Jeans in Socialist Hungary

Ferenc Hammer, Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies Eötvös Loránd University. Hungary
The project is an exploration of meanings of jeans in Hungary’s Communist past, articulated through ways of its use, its regulation regimes in the family or in public settings, and an array of representations, let them be personal stories, family photographs, novel scenes, record covers or newspaper articles. The reseach focuses on the period of 1960-1985. The main source of the inquiry is about 130 personal stories that people sent to me to my „call for cooperation“ published online and in the press, in which I asked people to tell me the story of their first pair of jeans in great detail.
The series of simple everyday denim accounts highlight a fascinating picture of the changing relationship between that state and society in the Communist period. The social history elements of the jeans stories are often intertwined with references to various aspects of the materiality of the garment including allusions stressing jeans as a second skin, as an enabling material condition to act particular ways in the communist culture and society. The perceived, visually patrolled and sanctioned jeaned body’s performances suggest a perhaps often overlooked historical anthropological understanding of living under Communist rule. The changing jeans wearing habits highlight strategies of citizenship, that is, norms, rules and habits regarding other individuals and the authorities. Jeans‘ manifold capacity to embody various aspects of authenticity dovetailed accurately to conditions of the self of young people in Hungary in the 1960-80s. Finally, the act of remembering to the first jeans, twenty years after the regime change, offers and illuminating approach to the Cold War for the storytellers as well those reading these stories.
At the current stage of the project I finalize the manuscript of a monograph on jeans in Communism. I perceive an abundance of connections to other denim projects. Jeans histories in other countries with authoritarian, particularly Communist experiences offer natural comparative aspects. Contemporary sartorial topics with the strong performative element associated with the outfit are also relevant too. The gender aspect of the findings are also quite notable.
The main part of the research was done in 2006 when I was a research fellow at Birkbeck College in the Cultures of Consumption Programme, funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. As a result of this work, a first account of the research was published in 2008: Hammer, F. (2008) ‘Sartorial Manoeuvres in the Dusk: Blue Jeans in Socialist Hungary.’ In F. Trentmann & K. Soper (szerk.) Citizenship and Consumption. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 51-68. A volume on dressing in Socialism will contain this piece in Hungarian in 2008. Another piece, based on my presentation at the 2008 ‘Cultures of Commodity Branding’ conference in London, organized by the British Academy and the Institute of Archaeology, University College of London, will be published in a conference paper collection, my chapter’s working title is ‘The Real One. Western brands and competing notions of authenticity in Socialist Hungary’.
Leading Hungarian dailies, weeklies, TV and radio programs and online sources made references to my jeans research: HVG, HVG,, Magyar Narancs, Magyar Radio, Népszabadság, RTL Klub, Zalai Hírlap, Zalamédia Online.
A hopeless attempt by the Hungarian garment industry to cope with jeans dreams of the youth, from the May 1 Men Clothing Factory, ca. 1975.