On my first excursion to Norway in 2008, I arrived in Oslo in the very early hours of Syttende Mai, Norway’s National Day. After sleeping for a couple of hours – I was too revved up for more than that – I staggered outside and into the company of thousands of Norwegians, who’d journeyed the length and breadth of their homeland, to congregate in the capital and celebrate their country’s independence.
No matter which way I swivelled my head, I got an eyeful of bunad, Norway’s national costume. I’m sure I was unintentionally captured in family photographs snapped in front of the Royal Palace, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, bedecked in a Burzum shirt and a black leather jacket, looking laughably out of place amidst the radiant bunad wearers.
When someone puts on a bunad, it would seem magic happens. A bunad has the potential to transform a typically demure person into someone unrecognizably exuberant. It brings about shared feelings of togetherness, elation and pride. When I saw my first bunad, it pretty much immediatly shifted my dogged mindset – I used to recoil at the idea of wearing anything that wasn’t black – and left me with a hankering for one of my own.
“When it’s not easy to explain where you’re from, wearing a bunad shows where you’re heart is.”Unni Irmelin Kvam
The beginnings of the bunad movement can be traced back to when, after years of rule under Denmark and Sweden, the Norwegians were in search of a national identity. Bunad – the word originates from the Old Norse búnaðr – was developed, ‘as a way to show a national mindset,’ to celebrate Norway’s freedom, and as a way of displaying Norwegian heritage.
A bunad – of which there are as many as 450 regional variants – is a unique and complex piece of clothing usually consisting of a shirt, a shift, the main woolen dress, and an apron. There are accessories including bags, stockings, shoes, scarves, shawls, and hand-made silver or gold jewelry known as sølje.
Designed to last a lifetime, a bunad is typically passed down through the family. The importance of its role as a family heirloom means it’s imperative it’s kept in pristine condition. One woman who’s mother’s bunad was damaged by moths was especially innovative and transformed the costume into cushions. The intricate detailing of a bunad has a story, which, as author Unni Irmelin Kvam says in her excellent Ted Talk, The Story Of The Norwegian Bunad ‘speak volumes if you know how to read it.’
In Norway today, there’s a bunad to be found tucked away in practically every wardrobe or attic. The estimated value of the bunads – a completed bunad costs in the region of 50.000 Norwegian kroner, about £4000 – is said to be around 30 billion Norwegian kroner.
The cost of a bunad depends on the design, the material used, the embroidery, and jewellery, as well as who actually makes it, whether it’s a renowned company, a local sewer or the person themselves. There’s a market for bunad in China. ‘China Bunad’ are made for a fraction of the cost of a traditional bunad, but it goes without saying, as they’re ‘not the real thing,’ that they won’t last a lifetime.
For someone making their own bunad, the process can take upwards of a year. It’s long been tradition for parents to gift their children with a bunad for their confirmation at the age of 15. With the dresses, there’s always extra fabric in the seams so it can be altered as the wearer grows.
Silver, a metal which in Norway is steeped in legend and superstition, is an important part of the bunad. In days gone by, Norwegians used it to protect themselves against bad weather and illness. There are also tales of silver brooches being pinned on children’s clothing so trolls wouldn’t swap them for one of their own.
It’s common, though not by any means mandatory, for bunad to be worn at weddings, baptisms, Christmases and birthdays, basically any major life event. However when Syttende Mai comes around, it’s expected the bunad will be brought out of storage and worn.
The Hardangerbunad is known as the ‘first bunad,’ and is renowned for its red body and white apron. It became known as ‘the national’ in 1905 and spread throughout the country. It was commonly used to represent Norway, but recently the East-Telemarkbunad has taken its place. Many people say Telemark has the most ‘Norwegianest’ bunads.
“If someone tells you you’re not Norwegian enough to wear a bunad that person is prejudiced and simply wrong.”Unni Irmelin Kvam
There are dozens of ‘unwritten rules’ about the acceptable way to wear a bunad, and it’s expected that your bunad represents an area that you’re strongly connected to.
Women should accompany their dress with proper bunad shoes and purses. Sunglasses are frowned upon and heavy makeup is discouraged. There are even groups of people referred to as the ‘bunad police,’ who say bunads must be sewn and worn according to the strictness standards. To counteract this, there are folk who make ‘fantasy bunads’ by mixing and matching the styles.
There is much I haven’t talked about with regards to bunad, as I’m actually working on a much longer piece about its role in Norwegian culture. I haven’t for example, told you about Hulda Garborg or Klara Semb, two women who dedicated their live to bringing bunad into the Norwegian mainstream. But hopefully this post has inspired you enough that you want to go and investigate for yourself the part they played in the history and rise of bunad.
It’s been over a decade since I first went to Norway. I don’t have a bunad yet, but I have my heart set on the Sognebunad (the one in the slideshow) because, of all the places I’ve visited in Norway, whenever I go back my heart says ‘I’m home.’