Traditional costumes in Norway, craftsmanship and social practice

Few countries in the world can boast such a widespread and common use of traditional costumes as Norway. Traditional costumes are worn by women and men of all ages, in all levels of society and across the country. They are mainly worn at family celebrations such as christenings, confirmations and weddings, in addition to the Constitution Day on the 17th of May. In this way traditional costumes are closely tied to our ancestry and family history, and symbolises local and regional identity.

Written by Norges Husflidlag. Last updated 5. January 2023. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse

About the tradition and knowledge

Almost 70 percent of Norwegian women own at least one traditional costume, and about 20 percent of men do too. Traditional costumes are worn by women and men in all age groups, from all parts of the country and in every level of society. They are mainly worn at family celebrations, and are in this way closely tied to our cultural heritage. This connection is especially strong as many have their traditional costumes sewn and embroidered by family members, and they are often passed down within a family.

Knowledge about the use and wear of traditional costumes is passed down through generations. It is common for many young people, especially girls, to be given their first proper traditional costume at their confirmation. Boys often have to wait till they are older and fully grown before they can get theirs.

The process of acquiring a traditional costume is usually lengthy and involves many choices, the most important being which of the many different local varieties to choose. Today, most people have family from different places or have lived several places themselves. So, although each traditional costume is connected to specific local or regional areas, it is no longer given which local variety you have to choose. However, surveys have shown that most people still do choose a traditional costume from a region they have a familial connection to. It is not uncommon for relations to have traditional costumes from the same area, though few of them still live or have even grown up in the same place.

In this way traditional costumes are perhaps the cultural heritage most people in Norway have a connection to?

Some of the traditional costumes keep the old clothing traditions intact with certain pieces only for weekends or church. Many of the costume traditions include specific garments for bride and groom, and some also have specific pieces for confirmations or christenings. These ceremonial garments are usually more old fashioned and traditional in their characteristics.

Highly skilled practitioners

The traditional costumes are made by many different artisans, and in various ways. Some of the costumes require a high standard of hand sewing and specialised handicraft techniques, for instance in sewing, embroidery and the production of cloth. In addition, there are a number of specialist techniques required for making such things as lace, bobbin lace, seam finishes, stockings, mittens and gloves, and headdresses.

In all these fields there are highly skilled practitioners. Some are tailors or trained traditional costume makers who in large part make the entire costume themselves. Others specialise in various techniques and supply parts of the garment, for instance woven belts and ribbons, bobbin lace or bead embroidery. Usually several artisans are involved in making a traditional costume.

Another important aspect of the costume tradition is knowledge about their correct usage. Knowing how the garments are designed to fit the body, how the headdress is set up and worn, and at what occasions the various pieces are used, is also an important part of the intangible cultural heritage. Those with most knowledge about this are typically traditional costume makers, members of traditional costume committees, folk art and craft groups, and museum conservators and curators.

In what degree specialist knowledge is required varies with the different traditional costumes. Costumes from some regions are fairly simple in their construction and may be machine sewn, while others are more complex with many parts or even completely hand sewn.

Knowledge transfer

Knowledge about the use and production of traditional costumes is passed on in various ways. Traditionally, many would likely have learned to sew their own costume from relatives or others in their home town or village. Today, it is more common to do short courses or train to be a traditional costume maker.

Various courses in traditional costume making are held across the country by the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association and individual practitioners. Those who want to pursue traditional costume making as a profession, can choose traditional handicraft, design and product development as educational programme at vocational school and continue with a two year apprenticeship. By passing a test at the end of the apprenticeship they will receive a journeyman’s certificate.

Knowledge about how to wear and use traditional costumes is often passed down through one generation to the next. Makers and producers of traditional costumes will typically also inform their customers about the correct way to wear them. In addition, museums look into the materials, use and construction of the old folk costumes which the traditional costumes are based on.

Historical background

Traditional costume or folk dress?
A distinction is usually made between folk dress or folk costume and traditional costume, the bunad. Folk costumes refer to the local traditional clothes worn in rural peasant communities in Norway in the old days. The only folk costume tradition that is still in use and alive today, is the Sámi folk costume, Gákti.

The term traditional costume refers to the different costumes used today, which are, in varying degrees, based on the old folk costume traditions. At the end of the 19th century the traditional costume was worn as a symbol of patriotism and as part of the campaign to free Norway from its Swedish rule. After the union with Sweden dissolved in 1905, traditional costumes became a symbol of local connection and rural family origin.

At the beginning of the 20th century, traditional costumes were particularly associated with folk dance groups and the folk music community. With time their popularity grew and their use became more widespread. From the start, they were mainly worn on the Constitution Day and on other festive occasions. By the end of the interwar period, they were also commonly used at family celebrations, such as christenings, confirmations and weddings. Thus, the use of traditional costumes has been fairly constant since the beginning of the 20th century.

It was in this period, the first half of the 20th century, that many of today’s most popular traditional costumes were first made. Some are a direct continuation of folk costume traditions that were then still in practice, as we see with the traditional costumes from Setesdal, Hardanger and Øvre Hallingdal. Others are based on folk costume traditions, but adapted to suit the contemporary day’s style requirements, as with the traditional costumes from Telemark and Agder.

In the interwar period and with the influential Hulda Garborg at the helm, it was thought that home made costumes in wool adorned with plenty of woollen embroidery were not only beautiful, but also particularly Norwegian. Greater variety has later been included, and several institutions have since the end of the Second World War worked to incorporate better historical foundations for the traditional costumes. Usually these costumes have a larger variety of colours and materials (silk, cotton, linen etc.).

The popularity of traditional costumes has varied a great deal. After the Second World War it became particularly popular with traditional costumes for women and children and they were often home made. Again, after the Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994 the traditional costumes surged in popularity, and since then their use has been widespread. In the last ten years there has been a significant increase of men who wear traditional costumes.

Plan for preservation

The living tradition of costumes in Norway stands strong, but it is also at risk as the skills and practice of traditional handicrafts is gradually diminishing. Several organisations work to strengthen the education within the field and provide better systems for training. More and better education is the most important weapon against the loss of a solid knowledge and skill base in Norway.

Our hope is to gain national and international recognition for the value and importance of the common use of traditional costumes in Norway. By inscribing this on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, we will show the international community that this unique living tradition is worth saving and safeguarding for the future.

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