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Norwegian National Costume


The Norwegian national costume, known today as a bunad, has evolved over several centuries to become representative of the culture, history and diversity of the Norwegian people.

The bunad originates in medieval times, and the name derives from the Old Norse bunader meaning "gear" or "equipment". Early Norwegians, being separated by rugged terrain, which made traveling from one region to another difficult, wore garments that had been made at home with locally available materials. Distinction in garments was evident from region to region due to the isolation, and from class to class. All medieval sources testify to the fact that even dress distinguished one segment of the population from another.

In the 14th century when Norway lost its independence to Denmark (and later to Sweden), the country was weakened politically and economically. During good economic times, one region might have the opportunity to buy fabric and trims from another country, while another region did not. "This does much to explain why Norwegian folk costumes are so varied, and likewise whey the national costumes based on these folk costumes vary so considerably."

Renaissance and Rococo Influence

After hundreds of years, the greatest changes in the bunad came about during the Renaissance period, albeit very slowly since the period lasted about three hundred years. It is still believed that this is when the woman's skirt and bodice was developed. This particular style is still in existence. Color was added to garments; sleeves and bodices were in different colors and girls put ribbons and beads in their hair, which was worn, swept up. The headdress, called a skaut, is still worn by married women in the Hardanger region today, dates back to medieval times.

The following era, the Rococo period also brought about further changes, primarily in men's bunads, which were styled after military uniforms. During this time, in at least one region, the women's bodice and skirt became attached, creating one garment. When the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe, it became easier to travel from one region to another to acquire different fabrics, threads, trims and accessories. Mass produced clothing became readily accessible to most economic levels.

Following industrialization, the bunad nearly became extinct, as Norwegians opted for modern mass produced clothing. As the same time; however, there was a movement towards national pride and a radical artist of the time, Hulda Garborg (1862-1934) rode the wave encouraging people to continue wearing their bunads. In the late 1800's Garborg single handedly rekindled interest in the national costume. She is the one who attributed the word "bunad" to mean the national costume, as previously there had been a distinction between a traditional costume and a national costume.

Garborg was a persistent and independent woman and thrust her ideas of what bunads should be upon the public. For about four decades, her ideas spread across the country and bunads that had been inexistence for hundreds of years practically disappeared. Bunads became standardized, and regions without a costume copied those of other regions. Regions without an embroidery style copied that of rosemaling designs.

Eventually, there was an uprising of rural folk who spoke up to defend the old customs. By this time, there was much confusion about what was authentic and what was not. In the latter 1940's, committees formed across the country to assist citizens in recreating the national costume. This did not resolve the problem and eventually, the government formed one committee in 1947 called the Norwegian Council for Folk Costumes. This ministry became the authority on authenticity and accuracy of designs and preservation of the ancient styles. It currently serves as a resource for students, costumers and researchers. Norwegians were then able to reconnect with their history and to begin reconstruction of the true national costume.

Olympic Impact

Following the winter Olympics in 1994, Norwegians began feeling a very strong sense of national pride and sought to express it by wearing their bunads. In this same year, there was a national debate about whether or not to join the European Union. People on both sides of the table opted to wear their bunads as a demonstration of loyalty to their country. Seamstresses could not keep up with the demand and waiting lists extended into years.

In December 2000, this author visited Norway and witnessed parishioners leaving church following a Christmas service dressed in national costumes. Unlike wedding gowns worn only once in the United States, bunads are used repeatedly for weddings, national holidays, and other special occasions. They are increasing in popularity in Norway and the United States. Americans of Norwegian ancestry are interested in maintaining a connection to their heritage and having a bunad is a good way to attain that. There are tailors in the United States who specialize in making bunads. Bunads can range in price from $450 to $4,500 depending on how many components are included with the bunad and whether it is made by hand or machine.

Garment Details

There are 18 regions in Norway and most of them have at least one style of bunad. All together there are over 200 styles. A bunad signifies a person's individuality as well as group membership. For the most part, a woman's bunad consists of a blouse, bodice, skirt, headgear, apron and silver jewelry. The blouses are made of white linen or cotton, with a front neck opening usually clasped with a silver solje brooch. There is usually white on white embroidery on the collar and cuffs. The blouses are very similar from region to region. Black stockings are commonly worn, although sometimes red or white are worn depending on the other components of the bunad. Typically, black shoes with silver buckles are worn to complete the ensemble.

Where bunads differ are in the styles of the bodice, skirt, apron and headgear. The bodices vary from region to region with the most unique being from the very short one in the Buskerud region that is sewn to the skirt. Skirts vary in color and length and type of adornment. The most unique skirt is the double skirt from Telemark.

The skaut, which is the headgear of the Hardanger region, varies according to one's marital status. A bride will wear a colorful embroidered and beaded skaut. A married woman will wear one of stiffly starched linen in some arrangement, and young women and girls might wear only a headband.

Not all regions include an apron with the bunad, but the Hardanger and Vestfold regions do. These aprons are distinctly embroidered, with the Hardanger being very famous for it's particular style of open work embroidery. Bunads are made of multiple layers of clothing considering the cool temperatures prevalent in Norway.

The embroidery on the bunad is varied and distinctive. There are many types that may be found such as blackwork, counted threadwork, pattern darning, cross stitching, white work, drawn threadwork and the very famous Hardanger embroidery. The satin stitch embroidery of wool thread on wool fabric on bodices and skirts resembles the exquisite rosemaling painting that distinguishes Norway today.

The Finishing Touch

The national jewelry of Norway is the solje jewelry. It is beautiful silver jewelry that represents the sun. It is worn as a closure on collars and cuffs, brooches and pins. A woman might wear three pieces of this jewelry at once, with one piece at her throat, another over her heart and another at her bodice opening. A bride might receive an heirloom piece to be worn on her wedding day.

It is expected that a bunad be made of the best quality materials and that it is custom tailored specifically to the wearer. A bunad is intended to reflect status and region of origin. When one wears a bunad, one is expected to behave with decorum and honor in respect to national pride and the spirit in maintaining the tradition of wearing one's cultural heritage in the form of clothing.

After surviving hundreds of years of evolution and near extinction, the Norwegian bunad today is in great demand and reaching new heights of popularity, due to the general affluence of Norway and national pride. After all, an investment in a bunad is an investment in something that will never go out of style.

By Pamela Stutrud Groth

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