Window displays existed even before people realized it. Tiny repair shop doors were left wide open in the suburbs of the capital city and in smaller towns, and shoemakers, feather duvet manufacturers, and locksmiths stood next to their doors in the summer sun. They themselves constituted the window display: seeing the well-known face of a trusted craftsman attracted more customers than a nicely dressed window and a clever catchphrase, or the obligatory sign containing the name and profession with a few items in the shop window. It is very unlikely that the feather bedding maker Mrs. Mohai Istvánné in the below photo was sought after because her customers were attracted by the pair of geese sitting in her shop’s window.
The merchants and craftsmen came out to the light from their dark shops, living and breathing together with the street. Unfortunately, more and more of them started to lose their jobs with the advent of Capitalism and the subsequent overabundance of products and changes in lifestyle; the small craftmen’s shops disappeared. Or did they really? There are still a few “survivors” in Budapest. For instance, at no. 3 Dob Street, we can find a paintbrush and brush manufacturer founded in the 1920s, and in Újpest, the Szélesi Family, admired by many, is still producing wafers behind the curtain of their shop windows, with a handwritten sign containing the list of Neapolitan wafers sold, including salty wafers and the typical Hungarian confectionery “winter ice cream,” attracting many curious passerbys.
Not all craftsmen or merchants were lucky enough to rent a place directly opening onto the street: most of the little shops opened onto the patio of the large tenement houses, whether on the ground floor or in the basement. There was no direct connection to passers-by, only, usually, a sign at the entrance indicating that a craftsman was working inside. A lucky few had a display cabinet next to or inside the entrance of the building that could be dressed. These days Budapest is full of such display cabinets lacking an owner.
It was well-known as early as the 19th century that the window display was a deadly weapon. Sándor Balázs wrote about the malicious character of window displays in the December 1878 issue of Hölgyek Lapja (Women’s magazine). “I want to speak out against window displays. […] I am angry about them, I even hate them, because of all the harm they do to people. It is window displays that make most women dissatisfied, that make the young ladies unhappy, and that wreak havoc on fathers and husbands. […] They incite the mind to fantasy and seduce and break poor hearts. Of every ten fallen women, nine were drawn into the abyss by shop window displays, and they are the main cause of the initial discord in failed marriages.” According to Balázs, shop window displays are doing “the snake’s or the devil’s work” by offering their products in an appealing way. A hundred years later, it in fact tended to be women who choose a career in window dressing and decoration—at the end of the 1970s, newspapers write about the feminization of the industry.
The first, rudimentary window displays appeared in Budapest in the 1850s. However, these were arranged by employees with a taste for visuals or by applied artists hired for the work, instead of professional window dressers. The first Hungarian school of decoration and window dressing was opened in 1910. However, one can find a contradicting piece of information when reading a 1936 article in the newspaper Népszava about the the first professional window dresser in Hungary, József Kertész, according to which he started working at one of the shops on Kristóf Square in 1891.
Hungarian window dressers followed the style of Western countries (such as Germany and France) from the start: in the 1920s, the Corvin Department Store proudly presented a German-style window display design and the Fashion Salon—naturally—followed the French style. German influence is evident from Hungarian technical terms, such as szokli and dütnik; szokli, meaning base, is derived from the German Sockel. This period was basically the golden age of window dressing in Hungary, for after both World War I and World War II, a decline followed.
The economic recovery and boom of 1950s did not bring stylish and beautiful window displays in Hungary, as shop managers considered shop windows “a storage area with a single glass wall,” which led to overcrowded and cluttered shop windows. According to László Kárpáti, who is considered the most knowledgeable person in Hungary regarding the Hungarian and international history of window dressing, in the 1960s, the Szivárvàny, Luxus, and Csemege department stores, as well as the RÖLTEX textile company’s stores had the most beautifully dressed windows.
The Luxus Department Store maintained its prominent place on the list of best dressed shop windows in the 1980s, and other department stores, such as the Fontana (being demolished as this essay is being written) and the Úttörő also excelled in clever window dressing. However, a journalist in the daily Népszava complained about the window displays of the Csillag and the Verseny department stores: The former’s entrance was “so rusty it almost fell apart,” and the latter could use some thorough window cleaning. The lingerie shop Aranypók on Kossuth Lajos Street also received criticism: the window display of men’s fashion was decorated with a “cheap pinwheel sold in village festivals,” wrote the indignant journalist.
The official education of window dressers started in 1955 in the Hungarian School of Window Dressing and Decoration, which became a separate institution in 1972. The school was located in Osvát Street, with a two-year program for high-school graduates who passed an entrance exam. At the end of the 1970s, the magazine Budapest reports that three times as many students applied as places were offered. “We are glad about this but we also see a downside. The students are not aware of what they are applying for. In many cases, they confuse it with the School of Applied Arts or the School of Fine Arts. It is hard for them to accept that this is not an art school but a vocational school,” the director Vilmos Czétényi explained. By the end of the second year, many of them would drop out, and only the most dedicated stayed and made a career afterwards; unlike their original idea about it, the work was actually rather demanding—they had to dress windows in the freezing cold of the winter and close to heat-stroke conditions in the summer, moving quite heavy loads of merchandise.
“It is not up to us what we put in the windows,” said Mrs. Lászlóné Hegedűs, one of the window dressers of the Otthon Furniture and Home Accessories Store, when questioned by a reporter in 1979. Window dressers and store managers took turns complaining to journalists. The problem of shop windows lacking in creativity was rooted in the industry and not in the window dressers themselves: for decades, there was only one Hungarian producer of mannequins, so the stores had to import others from abroad (Italy, Switzerland, or Spain), and there were issues even with the imported ones. In 1971, a reporter for the daily Magyar Nemzet wrote the following about the Capital City’s Clothing Store: “The mannequins are indeed more expressive, but they are perhaps a bit too realistic. One of them looks like as if it was entering a murder scene in an Agatha Christie book, while the other one looks upwards with an ecstatic smile as if she was reciting a poem at a acting school exam.”
But mannequins were just one of the crucial factors in installing a window display. Self-adhesive wallpapers and offset paper were in short supply and it was also difficult to obtain paint. Lacking a properly working decoration industry, props were created under poor conditions, in the basements of small decoration studios, in questionable quality. Window dressers, who were considered Swiss Army Knifes, had to rely on their own ingenuity and creativity.
Window displays that contained fewer objects arranged tastefully were often criticized by store managers. “I don’t know what these students are taught at the window dressing and decoration school, but these window dressers come full of ambition, and they ‘artistically’ place just one or two blouses and skirts, even though we have many colors and styles in the store for the customer to choose from,” the store manager Hedvig F. complained to the magazine Budapest in 1983. In the case of big stores, filling the shop window with products was a must, of course.
Text: Kitti Mayer | Photo Editor: István Virágvölgyi | Translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]
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