Saturday, 26 May 2018

Thoughts for the season: Bunad

Norway recently celebrated its Constitution Day, on May 17th. It commemorates the signing of the Norwegian constitution on that date in 1814 at Eidsvoll. Incidentally, one of the signatories was my ancestor Eilert Valdemar Preben Ramm (1769-1837), which means that I have an ancestral connection to this event in addition to a national one. I might do a separate blog post about Ramm later on.

Constitution Day is celebrated with parades all over the country, and unlike many similar celebrations in other countries, it is the children who take centre stage. In the capital city of Oslo, the children's parade counted 30,000 participants, making it the largest children's parade in the world according to the Mayor.

One of the most popular costumes to wear on May 17th - perhaps the most popular, especially among women - is the bunad, the Norwegian national folk costume.

A Constitution Day parade in Svolvær, with many bunad-wearing participants. (Source, Creative Commons 2.0)

What is a bunad? As anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes,
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.

Personally I've never really understood whether the bunad is a national costume to be used by all citizens of Norway, or an ethnic folk costume specific to "ethnic Norwegians", the dominant ethnic group in Norway. Minority groups with deep roots in Norway, such as the Sámi, usually do wear their own distinct costumes instead of bunad. However, it is not uncommon for immigrants and their children to choose bunads instead of costumes from their countries of origin. To sum it up, the bunad is invested with different meanings by different people and can be called a multivocal symbol.

Sadly and shamefully, certain people view the concept of bunad in a racist and exclusionist way, and there are examples of ostensibly "foreign"-looking Norwegians being harassed for wearing their bunads, sometimes to the point of giving them up altogether.

The bunad is not just Norwegian; it is locally specific. There is not just a bunad, but many bunads. Every district of Norway has its own variant, with distinct cuts, patterns, colours, fabrics and jewelry different from those of neighbouring districts. Often, there is a generic bunad for a larger region and more specific bunads for smaller districts and villages within the region. In rare cases, a single farm might have its very own bunad (such as Slette farm in Heidal)! Although the bunads are often presented as primordial folk costumes of Norway, they have their roots in the folk costume tradition among the farming population of Norway in the 1700s and 1800s, a living tradition which was subject to fashion trends and even influences from other countries. It is also a well-known fact that many bunads have been wholly or partly invented in the 20th century.

What makes bunads relevant to genealogy is the fact that many people choose to wear bunads from a district to which they have an ancestral connection. For example, a person born and bred in Oslo might very well wear a bunad from, say, Telemark, if their great-grandmother came from there (especially if that particular bunad happens to look good). I support all bunad choices; whether you wear a bunad from the place where you were born or grew up, or from the home village of one of your ancestors, or whether you choose not to wear a bunad at all, it is all fine, and your choice in bunad does not make you any more or less Norwegian than anyone else. Wearing a bunad is one way of honouring your ancestors and family, but it is not the only way.

My reasons for not wearing a bunad are very personal. Eriksen points out that the bunad is "a symbol of Norwegianness, rootedness and regional origins". My Norwegianness is a fact; however, I also feel connected to my other ancestral ethnicities, such as my Forest FinnRomaniSouth Sámi and East and West African ancestors. Wearing a bunad would feel like making a strong statement in favour of my ethnic Norwegian roots. Most importantly, however, I do not have a strong connection to a particular region or village. As Eriksen writes, "the bunad confirms Norwegian identity as an essentially rural one, where personal integrity is linked to roots and regional origins." My Norwegian ancestors come from all over the country, from towns and cities as well as rural areas, and I myself have moved around a lot as well.

The closest thing to a home place for me is my birthplace, the city of Oslo, where I have lived for many years, where my dialect comes from, and where many of my ancestors lived their lives. There is in fact an Oslo bunad, and if I were to choose one, that would probably be the most natural bunad for me to choose. The fact is, however, that I feel the rural storbonde (wealthy farmer) aesthetic of the bunad does not fit well with the urban working-class lives of most of my Oslo ancestors, nor indeed with my own personality and life trajectory. Again, this is my personal feeling, and others in my family feel very differently and do wear bunads from Oslo and other regions. I respect their choice, just as they respect mine.

Those are my thoughts about bunads.


  1. How did the Forest Finns feel about wearing bunads from Hedmark? I've read that there really wasn't any particular type for them until the 20th century when one, for women anyway, was created. I've often wondered how Norwegian my Forest Finn great-grandfather actually felt. I know from the 1865 census that his family spoke Finnish, but understood and could speak Norwegian. Do you think they would have felt quite separate from the rest of the population?

  2. That is a very interesting question. If your Forest Finn ancestors spoke Finnish as late as 1865, I assume they would have felt distinct to some degree.

    Regarding Hedmark bunads, I assume they would be the "go-to bunads" for most Forest Finn descendants in the 20th century (until the Finnskogbunad was finished in the 1970s). However, that is just an assumption on my part. The truth is, I don't know much about the costume traditions in the Forest Finn "core areas" of Hedmark. My own Forest Finn ancestors assimilated at a rather early point and many of them lived outside the core areas.

  3. Thank you! My great-grandparents didn't teach their children Norwegian when they came to America. After finding out that my great-grandfather was a Forest Finn, I've often wondered whether he felt distinct, as you say, from the greater Norwegian population. His "Forest Finn-ness" certainly wasn't common knowledge in the family, as far as I know.