What is bunad? The word refers to Norwegian folk costumes--but the cultural significance of Norway’s traditional dress goes well beyond festive attire. In fact, bunad is at the center of a movement rooted in Norwegian romantic nationalism of the mid-19th century. Bunad is actually considered symbolic of Norwegian identity.
The Norwegian Institute of Bunad and Folk Costume (NBF) is part of the Valdres Museum, one of the largest open-air museums in Norway. Located in Norway's geographic center about a five hours drive east of Bergen, Valdres features historic buildings and installations, and exhibitions and guided tours showing how people lived in Valdres in former times. The Valdres Museum was founded in 1901 and NBF was established in 1947.
NBF documents traditional clothing and folk costumes from across Norway. The Institute developed a methodology for documentation nationwide in cooperation with museums, NGOs and individuals. NBF offers university classes and training courses on these subjects and the staff conducts research on bunad.
Ragni Nilsen, a curator at the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume, explained the history of bunad."The word bunad has its origins in old Norse and means outfit or equipment," she said. "Today it is the term we use for the national costume in Norway. At first a national costume emerged during the 19th century, inspired by the traditional costume from the Hardanger region. Around 1900 the Norwegian nationalist movement campaigned for that which was specifically Norwegian, and they wore old folk costume and the national costume when dancing and to events."
"From 1900 and onwards, the focus shifted to creating bunads from every region, signalling regional identity," Ragni continued. "Writer and activist Hulda Garborg spoke up for bunads made of Norwegian materials with traditionally inspired embroidery. Young girls made their own bunad in schools. During the 20th century, the bunad has gained more and more popularity, lately also with the male population."
"The ideals connected to creating a bunad have changed through the years, and the way they relate to regional folk costume of earlier times vary greatly, but the pleasure wearing it is the same," she explained. "Norwegians wear their bunad on the 17th of May, Norway's Constitution Day, and events like weddings, christening and confirmation."
Norwegian Independence and Bunad
Ragni shared the relationship of bunad to Norway's romantic nationalism of the mid-19th century.
"In 1814, Norway gained its Constitution and a short-lived independence after 400 years of union with Denmark," she said. "Although forced to join in a new union with Sweden, Norwegians developed a new interest in everything about their culture that might symbolise Norway being a separate country with its own heritage – like folk songs, fairy tales and language."
Ragni explained that towards the middle of the 19th century, the different forms of traditional dress in Norway came under pressure and gradually went out of use in the rapidly changing society. At the same time, interest in the Norwegian peasant dress had emerged in the urban elites. It was taken out of context and used as theatre costumes, serving costumes, in exhibitions and "dressing up". "The picturesque women's costume from Hardanger became popular and a symbol for nationalism," she said. "Adopted styles of the Hardanger costume were used by people all over the country – reaching its high point at the time of the Norwegian independence from Sweden in 1905."
Bunad Symbolizes Connection to Family and Heritage
I asked Ragni what the meaning of bunad is to Norwegian identity today and in earlier times.
"I think people feel connected to their identity as a Norwegian wearing their bunad and being a part of the family tradition and legacy is also an important part of it," she said. "Many inherit a bunad from their mother or grandmother, or they will receive it as a confirmation gift."
"People also stress the connection to the region of their bunad, easily visible in the style of the costume," Ragni continued. "The popularity now has reached such heights that many wear a bunad to fit in, at least among women. Bunads are also perceived as beautiful and may signal that you have the resources to obtain it."
I asked Ragni what inspired her interest in bunad.
"My personal interest in bunad and folk costume was inspired by a visit to Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo as a student," she explained."I met curator Aagot Noss and she introduced me to the folk costume exhibition. Her insight in the subject was awe inspiring. Afterwards I applied to a summer job at Norsk Folkemuseum, luckily I was accepted, and this was the starting point of my career."
The Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume wanted to highlight the work and significance of the foremost women in the bunad movement during the 20th Century in a new exhibition that opened in 2021. Among them are the royal role models and symbols, Queen Maud and Queen Sonja.
Also featured are women who have conducted research into textiles and folk dress and were pioneers in their field: Gunvor Ingstad Trætteberg, Anna Grostøl, Marta Hoffmann and Aagot Noss. Ragni said it is thanks to them that much of the knowledge about the production of textiles and clothing in older times has been preserved.
Ragni explained that some advocated for the bunad and laid the groundwork for its popularity today, like Hulda Garborg, Karoline Grude and Klara Semb, while Magny Karlberg have been committed to documenting, teaching and communicating knowledge about bunad and folk costume through a lifetime.
Read more about the exhibition Leading Ladies in Bunad (Norwegian and English).
Learn More About Bunad at Horda Museum Near Bergen
If you are planning a trip to Norway and interested in learning first-hand about “bunad,” another place to visit is the open air Horda Museum 13 kilometers outside Bergen’s city center. It is well worth the short trip–although it is only open on Sundays from noon – 4 p.m. In addition to an exhibit on bunad, the Museum has 30 buildings, rich archaeological finds, an installation presenting 26 boats.
Espen Kutschera is a museum educator with the Horda Museum just outside Bergen, Norway. Hordaland is a county in western Norway known for its breathtaking beauty--it is home to the long, deep Hardangerfjorden, one of Norway's main fjords, along with many spectacular waterfalls, such as Vøringsfossen and Stykkjedalsfossen, and the Folgefonna and Hardangerjøkulen glaciers, as well as the charming and historic small city of Bergen.
The Horda folk museum focuses on agriculture, fishing, archaeology, arts and crafts and has a collection of traditional houses from Western Norway. Espen, a Bergen native, is also part of the team that creates exhibitions
While I was in Bergen, the Horda Museum featured an exhibit on a specific piece of the local folk costume, called a brøstduk. Espen was kind enough to educate me about the history and significance of this beautiful element of a Western Norway tradition.
Deconstructing Hordaland Bunad | The Brøstduk
Meg: What is a brøstduk?
Espen: A “brøstduk” (local dialect) or “bringeduk” (most common term) is a cloth that covers the front opening in the vest of the female folk costume. There is documentation that they have been in regular use at least since the mid 18th Century, but the tradition might be older. The inspiration probably comes from the 17th and 18th Century fashion dresses. “Brøstduk” is a typical Western Norwegian phenomenon. The exhibit was developed in cooperation with “Bunadsgruppen i Fana Ungdomslag”, a local folk costume group with intimate knowledge about the costume traditions in the region. The exhibition is their idea, and they deserve most of the credit for the result.
The Meaning of Norwegian Folk Costume Tradition
Meg: Are brøstduks and folk costumes worn today and if so by whom and on what occasions?
Espen: Today “brøstduk” is mostly worn in the folk costumes of Hordaland, but back in time they were used along the coast from Sogn og Fjordane to Rogaland, and were also common in parts of Hallingdal, Valdres and Telemark, which are interior parts of Norway that had close contact with the western coast.
The use of “brøstduk” is an unbroken tradition in Hordaland. In the old days they were part of the general folk costume, used every day. They had several of them, for everyday, for Sundays, for feasts, for mourning etc. Today they, and folk costumes (“bunad”) in general are used only for special occasions like national day, weddings, confirmations, christenings etc.
The “brøstduk” was, and still is, a very personal thing. There is a lot of work and consideration put into the decoration of it. In the old days this was true in the choice of symbols. Today people are more into family traditions or local traditions, or even personal taste (within the range of available motifs), when they want to make a new “brøstduk”. Some people also carry old heirloom “brøstduks”. In the old days it was common to sew an important memory or another personal thing into the “brøstduk”, like a love letter, a nice picture, a piece of cloth from an old garment etc.
The Symbolism Behind Bunad
Meg: Is there symbolism in the designs used in the brøstduks?
Espen: The designs are full of religious and magical symbols, probably a lot more than we are able to decipher. Most people of today are probably unaware of this, but a century ago or maybe even further back in time, people knew the meaning of these symbols. Some of the symbols are common in other folk art, and has a “magical” meaning connected to folk belief or superstition, while other are Christian symbols, probably copied from the decorations in the churches, some of them dating back to before the reformation.
Meg: Are the brøstduks inherited or are they being made today?
Espen: Some make their own folk costumes or costumes for their own family, but most people order them from professionals. There are tradition bearers, women working in the traditional way. Some of them live off making costumes, others as an additional job or hobby. Then you have the tailors that have specialized in folk costumes. Because folk costumes are expensive, there are also firms hiring women in low cost countries in Asia and Africa to make costumes. There is of course a debate on the consequences of this, but I will not go into it here.
Cultural Preservation an Enriching Career
Meg: As an educator at a museum that specializes in preserving the traditions of your country, can you share with me why you view preservation as important?
Espen: Traditions are not merely heritage, but also knowledge and skills built over centuries, sometimes even millennia. When these traditions are ignored and forgotten, we lose more than our roots. It is important to tell people that we can learn from people in the past, even in times where technology and theoretical learning are considered more worthwhile than practical work and the know-how of generations.
Meg: What drew you to the work you do?
Espen: I wish I could say this insight about the value of traditions was the reason why I started working as a museum educator, but the truth is that it was a mere coincidence. As a former archaeologist, I was more into digging up stuff and cataloging them. Suddenly my new position showed me the value of cultural preservation and teaching history and traditions, not only identifying them. During my 14 years as a museum educator, I have never regretted this reorientation. I also have learned myself a lot of old handicraft techniques (however not making breast pieces), not only because they are important to preserve, but also because it gives me pleasure as well as insight into some of the many skills of the old ways, even if I am only scratching the surface.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.