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The outfit that makes Norwegians Norwegian

Traditions, heritage, maybe a whole year of careful handcrafting.

To wear a Norwegian bunad, or folk costume, is like wearing living history.

The Norwegian traditional costume is used on festive occasions, especially when celebrating our national day, the 17th of May.

With brooches, detailed, embroidery and wool fabric, they stand out and represent the old Norwegian folk culture.

Every region has its own bunad with a unique design

… even the northernmost part of Norway, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which features embroidered patterns depicting icebergs, local flowers, and mining.

The Norwegian folk costume, or bunad, is THE outfit Norwegians wear on life's special occasions. There are more than 450 bunads in Norway, each with its own unique design that varies depending on where the bunad (and the person wearing it) come from.

Profile picture of Anne Kristin Moe from Norsk Folkemuseum

Ethnologist and cultural historian Anne Kristin Moe.

The independence outfit

People in Norway wear bunads like they would wear their nicest dress or suit. Compared with how other countries use their folk costumes, this is pretty unique.

A bunad is an outfit based on old folk costumes from the farming society. In Norway today, it’s commonly used as a festive outfit by people who normally wear modern fashions,” explains Anne Kristin Moe, general manager of the Nordfjord Folk Museum.

Anne Kristin has researched Norwegian bunads extensively, and is the author of the book Broderte bunader: hundre år med norsk bunadhistorie ('Embroidered bunads: one hundred years of Norwegian bunad history'), featuring photographs by Laila Durán.

From 1814 to 1905, Norway was in a union with Sweden. As a result of the industrial revolution, people had started to wear the same clothes, often black dresses and suits. In their search for a symbol of independence, Norwegians had to look back in history to find a national identity. People looked to old handicraft traditions all across the country to find colours, designs, and patterns that represented traditional Norwegian culture. They were inspired by dresses, rose painting and woodcarving traditions from the old farming society and integrated all of these elements in the bunads we know today.

“The bunad is revived and reconstructed from old Norwegian folk traditions. What sets the Norwegian bunad apart from other folk costumes is its popularly worn by the general public,” explains Anne Kristin.

The special tradition Norwegians have for wearing the bunad through more than 150 years is even nominated to the UNESCO World heritage list.

Regional heritage

Today there are about 450 different bunads in the country. The embroidery and design of a bunad differs from village to village, so you can tell by their bunad where a person comes from, or where they descend from.

“For instance, in Sunnmøre they had an old tradition of embroidering on wool fabric and making fully embroidered suits,” says Anne Kristin. This technique is evident in the bunads from Sunnmøre in Fjord Norway and spread to bunads all around the country. The most famous bunad from Sunmmøre was made from an apron that stemmed from a farm in the village of Ørskog.

“In the struggle for independence, it was important that the materials were made of local wool and linen and the colours dyed by Norwegian flowers, so we could make bunads ourselves, without importing materials from abroad. Some bunads are a true copy of the festive outfits that the locals wore in the past, while other bunads are simply inspired by them. However, it was in all cases important that a bunad looked Norwegian,” explains Anne Kristin.

See some unique Norwegian bunads below!

Norwegians' gala attire

The bunad is the main outfit you’ll see on Norway’s national day, May 17th. According to The Norwegian Institute of Bunad and Folk Costumes, about 70 percent of women and 20 percent of men in Norway own a bunad. Anne Kristin says it's difficult to know why more women than men have a bunad, since most places do have a male version of their bunad, but it is becoming more popular for men to wear bunads too.

“People wear bunads on life’s special occasions such as Norway’s national day, at weddings, either if you are getting married yourself or you are a guest, at graduation ceremonies, and at confirmations and baptisms, some even wear it on Christmas Eve. A bunad is considered gala attire so it's also used on visits to the royal palace as well,” says Anne Kristin.

At the About You Awards in Milan, Norwegian psychologist Maria Abrahamsen and her boyfriend made headlines around the world when she took to the red carpet in a blue bunad from Northern Norway.

A bunad is often very detailed and embroidery, weaving and assembly take time, so it is considered a very costly attire.

“It is costly, but remember that a bunad is normally the only item in your wardrobe that is tailor made to fit your exact measurements. A bunad is not mass produced and the fabrics used are very strong and can last a lifetime, usually more,” says Anne Kristin.

The essential brooch, called a sølje, and the buttons, cufflinks, and belts are traditionally made of silver and gold. It is a common practice for bunads and accessories to be passed down from generation to generation. Once inherited, tailors can help adjust the size of the bunad.

It's also popular to wear a bunad at graduation ceremonies. These graduates are wearing bunads from a variety of regions.

Can you tell where they are from?

On Norway's national day, May 17th, you'll see many different bunads from all over the country in the same place, especially in Oslo.

The bridal crown is an essential addition when you are getting married in a bunad. Many local handicraft shops rent out crowns for weddings.

Look closely at the iconic national romantic painting, Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord from 1848. Nearly everyone is dressed in a bunad and the bride, dressed in red, wears a crown.

The Sami kofte

The Sami people have their own traditional costume, called kofte or Samekofte.

“Similar to the bunad, Sami kofte represent different local areas. But unlike the bunad, a kofte is a living tradition, not a tradition that we had to revive. Most kofte look the same as they did in the 1800s. However, because it's a living tradition, there's more room to make personal changes to it than a bunad,” says Anne Kristin.

Festive costumes

In the parades on Norway's nation day, you will see both bunads and Samekofte, and also some modern festive costumes. Festive costumes don’t follow the strict rules for bunads and koftes, such as being produced in Norway, and may use foreign fabrics like silk and may incorporate exotic patterns. People who feel Norwegian but don’t feel they belong to a specific place in Norway may choose a festive costume.

“A festive costume is simply inspired from old costumes and does not reveal where in Norway you come from. It’s innovation more than tradition,” says Anne Kristin.

Where to see them

If you're not in Norway on May 17th to see the parade, there are many other places you can experience these amazing traditional outfits.

Visit Heimen Husfliden, a high quality handicraft shop in Oslo or similar handicraft shops around the country. The open air folk museums in Valdres, Bygdøy, Hardanger, and Nordfjord also have bunads on display, and staff occasionally wear bunads, too.

Norway's national day

On the 17th of May, Norway is dressed in bunads!

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