Fashion & Photography

Artists in the Communist Budapest

Fashion for the Working Class

At the turn of the twentieth century, Budapest was a truly colorful metropolis characterised by its grandiose historical architecture and vivid social life. After WWI the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, and Hungary’s territory was significantly reduced as a consequence of being on the losing side of the war. Despite these circumstances, the country kept developing and growing between the two World Wars. During this period the romantic architecture of Budapest was enriched with Art Nouveau buildings like the Gellért Bath as well as with Bauhaus and Art Deco style, such as the the control room of the Kelenföld Power Plant.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Budapest was a truly colorful metropolis characterised by its grandiose historical architecture and vivid social life. After WWI the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, and Hungary’s territory was significantly reduced as a consequence of being on the losing side of the war. Despite these circumstances, the country kept developing and growing between the two World Wars. During this period the romantic architecture of Budapest was enriched with Art Nouveau buildings like the Gellért Bath as well as with Bauhaus and Art Deco style, such as the the control room of the Kelenföld Power Plant.

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The Art Deco control room of the Kelenföld Power Plant Photo: Kozelka Tivadar © Magyar Építészet Múzeum

The cosmopolitan glory that was so typical of Hungary during the first few decades of the 20th century ended with the beginning of WWII. The country, which became a battlefield, was first occupied by the Germans and then the Russians. The bombings significantly destroyed huge parts of Budapest, and to top it all off, the escaping troops even blew up all the bridges in the city.


After WWII Hungary was part of the communist bloc until 1989. During the communist era the previously open, internationally active country was almost completely isolated from the West, and the dynamic life once so typical of Budapest disappeared for a long time.

Budapest panorama with the Chain Bridge, seen from Buda Castle, 1945. Photo: FORTEPAN / courtesy of Military Museum of Southern New England

In accordance with the principles of communism, the free market and financial competition ceased to exist from the ‘50s on, and almost everything, including photography, journalism, fashion, and the rest of the industry got centralized and fell under state control as well as strict censorship. For instance, the works of artists got ranked, and then were either approved or prohibited to be shown, according to the so-called 3T system that stood for Prohibit, Tolerate and Support.

Exhibition for the workers of the underground, 1951Photo: Tibor Bass

Photographers were forced to choose either to give in to the system and created works of propaganda that mainly meant the heroic portrayal of the life of the glorified working class, or tried to deal with politically neutral topics in their works, thus inevitably turning from the themes and truths of real life to material that was thought to be universal. This kind of regulation later brought into focus the analysis of the relationship between photo and reality which lead to the birth of much sequential artwork.


At the same time, in spite of the dictatorship, artists were able to take advantage of a new type of artistic autonomy, because without the art market, artists didn’t have to appeal to customers or gallerists.

Asphalt Workers on Andrassy Avenue, 1953 Photo: Béla Kálmán
The typical coat of the ‘50s in HungaryPhoto: Divatújság, autumn 1951. page 2.

Similarly, the fashion scene was controlled by centralized state leadership and heavily affected by international isolation. During the ‘50s fashion salons and seamstress shops were nationalized, and fashion was determined centrally, at the Hungarian Fashion Institute, based primarily on planned economic goals in regard to the textile industry, and in accordance to political guidelines.


During these years after WWII, in a system that supported uniformity just as much as equality, elegance and stylishness became, so to say, “anti-regime.” Clothing no longer fulfilled fashion fantasies seen on mannequins, but became simple, practical pieces, made of cheap textiles and showcased by the young women (mainly members of the Democratic Organization of Hungarian Women) working in the spirit of forced emancipation.

Ready-to-wear clothing advertisement in Budapest, 1957 Photo: FORTEPAN / courtesy of UVATERV

Rebel Spirits - Riot Against Conformism

From 1968, mostly due to the impact of the Prague Spring, the communist dictatorship started to significantly ease up. Starting from the ‘60s, the obligatory uniformity and severity started to lose their importance, and matters like womanhood (feminism) and individuality weren’t considered political issues anymore. Although the department stores kept selling only the clothes made in accordance with the centrally determined fashion trends, during the next few decades more and more people were able to get their hands on Western textiles (mainly through smuggling) that they used to make stylish clothes based on the patterns they found in Burda and other magazines that were also smuggled in from abroad.

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Thanks to the progressing economic climate of this era new buildings were built all around the country that reflected this era’s social modernist ambitions and used modern design elements. As a result, Hungary can now be called a “retro goldmine”. One of the most exciting examples of modernist architecture in Hungary is the building of Hotel Ezüstpart.

Modernist buildings in downtown Budapest, 1975 Photo: FORTEPAN / courtesy of Lajos Balázs
Ikarus bus prototype in front of the modernist building of Hotel Hungaria, 1970Photo: FORTEPAN

As a result of the softer political regulations, the isolation of the country loosened up significantly during the ‘70s and ‘80s. More people could travel abroad more often, therefore international trends could reach the country a lot more freely. Mini skirts, bell-bottoms and hippie styles all finally came into fashion in Hungary.


At the same time, in this more open atmosphere the new generation who were born after the war emerged and brought rebellion and new trends with themselves, appeared both in the art and fashion sphere. During the ‘70s a strong Neo-Avantgarde movement started to evolve in the illegal exhibitions. A significant representative of this movement was Dóra Maurer who became known worldwide for her experimental, photo and film-based work. Today, her works are displayed worldwide in places like the MoMA in New York and the Albertina in Vienna.


Another great artist of the Neo-Avantgarde movement was Tamás Szentjóby who introduced fluxus and happening art to the Hungarian public. He was later banished from the country because of his work that openly protested the political system, and because of his participation in the samizdat (underground publishing) movement.


On the memorial day of the Soviet troops leaving Hungary, in one of his most exciting and provocative projects, Szentjóby covered the Liberty Statue - one of the most iconic sights in the Budapest Panoramic View on top of Gellért Hill - with parachute silk, turning it into a “ghost” that floated over the city as if it was the hunting past.

In 1991 Tamás Szentjóby turned the Liberty Statue in Budapest into a ghost that represented the haunting communist past by covering it with a huge parachute silk Photo: Magyar Narancs

In the ‘80s and ‘90s these progressive and rebellious tendencies started to show up strikingly in the fashion scene as well. When it came to questioning social norms through fashion, Tamás Király was the most notable designer.

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Tamás Király, fashion designer, 1988 Photo: FORTEPAN / courtesy of Tamás Urbán

Király combined unusual fashion shows that pushed the limits of the genre with performance art, and domesticated the genre of fashion theatre. In addition, he didn’t work with models. He hired chubby women, tattooed men, and people with Down syndrome for his shows.


Király was greatly recognized and appreciated by the international fashion industry. He had fashion shows together with Vivienne Westwood and Yoshiki Hishinuma, and after his Berlin fashion show in 1988 Stern magazine called him the the “pope of fashion”. His works were published both in Vogue and i-D magazine.

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