a plant based in Marcali.
And then came all the creative home or DIY solutions. Péter remembers well the denim hats and long coats sewn and tailored out of blue jeans that have long gone out of fashion since. People tried different methods to achieve an acid-washed look of their jeans at home, using sandstones, sand, hard brushes—while sitting in the bathtub in jeans… And there were times when one had to tighten their jeans so much in order to be fashionable that it was impossible to get them off without unsewing them in the evening, only to sew the legs tight again in the morning after getting them on.
1989. #5715 Photo: Fortepan / tm
One of the performers at the Christmas party organized by the Communist Youth Association (KISZ) in the subway at Kálvin Square (Budapest) wearing a denim shirt that seems to be a mediocre dupe of the iconic Levi’s model. #89230 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
There was also a folk trend. The efforts of intellectuals to preserve folk culture and heritage had an impact on the way people dressed, too. In the 1970s, not only pitchers (bokály) and woven fabrics were taken home by the city dwellers from trips to the countryside or Transylvania but traditional leather/fur vests (bekecs), scarves, and hats. These garments were not part of the expected outfit of the socialist person; the look of the ones who wore such things was considered “alternative.” After a while, the socialist industry decided to keep up with the demand and started to propagate through advertisements that folk art should appear in every home.
Ferenc Sebő and Béla Halmos at the first folk dance club in Budapest on May 6, 1972 at the Book Club at Liszt Ferenc Square. #138773 Photo: Fortepan / Zoltán Szalay
“Dying turned out to be a lucrative business. Boutiques and shops would open from the 1970s on and their owners tried their best to provide exclusive goods for their customers—of course, things with a low manufacturing cost. During high school, I had a side gig, dyeing for boutique owners. I have dyed hundreds of gauze garments at home, in the bathtub, to the greatest pleasure of my family members. Aniline dyes came as powders and turned the most mundane piece of clothing into an eccentric, hot, and colorful piece.”
Iván Markó (in a white hat), and the dancers of the Győr Ballet Ensemble walking on Baross Gábor (Lenin) Road in Győr in the second half of the 1970s. #46972 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
One of the girls is most probably wearing a home-made sandal and the other one is wearing a classic store-bought set of sandals with socks. Around 1967. #6009 Photo: Fortepan
“I remember another business that turned out to be a great hit,” recalls Péter laughing. “That was already in the 1980s though. I offered to one of the hip boutiques on Váci Street that I would create T-shirts with graffiti for them—that was the most important style at the time. I drew different kinds of things by hand with acrylic paint markers, stencils, and paint sprays brought by other people from abroad at my request, first on white, later, on dyed, pastel-color T-shirts. They became popular and the boutique sold a hundred of them every Saturday morning. It became even more popular when we decided to add the label “Made in Hungary” next to my squiggles. It became a hit among the tourists so quickly that soon I could buy my first car, a 6-year-old, used Dacia…”
People celebrating New Year’s Eve in the subway of Blaha Lujza Square in 1977. #205140 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Kereki
1984. #125703 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
Newspapers and magazines were also full of great ideas about how to create at home, with our own hands, a cap or a sailor hat. The more adventurous ones tried their hands at turning a pair of sneakers into sandals or transforming their rubber boots—cutting the calfs in different ways, adding ornaments, or painting them—especially if they could lay their hands on a pair that was colored.
On Blaha Lujza Square, towards the crossroads of Nagykörút and Rákóczi Way, in 1972. #87827 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
Although it was not an actual choice for them, those who could not fit into the regular sizes, because they were too tall, corpulent, or simply out of the standard in some way, also showed a great level of creativity. The Ministry of Interior Commerce and the advertisements suggested that these people turn to the Extra Department Store on Rákóczi Way, but the more seasoned ones knew that they would be better off transforming their clothes themselves or turning to the few available individual professionals for help. Some of them got on the train and traveled to the GDR to buy a nice pair of women’s shoes in an extra size. Hungarian customs officers did not even blink at the sight of a tourist lady with a big sized foot arriving at the border carrying two or three shoe boxes.
Text: Lukács Zsolt | Photo editor: Virágvölgyi István | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian] The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/en/alternative-fashion If you have a family photo to share with Fortepan, please write us at fortepan@gmail.com
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