Király’s Immoderate Fashion

89_30X40cmIn 1986 Tamás Király arranged for his latest collection to be photographed on the steps of the Műcsarnok, the kunsthalle in Hősök Tere in central Budapest. A group of adults and children – barefooted, with stiff sculptural caps and belted robes – occupy the steps. The men are peacocks in bright silks; the woman, in black. The appearance of this extended family is so conspicuously alien, so strange, it is as if they belong to some kind of cult or perhaps have arrived in Budapest from another world.

Never produced, Király’s designs far exceeded what was required of fashion in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the time. Fashion performed the role of persuading citizens that they lived in a modern society; one orientated to meeting their consumer needs. In fact, the emancipatory project of ‘socialist dress’ based on principles of utility and egalitarianism had long been abandoned in recognition of the pragmatic task of managing desire. Upmarket Budapest boutiques (introduced after the economic reforms of 1968) as well as mass-market brands, and glossy fashion magazines presented a world of choice and moderate fashionability, albeit one which Hungarian factories usually failed to deliver.[1] In fact, the authorities entered into co-production arrangements with Western brands in the late 1970s – including Levi Strauss & Co. – to profit from the pent up demand for these ordinary luxuries.[2] Style, in János Kádár’s Hungary, was largely a matter of staving off the lingering sense amongst consumers of being démodé. If it had a social role, fashion was not to promote individualism but a common sense of the Hungarian People’s Republic as a permissive environment.

Király’s collections played no part in the project of managing consumption: usually one-offs, his designs formed part of ‘underground’ culture in Budapest in the early 1980s. It is telling that his first show in 1983 was called ‘Rejtett divat’ (Hidden Fashion), though there was little about his work which was introverted or secret. In fact, with close creative relationships with artist film-makers (including Gábor Bódy, János Xantus and Gábor Bachman) and new wave groups (A.E. Bizottság, URH, Kontroll Csoport and Sziámi), his designs lent themselves to spectacularisation. Fantastic ‘catwalk’ shows of Király’s garments were organized in Petőfi Csarnok, a popular concert venue in the Hungarian capital, that also featured live new wave acts and, sometimes, animals. Exercises in improvisation and punky iconoclasm, Király appears to have made little use of the techniques of the trade like pattern cutting. In ‘Baby’s Dreams’, his 1985 show, crowds of amateur models swarmed across the stage in garments that looked like they had been roughly pinned onto their bodies moments earlier.

The New Art Studio, a boutique established by Gizella Koppány in Budapest in 1980, was a vehicle for Király’s exuberant imagination. He introduced ‘moving displays’ into the store’s window in which living models presented the boutique’s garments. Designs – created with Koppány and Nóra Kováts – were often ‘hacks’ of existing clothes, some of which had been collected on trips to the countryside. _GEL3407Király and his young friends also organized informal ‘fashion promenades’ through the capital in 1981 in which they brought a kind of sartorial élan to colourless streets. Unannounced and exuberant, these walks were an example of what writer Dick Hebdige once called ‘hiding in the light’ – the blinding quality of subcultural style to be both arresting and incomprehensible, at least to those lacking the cipher to crack its codes.[3]

kiraly tamas 80s ruhak tranzit.huOver the course of the 1980s, Király’s designs began to take on more recognizable forms. Wearing his highly structured, monochrome dresses, models were given geometric silhouettes. One visitor to Budapest, a reporter from Stern magazine who went to Hungary in 1990, noted a strong resemblance to the puppet-humans of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Triadische Ballett’ (Triadic Ballet, 1922).[4] Making few claims on utility, these garments existed to be seen and, above all, to be photographed and filmed. Király’s contribution to Xantus’s otherwise conventional film profile of Hungarian Goth band Neurotic, ’Rocktérítő’ (1988), was to dress the clientele and staff of a basement bar – a glamorous vision of Hades. The stiff wings, exaggerated collars and long tube skirts worn by the women obliged them to walk with jerky steps and their arms projected forwards. It is as if the garments – glittering in the low light – have more life than the people wearing them.

Király’s conception of fashion far exceeded anything else created in Hungary at the time. He announced an expanded notion of style which owed more to the streets and clubs of London than perhaps anywhere else. In the aftermath of punk, ‘street style’ had been trumpeted in the UK as the triumph of youthful, uninhibited imagination over the stale elitism of the fashion houses. For cultural theorists searching for evidence of youthful opposition to commodity culture, the resourceful bricolage of punk and new wave style was even taken as heartening signs of resistance. Behind the bondage, workmen’s boots and reworking of early rock n’ roll style worn by the first punks, ‘lay hints of disorder, of breakdown and category confusion: a desire not only to erode racial and gender boundaries but also to confuse chronological sequence by mixing up details from different periods’, according to one writer at the time.[5] To do its job of unsettling conventions, style was deployed to queer the world. Sometimes this meant embracing non-heterosexual desire; more often, it meant a kind of inversion of the norms which ordered society.

Face 68Street style was elevated to style culture a few years after punk, first in Britain and soon elsewhere. This was a kind of reimagining of the idea of the avant-garde for the consumer age: the style cognoscenti were a vanguard, testing new looks and, ultimately, shaping the tastes of others. And style magazines (or ‘style bibles’ as some commentators liked to call titles like The Face and i-D in the UK, Tempo in Germany) set themselves the task of recording the rapid turns of fashion, naming and charting embryonic trends before, its seems, they had even had a chance to become a fully-fledged look.           Of course, there was a good deal of self-promotion in the valorization of style. This was hardly new either: the transmission of culture and commodities has long depended on taste-makers. What, perhaps, did mark out a difference was a ‘cool’ attitude which penetrated deeply into the the pages of the style press; into the new medium of the pop video; and in the theatrical catwalk shows of fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood and, of course, Király, even when their designs teetered on absurdity. Irony allowed hyperbole, theatricality, politics, and history to be embraced without commitment: to wonder how seriously these images were to be taken was, of course, to risk being uncool. When the sober-minded monthly Marxism Today published a commentary on British style magazines in 1987, its writer was both disturbed and fascinated by the ways in which politics and history were flattened on their pages. Serious matters and trivial subjects were treated with equivalence: ‘In the fashion photographs and general deployment of “looks”,’ he wrote, ‘history exists as one large set of slides to be wittily back-projected behind the models. History as hair conditioner – it makes everything more manageable and free of knots. Coalminers, the 40s, bikers, Red Indians, Palestinian solders, and lately even the 70s have been plundered in search of new “angles”, new “looks”. Inevitably then, everything becomes plaything, meaning does not seem that meaningful anymore – the history of Cuba is really the history of salsa.’[6] In approaching history not as politics or even as effects, but as images to be appropriated, style culture was infected by a kind of ironic detachment (as well as the pleasure which could be generated by occasional shock and outrage). Irony – the capacity to say one thing but mean another – allowed budding entrepreneurs in the music and fashion industries in the West to imagine that their activities were somehow outside the commercial frameworks in which they operated.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the communist world provided the new stylists not with ideology but with images. Fashion and graphic designers occasionally looked to the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s to provide dynamic blueprints for their new designs. The art director of The Face magazine, Neville Brody, raided Alexander Rodchenko’s portfolio for his spreads; LPs by new wave and electronic groups were packaged in sleeves which looked like posters from the Russian Civil War; and designers dressed models in Red Army chic. What Agata Pyzik calls the ‘proto-Ostalgie’ of much new wave music in the West drew deeply from an imagined Eastern Europe, populated with revolutionaries and commissars, new men and new women.[7] Of course, immersed in these myths of the avant-garde, it was rarely the present-day Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellites which attracted the style-makers except, perversely, as a wasteland of style. (And an ironic commentary on The Face’s sovietophilia came in the form of a television advertisement made in 1986 for Levi’s in which a Soviet customs official confiscates a copy of the magazine from the suitcase of young man arriving in the USSR, overlooking the jeans hidden underneath). Király was almost unique among Eastern European fashion designers in the fact that his work enjoyed attention in the West before the Berlin Wall was pulled down, featuring on the pages of i-D in 1989 and presented alongside collections by Vivienne Westwood and Yoshiki Hishinuma at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1988.[8]

Király too seemed to have his own Soviet fantasies. Working with young architect Gábor Bachman on a short video entitled ‘Kelet-európai riadó’ (Eastern European Alarm), Király designed a dress which turned its wearer into a red star. In Bachman’s film, she marches up the steps of Műcsarnok, arm-in-arm with a commissar. Fashioned from shiny satin and clad in blood-red boots, she was like some kind of latter-day Octobriana. Her partner – a copy of Pravda in his hand – looked as if he had just stepped off the tribune after delivering a rousing speech. They embrace – she without much enthusiasm – under a long red banner announcing ‘Művészet és forradalom’ (Art and Revolution) and then argue over a bottle of vodka. At that time (November 1987), Műcsarnok was hosting an exhibition with the same title, ‘Art and Revolution’, recording Hungarian and Russian art from 1910-1932. Mounted on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the exhibition was probably the most extensive show of Eastern European avant-garde art held in the Bloc. And yet the response of the public was muted and the audiences small. Few seemed to have much enthusiasm for the Soviet avant-garde, except perhaps for Király and the underground culture to which he belonged. Bachman – with architect and samizdat publisher László Rajk – designed a number of conceptual schemes, interiors and film sets which imported El Lissitzky’s Red Wedge into contemporary Hungary;[9] György Soós promoted his industrial music group, Art Deco, with imagery from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film ‘October’ and the visionary architectural schemes of Yakov Chernikhov.

Na-Ne posterLater, in 1990 Király was one of the founders of the short-lived NA-NE gallery in Budapest (with seven other artists and designers including Bachman, Rajk and Soós). Meaning ‘Oh No, This Cannot Be’, the interiors and many of the exhibits of the gallery experimented with the forms and artistic languages of constructivism, albeit in a critical, deconstructive manner. One suspects that these late expressions of Hungarian enthusiasm for the Soviet imagery owed less to a sense of living in the Eastern Bloc, than in their affinities to the new wave culture which had its origins in London, New York and Berlin. The NA-NE artists and designers to have developed a kind of ironic taste for their own estrangement and alterity, perhaps not unlike the way that the punks had turned anomie into an aesthetic in the UK and elsewhere. Art historian Éva Forgács describes the NA-NE aesthetic as ‘an iconic collection of formal elements which may have had a function of an original Constructivist work, but now all they reference is the falling apart and the historic failure of the one-time beauty and one-time idealism of Constructivism.’[10] In other words, the imagery of revolutionary socialism was queered in their art and design.

Few of Király’s garments from the 1980s survive today, except, of course, in the form of videos, film and photographs. This has much to do with the improvised nature of his designs, often created for one-off events. It is also an effect of their excessive qualities too. Király’s designs refuted moderation. Uncompromisingly excessive and unfunctional, they denied the possibility of any kind of productive return, even in the moderated form of mass fashion in Hungarian People’s Republic. The politics of his designs did not reside in the manipulation of signs and symbols. After all, style culture achieved its effects by hollowing out meaning. If any kind of political significance is to be attached to Király’s activities before 1989, it is to do with their immoderation. And as excess, the fate of his designs – to be destroyed – was certain, even at the time of their conception.

[1] Djurdja Bartlett, FashionEast. The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Boston, MA: MIT Press) p. 239.

[2] Michael Dobbs, ‘Budapest’s Blue Jeans Revolution: Levi’s Sets Up Shop To Meet the Craze’ in The Washington Post (11 May 1978)

[3] Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light. On Images and Things (London: Comedia, 1988).

[4] Jan Kromschröder, ‘Folklor und strenge Linien: Die Kreationen des Tamás Király’ in Stern Magazin, 14 (29 March 1990) pp. 150-154.

[5] Dick Hebdige, Subculture. The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen and Co., 1979), p. 123.

[6] George Barber, ‘Nick Logan’ in Marxism Today (September 1988), p. 52.

[7] Agata Pyzik, Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in East and West Europe (Winchester: Zero, 2013) p. 113.

[8] CD. ‘Fashion Hungary’ in i-D, no. 71 (1989) p. 83.

[9] See Péter Esterházy, ‘Egy építészeti kérdéshez’ in Magyar Építőművészet, (February 1986) pp. 56-7.

[10] Éva Forgács, ‘Deconstructing Constructivism in Post-Communist Hungary’ in David Ayers et al, eds., Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2015) pp. 320-321.

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