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
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?
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.
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 and it has led to controversies.
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.
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
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? One
possible answer widely accepted 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
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.
Norwegians who live in the heart of urban cities and have no real rural roots are sometimes unaware of people
in the heart of Bunad Norway who are deeply offended. These rural Norwegians as they see it 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.
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.
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.
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. The controversy is
still alive today, 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.
Opinions bitterly divided people. Many who defended the
traditionalists said that this concerns ‘personal knowledge’. Bunad
embroidery was a kind of handwriting. They argued that 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?’ Many argued 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 was immoral to hire ‘underpaid women’ to do
this kind of work. Dahl’s Shanghai seamstresses were paid what he
described 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
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.
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 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.
So the main question as I see it: is what price your heritage?
secret/sacred knowledge online, 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.
Still critics argue why all the fuss? The Bunad is no different from what a kilt is to a Scotsman or a lederhosen is to the Bavarian or a sari is to an Indian. Yes and no. Each of these have differing degrees of exclusivity and symbology.
The kilt arguably was an English invention to control the Highland clans. But it became something else - a national symbol of being loyal to clan, crown and country. It used to be people only wore kilts if they had a hereditary claim to that tartan but nowadays no one really cares what tartan you wear (much to the chagrin of older generations). The lederhosen has always been a regional symbol not a national one but has been ‘McDonalised’ to an Oktoberfest fancy dress costume party. The sari is an interesting example that remains a distinctly Indian national symbol but can also now be readily worn by anyone around the world - just as well as I love wearing saris at Indian weddings and when I lived in India. But the Bunad is different because of its own distinct roots that has never left its national borders. The Bunad is a living tapestry and its threads can’t be simply out sourced to other countries.
One’s heritage should never be outsourced. To the anti-traditionalist naysayers I would say that the bunad is a special kind of garment saturated
with symbolism and existential significance; it is from somewhere, not
from anywhere. It’s Norwegian, born and bred.
Imagine your mother was a jotunn and your dad a Midgardian. The reason they met was that your mother was a healer during the war and later on to help Laufeys wife when she became pregnant, she met your dad when she decided to get out of dodge when things took a turn for the worse. Your parents had you and your twin brother, but you have a sort of human/jotunn mixed skin thing going on. Your jotunn skin covers almost half your body including 1/3 of your face, right eye, and right hand with patches of Snow White hair. (Your brother got the good end with lovely snow white hair, icy blue eyes and his skin on his chest exclusively) Imagine the shock and horror on Loki’s face when he sees you.
For extra angst for you all, only your blue skin makes Loki turn and you are skilled with your ice powers, all while Thor pushes Loki to hang out with you to help him feel better about his heritage.
Apparently Zuko has no right for the throne. He legitimately lost it twice, after his Agni Kai with Ozai and after his betrayal to the Fire Nation.
Thankfully dumbass Ozai has left the Fire Lord place valid to anyone; he give it to Azula even before he win the war. Azula has stopped the Fire Sage from placing the crown on her head before she fights Zuko. But Zuko’s Agni Kai with Azula over the throne is very questionable.
Am I the only one who gets a weird white supremacist vibe from the viking side of social media? I see tiktoks and other videos of people in like face paint and braids with #heritage and shit on it and I might be looking too deep into it but it feels odd. It seems like the kind of subculture where most of the people are innocently celebrating their Scandinavian ancestry but like 10% are using it as an excuse to be super proudly white and getting real weird and aggressive about it. Am I way off base? I kinda hope I am tbh.
I am so happy to announce that, for the third year in a row, I’ve been chosen to exhibit my artwork at the Chicago Public Library during May to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! This year, I’ll be in my own neighborhood’s branch: Logan Square! Thank you, CPL!
Heritage harnesses the power of the past to justify present social relations, especially relations of power. Governments trample over the lives and needs of individuals and communities, the wealthy convert their dubiously acquired wealth into cultural capital, all in the name of that heritage. And in our conviction that we must protect the remains of the past, the rest of us are often swept up in the enthusiasm. We don’t even question the relatively new idea of cultural heritage – that the remains of history are to be unquestionably treasured as our inheritance from the past and must be preserved in their original state. Or that what typically counts as cultural heritage are major historic buildings and monuments, perfectly suited to be exploited as symbols of the powerful.