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On Wearing A Bunad For The First Time In 20 Years

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Lady in bunad with flag

Our returning Norwegian expat talks celebrating 17th May in Norway and getting back into her bunad for the first time in two decades.

The Norwegian bunad, often referred to as our national costume, springs from traditional pre-1800 folk costumes. Hulda Garborg was instrumental in investing folk costumes with cultural/political meaning, creating an outfit that has become a symbol of ‘Norwegianness’.

You may love it or hate it, but come May 17th, people all over Norway take to the streets clad in some reconstruction of an outfit worn at a different time. Mine, a double layered sturdy black wool affair with a starched white linen shirt, impossibly tight around the collar and with a confusing ensemble of silver, was given to me for my confirmation, at age 15.

I had the size adjusted when I was 21 and haven’t worn it since. If there was a reason why it had spent 20 years at the back of my wardrobe, I couldn’t remember it in the week leading up to Norway’s national day. I was simply delighted to celebrate national day, in Norway, having the opportunity to wear my national costume.

Norwegian girls wearing the bunad in Norway

7.45am: I love wearing my bunad!

The day couldn’t have started off better – blue sky, sunshine, not too hot and not too cold, flags waving gently in the breeze and green all around. The kids are all in good form (despite some grumbling over the ‘formal attire’ requirement) and I’m simply one of hundreds of women wearing their national costume proudly.

‘I love wearing my bunad!’ I tell my husband, grinning and a little out of breath. ‘Okay, maybe it’s a touch tight around the waist (last worn at age 21, remember?), but it’s no big deal. I’m good, absolutely, I love this!’

8.30am: I feel great!

‘Hi, it’s so nice to see you! It has been ages. Your bunad looks great!’

Having moved back to the Stavanger municipality I grew up in means I am bound to run into old school friends on a day like this. Having people tell you ‘you look great’ repeatedly actually works. You end up feeling great!

9.30am: I don’t love the buckle shoes…

If you’ve never seen a bunad, you may not know that it comes with special buckle shoes. At 9.45, we have parked the car, walked a couple of kilometres to meet my father, dropped the kids off for the parade, and stood, waiting for said parade, for over an hour. My new buckle shoes, comfortable enough when tried on in the shop and for fifteen-minute intervals at home, are now distinctly uncomfortable.

I can’t help but feel mild envy for my husband, comfortably clad in a suit and normal shoes, never mind the young woman next to me who has swapped her traditional (yet entirely reconstructed) buckle shoes for a pair of Adidas trainers!

Barnetoget in Trondheim 2019
Norway's national day celebrations

Clearly, bunad fashion has leapt forward since I last lived in Norway. I’m not sure what the bunad police has to say about this, but I might just bring out the trainers next year.

10.00am: … or the wool skirt

Apparently, it is ‘traditional’ to wear knee length socks with your bunad and given the exceptionally warm May weather, that’s what I’m wearing. Wool + bare skin = very itchy

11.30am: Good grief, I can’t breathe!

We’re late for lunch. Everyone who has ever tried to drag three children away from their friends and an unlimited supply of ice cream and games will understand why this was inevitable. As a result of being late, I am walking briskly towards the car, trying to explain to the children that there will indeed be more ice cream later.

I feel uncharacteristically out of puff. My bunad bodice is squeezing my ribcage, the belt feels super tight around my waist and I’m struggling to catch my breath properly. In fact, I stop and bend down to catch my breath, causing the children to stare at me weirdly.

I’m done. We make an emergency stop at the house and I spend the rest of the day in my favourite loose dress and trainers, enjoying freedom of movement and feeling thankful that I don’t live in the 1800s. Next year, I’ll do it all again. Minus the tight belt and maybe, just maybe, the buckle shoes.

Author’s note: After writing this, it was brought to my attention that a similar piece was published in Stavanger Aftenblad. I was pleased to see I’m not the only one who holds mixed feelings about wearing my bunad.

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1 thought on “On Wearing A Bunad For The First Time In 20 Years”

  1. WONDERFUL! The old traditions are a TREASURE! Mother & Dad finally made it back to Norway & Sweden (1957) after years of being tied down to farming. Mother’s relatives gave her a piece from their bunads so she would have a complete outfit. I now have it & have worn it to a few Norwegian gatherings. My daughter, Julia, who was named after my mother, passed away several years ago. She would have been given this Hardanger treasure. I want it to be preserved & loved.J

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