Artefact of the Month

Decorative Felt Coat, 1873

July, 2019


The sensation of the year for 1873 was the Vienna World’s Fair, which dedicated an entire section to the handicrafts of participating nations.  It was a time in which the public was, in the wake of industrial mass-manufacture, looking not only to various vestiges of art history, but also to surviving cottage industries – seen as a source of national style – to help create mass products of a more artistic sensibility.  The term “cottage industry” was defined broadly to include not only peasant products intended for sale, but also goods manufactured by craftsman for customers of similar social status.  In Hungary, Flóris Rómer and János Xántus were entrusted with assembling a collection of domestic folk industry manufacture, and it is from the material they submitted that the Museum of Ethnography’s artefact of the month for July – a felted overcoat of the type known as a szűr – has been selected.   Collected for the occasion by Rómer, the coat, with its special cut and decorative design, stood among other famed specimens of the craft as a fitting representative of the Hungarian szűr tailor’s particular profession.

As a distinct sartorial phenomenon, the cifraszűr – sewn from rectagular sections of szűrposztó, a thick, rough fabric much-esteemed among the Hungarian common peasantry – first emerged during the years of the early 19th century.  Originally worn by popping one’s arms through the sleeves, over time, the overcoat, with its heavily fulled, relatively stiff material and increasingly broad lateral inserts, grew so ample, it could be worn only by casting it about the shoulders (“pányókásan”), in the manner of a cloak.  In Transdanubia, however, there developed from the types that could be worn with arms either in the sleeves or out a range of descendants that, over time, adhered ever more closely to the cut of the standard bourgeois overcoat.  Worn primarily by shepherds, coats of this later category were eventually endowed with the name juhászszűr, or “shepherd’s szűr coats”.   


The coat featured here, its collar emblazoned with the personalisation “G. K. / Vas County /  Sárvár 1873” indicating custom manufacture for the exhibition by Sárvár szűr maker Károly Gabriel [Translator’s note:  in Hungarian the order of names is typically inverted] in 1873,  is of precisely this type.  Gabriel intended the piece as a masterwork, blending various traditional solutions with more modern elements, e.g. assembling the coat from traditional right-angled panels, but form-fitting the sleeves and rounding the corners of the fabric at the front opening.  Though this type of coat was known to be made with the sort of large rectangular collar generally applied to the cifraszűr, Gabriel chose instead to furnish his masterwork with the much older hood.  The gracefully overlying, emphatically tailored, double-peaked collar and pocket flaps are cut in the arched manner of the coats of contemporary bourgeois fashion.  The thick, high-quality, highly fulled, felted cloth – in reality better suited to over-the-shoulder than to standard wear – offers a clear indication that the coat was intended for occasional dress only.  The hood, too, despite its functional appearance, would have been impossible to pull up over the wide collar, rendering it little more than a decoration. 

What gives the coat its true peasant character, however, is the style of its richly executed ornamentation:  the vivid red felt edging and appliqué, and the coloured wool flower-and-leaf embroidery that all but covers the centre portion of the back, running from there in a broad band over the bottom, shoulder seams, and sleeve tops.  Unlike the traditional cifraszűr, the front of the coat features buttons and button loops of a type typically made by Hungarian master button makers.  This innovation notwithstanding, the cord used to clasp the coat in place when worn as a cloak was not omitted, though its inordinate length suggests a more dynamic look was achieved for this secondary mode of use.  Conspicuously, the embroidered motifs are enlarged, perhaps as a mark of the maker’s individual style, or perhaps in indication of a desire to ensure that the somewhat more reserved colour harmonies of the piece would stand out despite the coat’s being displayed at a considerable distance from viewers. Certainly, craftsmen were motivated to participate in the exhibition by the advantages they knew to come from public recognition, something of which Gabriel was undoubtedly deserving, as evidenced by the certificate awarded him by the fair committee.  Because the Vienna World’s Fair came not long after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Hungarian master craftsmen tended especially to take advantage of the opportunity to proclaim their identities through their works.  Perhaps for this reason, the collar of Gabriel’s coat features – however inconspicuously – an embroidered composition of a flowering vine and a pair of birds, flanking an image of the Hungarian coat of arms and crown.

Thus, with their new, more fashionable form and ethnically demonstrative decorative motifs, the szűr coat, in an age when such articles had – on a wave of national feeling – been adopted as part of upper class dress, served as a model for a Hungarian applied art industry that was just then seeking to establish its own national character.


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Szűr coat:  front, back, and collar

Made by Sárvár szűr tailor Károly Gabriel for the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair

Museum of Ethnography inv. no.:  70.100.2

Photo credit:  Krisztina Sarnyai


Hungarian Folk Embroidery by István Györffy, published in 1930.  A posed shot taken for his book entitled The Cifraszűr (second reprint published in 2004, p. 341) in illustration of the manner in which the coat was worn.  Photo credit:  István Györffy