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Norway's national costume

Sun, Sep 29th, 2002
Posted in Norwegian Ancestry

Monday, May 13, 2002

The bunad, Norway's National Costume, will be worn by Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans this weekend to celebrate Syttende Mai (17th May). Just as America celebrates the 4th of July, Norway celebrates Constitution Day on the 17th of May.

Never out of style, the bunad is worn for various events including baptisms, confirmations, weddings, folk dancing, and national holidays. It's not just a "female thing" to wear the bunad, as men of all ages are leaving behind the boring black tuxedo for the handsome, comfortable, and colorful bunad.

This weekend my sixteen-year-old son, Alexander Knud Huntrods, and I will be among those stepping out in high style and wearing the authentic, handmade Norwegian bunader. Alex's Vågå i Gudbrandsdalen bunad, ordered while we were in Norway last summer, arrived only days ago for the upcoming festivities. My Nes i Hallingdal bunad was made 20 years ago by an 80 year-old relative, Marta Sevre, from Norway and used as my wedding dress.

There are over 300 designs of bunader in Norway, indicative of one's home locality or place of ancestral birth. Much of the bunad variation was due to parish boundaries, fjords, or the isolation and remoteness of the Norwegian districts. Some areas were almost inaccessible with steep and narrow valleys surrounded by high mountains.


In the late 1800's, there was a national romantic movement in Norway, due to their liberation first from Denmark and then from Sweden. Norway was searching for its own national identity, and the people had a desire to take care of everything genuinely Norwegian. Traditional folk costumes, which varied from district to district, were commonly worn in the Norwegian rural areas. The people living in towns wore clothes much like that in other European and American towns. Interest in folk costumes increased as the culture and traditions of rural Norway were looked upon with nostalgia.

Pioneers that encouraged people to revive and preserve their genuine folk costume traditions were Hulda Garborg and Klara Semb, her folk dancing student. In 1947, the National Council for Folk Costumes, was founded to give guidance in registering and reconstructing historic folk costumes.

Since the bunad is the festive costume based on the geographic area where it originated, ones ancestral heritage can be identified by the bunad worn. Costume differences are found mostly in the cut and ornamentation of the clothes.

Adding elegance and color to any event, the bunad is officially recognized as having the status of full formal dress. It's a complete attire from head to toe, thus it includes a head-dress and shoes. An authentic bunad, a lifetime investment, ranges in price from about $1,500 to $5,000. In Norway, many teenagers start receiving their authentic bunad at confirmation.

Silver jewelry

Silver was an important part of early Norwegian life as it was both functional to protect against the evil forces and ornamental to show prosperity. In Norway, silver had its roots with the farmers, as it was their only status symbol. Many farmers supplemented their small farm incomes by becoming craftsmen.

Filled with superstitions and legends, silver was considered magical. It was credited with healing both the people and the animals, protecting against storms, and even making beer work. People believed that supernatural creatures, huldrefolk, lived under the mountains. Since the silver was mined in the mountains, it was believed to have strong ties to the huldrefolk.

Everyone wore some amount of silver to be protected from the huldrefolk, as one never knew when huldre might be encountered. Mothers pinned silver on their newborn baby's clothes to prevent the huldrefolk from swapping huldre babies for human babies. Consequently, silver jewelry became a necessary part of the bunad that included pins, brooches, chains, belts, clasps, buttons, cufflinks, buckles, rings, and the bridal crown. Today, silver is worn as a symbol of ones ethnic ancestry.

Men's Gudbrandsdalen bunad

My son Alex, a 10th grader, is proud of and knowledgeable about his ethnic heritage. Last summer, Alex and his aunt, Teresa O'Connor, represented the USA Valdres Samband Bygdelag (those of Valdres ancestry) and walked in the 100-year Anniversary Valdres Folkemuseum Parade in Fagernes, Norway.

Honored guests leading the parade were Norway's Crown Prince Haakon and his now wife Mette-Marit wearing their bunader. The Norwegian newspapers were filled with controversy for days following the parade. Mette-Marit had worn a non-traditional bunad in the Fagernes parade and was planning to wear a New York wedding dress instead of an authentic bunad.

While in Norway, Alex was measured for his very own bunad. He selected a bunad from Vågå i Gudbrandsdalen. Vågå is the home of Thor Ekre, an exchange student who lived with my parents. After arriving in Norway, Thor's father-in-law, Erik Bjørndal, took Alex and I to their family's bunad seamstress for Alex's long anticipated measuring. The seamstress assisted Alex in selecting from several Gudbrandsdalen versions of the bunad: short or long coat, knee-breeches or long pants, vest color, stocking color, tatting on the shirt collar and cuffs, design of the buttons, and quality of the wool.

Alex's bunad is made from the same high quality wool from England used in the Vågå bunader for over 150 years. Thor's wife, Anne-Marit, helped Alex select a traditional Vågå silver neck pin and cufflinks for his shirt. Alex chose a special button design called Peer Gynt, after Thor told him of the legendary Henrik Ibsen character, Peer Gynt, riding a reindeer in Gudbrandsdalen. The bunad has a total of 40 Peer Gynt buttons.

An accomplished knifemaker, Peer Kleiven, Thor's brother-in-law, is currently in the process of handmaking Alex's bunad knife. The cased knife will hang from a special button located on the right side of the knee-breeches' waistband.

The blade of the knife is damasteel, which was developed during the Middle Ages. It consists of over one hundred layers of two different steel grades forged together. Peer selected a blade design called "Odin's Eye" from the Viking Era. Birch burl is being used for the knife handle.

Alex plans to wear his bunad at the Concordia Language Villages International Day in Bemidji, MN this summer. This will be Alex's fifth time to attend the Skogfjorden Norwegian Camp, where students are immersed in the Norwegian language and culture. He will receive one year of high school language credit for the one-month course.

Women's Hallingdal bunad

My Nes i Hallingdal bunad is a very unique type of costume due to its high bodice and long skirt. This so called "long skirt" is only found in the Telemark, Hallingdal, and Setesdal areas of Norway. I've found it to be very practical bunad as it always fits.

The pleated long skirt is made of a double shuttle weave wool. There is an extensive amount of hand embroidery on the bodice, top of the apron, purse, cap, and all the way around the hem. A fine wool apron adorned with a rose pattern is attached to the bunad. My white cotton shirt has colored embroidery around the collar and cuffs. I also have a matching flora cap, which ties in a bow under the chin.

Deeply rooted settlements

According to the Norwegian Research Guide, the Norwegian pioneers settled in Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties in 1850, Fillmore County in 1851, and Houston County in 1853. "The triangle from Houston and Fillmore counties to Albert Lea and Blue Earth to the west and Faribault, Northfield and Red Wing to the north had more Norwegians than any other place in America."

When the Norwegian immigrants changed from their native dress to American clothing, only the use of the jewelry was retained. The silver brooches were turned into breastpins.

Step out this weekend, use some of your money to buy your ethnic wardrobe or have one made out of indigenous fabric and join in the festivities to celebrate Syttende Mai. Be sure to wear your silver to show your ethnic ancestry and Norwegian spirit.

To learn more about Norway's National Costume and view photographs of more than 80 bunader from all parts of Norway, visit (English version).

Deb Nelson Gourley is a layout editor at the Journal. She was raised on a farm in Amherst (near Preston), and is writing a book about her Norwegian heritage. You can visit the author's Norwegian Ancestry Series at for all of her stories. Deb can be reached at


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2:21:18, Oct 20th 2012

gera says:
what a wonderful history..i wish i can visit NORWAY


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9:27:41, May 16th 2013

caal girl says:
Nice outfit on you. I loved some of the dresses but am holding my breath for the next instalment coming up now in October. If you ever need help when your traductrice (or traducteur?) is out of town, give me a shout. I am a trained translator and translate from French. :)


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