Bunad: More than a garment

Can anyone wear a bunad? Is it a real bunad if it is made in China? Is it a symbol of origin and roots or a nationalistic symbol? Thomas Hylland Eriksen explains the Norwegian obsession with this tradional garment.

The bunad is a Norwegian folk costume which exists in many regional varieties. A symbol of rootedness and belonging both local and national, the bunad is ubiquituous on Constitution Day, 17 May, but it is also used at other festive occasions. Although it is far more widespread among women than men, male bunads have become common in some social circles.

Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum / NTB scanpix
In 2001, Crown Princess Mette-Marit was reprimanded in the press for wearing a purely invented ‘fantasy costume’ rather than an authentic bunad from her home region. She has since made amends, and now has several bunads to choose between (legitimate in her case, being princess of the whole realm), including an elaborate bunad from her home county of Vest-Agder in the far south of the country. The Crown Prince Haakon and the rest of the family, also wear bunads on 17 May. Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum / NTB scanpix

It is estimated that Norwegians own altogether 2.5 million bunads, worth more than 40 billion kroner (€500 million). In other words, one in two citizens owns a bunad, and they are expensive garments with embroideries and filigree silver ornaments, consisting of several components often including aprons, headdresses, scarves or shawls. You could easily buy a few prestigious and beautiful dresses from famous designers for the cost of a single bunad. Moreover, bunad ownership and use has grown fast in the last few decades. Growing up in the 1970s, I saw many pretty dresses, but few bunads on the main square of my hometown on 17 May. Returning for a visit in the mid-1990s, I was struck by the omnipresence of a local bunad that I could not remember from my childhood.

Statement of identity

The increased popularity of bunads could be put down to the growing prosperity of the population of oil-rich Norway in general. But this is hardly the whole story. A symbol of Norwegianness, rootedness and regional origins, wearing a bunad is a statement about identity. Non-Norwegians are often puzzled by its widespread use, since folk dresses are associated with minorities in other parts of Europe. Perhaps the Norwegian identity is essentially a minority identity, even though independence was achieved through a bloodless secession from the Swedish–Norwegian union in 1905.

The ongoing story of the bunad is complex and involves claims and counter-claims about authenticity, the feared and respected ‘bunad police’ and a vivid popular discourse about who has the moral right to wear which bunad. The right not to wear a bunad is generally tolerated, but there is no strong and visible cosmopolitan discourse dismissing the widespread love of folk costumes as antediluvian, reactionary, nationalist and possibly racist. Yet there is no consensus concerning which dresses should be classified as sufficiently authentic and what the criteria are. Let us take a quick look at the major controversies.

So what is a proper bunad?

The bunad is a particular kind of festive dress. The term is a neologism based on an archaic dialect word, introduced in urban circles by the author and nationalist activist Hulda Garborg in her pamphlet Norsk klædebunad in 1903. Writing during a feverish phase of Norwegian nationalism just ahead of independence, Garborg argued the need for a truly Norwegian and regional form of formal dress. She collected and systematised what she saw as intact and useful regional bunad traditions, and even designed some bunads herself. Interestingly, Garborg never denied the syncretic and partly invented character of the new, traditionalist folk costume. She nevertheless emphasised its role as a marker of rural, Norwegian identity.

Very many Norwegian regions and even smaller valleys have their own, distinctive bunads. Many are designed long after Garborg, the Bergen bunad, for example, dating from 1956 but giving the impression of being a traditional kind of dress.

A relevant distinction can be drawn between a bunad and a folk costume. Folk costumes are everyday and festive clothes which were traditionally worn by peasants in southern Norway, and – like certain kinds of peasant food – have been recontextualised and upgraded more recently as formal dress. Bunads, on the contrary, are reconstructed and re-designed – sometimes very nearly purely invented – costumes designed from the early 20th century onwards, and are used at occasions such as Christmas Eve, Constitution Day, weddings and other major social events, although not at funerals: bunads are bright and joyful garments. Some bunads represent minor adjustments (‘upgradings’ and modernisations) of the original folk costume, while the link is less obvious or absent in other cases.

Roots and regional origins

The bunad is an important traditionalist symbol of modern Norwegianness. Most of these costumes are related to regional and minority folk costumes from Central and Eastern Europe, and the German influence has often been commented upon. More importantly, the bunad confirms Norwegian identity as an essentially rural one, where personal integrity is linked to roots and regional origins. However, 18th and 19th century peasants would often wear European-style dress at formal occasions such as weddings, or they might wear a folk costume, which gradually went out of use. In other words, there is a clear element of modern invention, which nobody denies, not only in the currently widespread use of bunads, but also in their design.

What exactly, then, is a bunad? The only possible answer is: a festive dress associated with a regional Norwegian tradition, accepted by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council as such, and widely recognised as a bunad by the public. Its popularity as a symbol of tradition has increased proportionally with the modernisation and urbanisation of Norway in the last hundred years, thereby saying something essential about the politics and poetics of identity in modern societies, where the quest for rootedness in the past increases with de facto uprootedness.

The problem of authenticity

The Bunad and Folk Costume Council is a state funded advisory body given its assignments by the Ministry of Culture, since 2010 part of the Norwegian Institute of Bunads and Folk Costumes, which has a stronger emphasis on research. The purpose of the Council is ‘to promote, protect and help develop the use and production of bunads and folk costumes in Norway as an expression of cultural identity and vessel of unique qualities’. The Council has collected a wealth of knowledge about bunads, and states on its website that it has 55,000 different patterns of bunads and folk costumes in its database. The Council cannot legislate formally on patterns and designs, but its advice is taken seriously. Often, a new or revised design is denied the term bunad, a garment which should have a strong historical element and a clear geographical provenance, but is instead called simply a regional costume (drakt), or – pejoratively – a ‘fantasy costume’ (fantasidrakt).

The economics of the bunad is informed by cultural values and norms relating to tradition. Notably, there are strict informal rules regulating individual use of bunads.

Some are more prestigious than others, but a person has no moral right to wear them unless she (it is usually a she) has documented kinship links with the place of origin.

In contemporary society, many if not most individuals have two, three or four options: they can legitimately wear a bunad designed in the place where they live, in the place where they grew up, or in one of their parents’ places of origin. They cannot, however, legitimately wear a bunad from wherever they fancy. Of course, they could buy it, but their friends and relatives might frown. An expert says: ‘I am aware of people in the heart of Bunad Norway who are deeply offended. They have no time for West End ladies who claim Telemark ancestry when they buy the perhaps greatest status symbol of all bunads, namely the expensive and exclusive East Telemark bunad. They also disapprove of people wearing gold chains and earrings with their bunads.’

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

There are frequent conflicts over authenticity framed within the bunad discourse itself. In the valley of Numedal, competition between two alternative bunads actually led to the creation of two distinct factions in the 17 May parade of 2002. Family members fell out with each other; local politicians groped for compromises. One of the alternatives, a simple folk costume, is woven in dark fabrics; the complex, reconstructed bunad sanctioned by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council is much more elaborate and colourful. The defenders of the simple costume argue that the new one, ‘overloaded with silver and embroideries’, is inappropriate and clearly inauthentic for a traditionally poor mountain valley; while the other faction see the simple bunad as sordid and joyless. Both factions claimed that their bunad was the most ancient one. The colourful and expensive alternative won in the end.

Business and traditionalism

The bunad industry sits perhaps uncomfortably, but profitably, at the crossroads between traditionalist identity politics and business. The largest actors in the field, such as the powerful shop chain Husfliden, try to have it both ways; by guaranteeing the regional authenticity of the garments they sell, they can be accused of using cultural identity as investment capital to justify exorbitant prices.

The bunad stirs up strong emotions. After the 17 May celebrations in 2001, Queen Sonja was criticised in public for wearing sunglasses with her bunad; in the same year, Crown Princess Mette-Marit was severely reprimanded in the press for wearing a purely invented ‘fantasy costume’ rather than an authentic bunad from her home region. She has since made amends, and now has several bunads to choose between (legitimate in her case, being princess of the whole realm), including an elaborate bunad from her home county of Vest-Agder in the far south of the country. Women are generally advised by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council not to wear makeup and earrings with their bunad.

The knowledge and skill required to make a bunad is considered a cultural, local form of knowledge – a kind of inalienable possession. Photo: Gro Strømsheim

Because of the wealth of detail, a proper bunad cannot be made industrially in its entirety. This partly accounts for its high market price. Moreover, the knowledge and skill required to make a bunad is considered a cultural, local form of knowledge – a kind of inalienable possession. In the spring of 2002, a conflict erupted between the traditionalists and a young entrepreneur who wanted a slice of the market. This conflict inadvertently brought the implicit ideology underlying the bunad to the public eye. In 2018, the controversy is still alive, with cultural arguments overlapping with the economic ones.

What happened was this. A young Norwegian of Chinese origin, who originally worked as a cook, began to take an interest in bunads. He took a bunad course, learning the basics of the craft. Before going into business, he changed his name from Aching to John Helge Dahl, realising that he would have little credibility as a bunad salesman with a Chinese name. (The current owner of the company founded by Dahl is nevertheless called You Hong Bei.)

Dahl founded a company called ‘Norske Bunader’ (Norwegian bunads), and then he did the outrageous thing, namely to contract dozens of Chinese seamstresses in Shanghai to do the stitching and embroidery. The fabrics were sent from Norway, and the completed garments were returned – at a much lower price than that of the Norwegian competition. He built the bunads himself. ‘To most people, it is the quality that counts,’ he says, ‘not who has done the embroidery’. Of course, he can offer bunads at a competitive price.

The Bunad and Folk Costume Council reacted strongly against Mr. Dahl, as did Husfliden. At one point the latter threatened to sue him for plagiarism, but since bunad designs are not copyrighted, they were likely to lose a court case. Their argument was that the craft amounted to a locally embedded kind of knowledge which did not travel well, comparing it to dialects. Talking about mass production and industrialisation of bunad production, they argued that the use of foreign labour leads to cultural flattening. The resulting products were said to have no hau, to use the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s term for the ‘soul’ of an object.

Made in China

A sociologist who defended the traditionalists said that this concerns ‘personal knowledge’. Bunad embroidery, she added, was a kind of handwriting. ‘When anyone can take a pattern, send it abroad, and make a good profit from the product, people will ask: What is it that I am spending one or two months’ salary on?’ Responding to her own question, she said that this kind of garment would feel alienating, and that it would not satisfy people’s emotional need to build their own history into the garment.

Another argument concerns the low salaries in China, claiming that it is immoral to hire ‘underpaid women’ to do this kind of work. Dahl’s Shanghai seamstresses are paid what he describes as a good salary in China, but which is a fraction of a comparable Norwegian salary. Yet others have said that it may be acceptable to employ immigrant women living in Norway, who may have assimilated some local skills, but not to employ foreign women living abroad.

The defenders of tradition and Norwegian craftsmanship also fear a development which could be described as a McDonaldisation of bunad production.

Although the Dahl case was spectacular in that it simultaneously brought out both accusations of racism and controversy concerning criteria for authenticity, his business innovation was less original than it might seem. Several producers admit that they outsource parts of their production to the Baltic countries and elsewhere where wages are low, and even Husfliden has admitted that parts of their bunads are made industrially because of the high cost of labour in Norway.

Keeping the recipe

The anxieties voiced by the critics of the outsourcing of bunad production are threefold: In a thoroughly neo-liberal society (anyone can wear what she wants; anyone can design and make bunads anywhere in the world), national identity suffers because regional roots are severed; economic interests suffer because prices go down; and the personal or emotional pole of the user suffers since the garments lose their special quality.

In what exactly does this ‘special quality’ consist? What is the nature of the considerable personal capital invested into clothes?

What is invested are ideas about hundreds of years of accumulated, local skill to which one is oneself somehow connected as a legitimate wearer of a bunad: it is the hau of the local. It is the recipe, not the food, that matters.

What is reaped from this investment is a handsome profit, an enhanced sense of community and visible boundaries to the outside world. Cultural property of this kind is intangible, it is legally oblique, and it is poised to lose against both the brisk efficiency of contemporary capitalism and against the individualism of free choice. Put your secret/sacred knowledge on the Web, and the spell is immediately broken. This kind of knowledge has to be scarce, localised and difficult to obtain, or it loses its magic qualities. Beyond pricing policies and profits, this is what stirs the souls of the people who care about the national and regional provenance of their bunad. Had they chosen a Dior dress instead, or a pair of blue jeans and a nice T-shirt, the problem would not have arisen. The bunad is a special kind of garment saturated with symbolism and existential significance; it is from somewhere, not from anywhere, and in Norway, it is serious business.

For a more extensive analysis, see the author's article ‘Keeping the recipe: Norwegian folk costumes and cultural capital’, Focaal, 44(1): 20-34.


More information at Norsk institutt for bunad og folkedrakt.

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Published May 15, 2018 2:17 PM - Last modified May 15, 2018 3:09 PM