Forget about the picturesque fjords and pastoral views reindeer herders that we imagine when we envision Scandinavia. Completely different stories of history, revolution, oppression, and cultural revival are told by the array of colorful, decorative, embellished and loved clothing in Dressing with Purpose: Belonging and Resistance in Scandinavia, on view at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe through February 19.
You’re introduced to the iconic folk clothing of three cultures when you enter the exhibition – Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi, the homeland of the indigenous Sami people that stretches across the northern boundaries of Russia and the three other Scandinavian countries.
But then it’s a deep dive into what each of these colorful creations represent.
The story behind Sweden’s folk costumes (folksdräkt) extends back into the 19th century, when rural peasants lived in a fairly hierarchical society and relied on their church clothes to signify where they ranked on the status ladder. Each community developed its own details and styling. In some communities, women used almanacs to help them keep track of various clothing combinations.
The exhibition displays an array of men’s and women’s country ensembles.
There are also examples of striking, elaborately silk-embroidered shawls that were essential to women’s status dressing.
In the 1800s, a series of economic and agricultural misfortunes caused rural Swedes to leave their communities and either migrate to the United States or to middle-class jobs in the city.
Swedish intellectuals worried that the rural population drain meant that country traditions and craftsmanship would vanish. Around 1900, cultural leaders prompted a craft awareness and revival movement – retail shops, showcases for hand-crafted clothing, and national museums.
Today, many Swedes gladly purchase and buy kits to make folksdräkt for festivals, parades, and other events.
The curators have even included items from a new cottage industry – protective garment bags specifically designed to store your folk costume!
In a whimsical touch, the curators have included a contemporary take from artist Heidi Mattsson – the Swedish national costume made from Ikea shopping bags, a cotton nightshirt and napkin, and sodacan pop tops!
And the curators have included several other inventive modern takes on national wear.
The story told by Norweigan folk dress is more tightly linked to the long revolutionary fight for independence throughout the 19th century. Rural Norwegian peasants were land owners. To city dwellers laboring under Danish and Swedish domination in the 1800s, rural people epitomized the “independent everyman” who had more control over their personal destinies.
During Norweigans’ century-long fight for independence, political activists began adopting bunader, contemporary clothing inspired by preindustrial rural clothing as a sartorial statement about their desire for freedom. It popped up at youth rallies and dances.
In 1903, activist and regional dance expert, Hulda Garborg, outlined a philosophy for nationalized clothing and popularized it. Everyone’s enthusiasm for and pride in the national costume kept going, even after independence in 1905. Even in the 21st century, it’s a sure-fire tourism draw up in Norway’s fjord country.
In the Sápmi portion of the exhibition, the clothing and art is mostly contemporary, with a focus on making declarative statement about indigenous rights.
Long an oppressed minority, the Sámi people have been subject to racial injustice, forced relocation of children to boarding schools, and industrialization of their traditional lands north of the Arctic Circle. In many jurisdictions, they were forbidden to wear their traditional garb.
Around 1970, the Sámi were able to organize and raise public awareness about their status and why they opposed government dam building in Sápmi. Across their land, people began proudly wearing the traditional gákti and other symbols of their culture and engaging in direct political action on issues affecting them.
The exhibition has posters and artwork proudly proclaiming native rights and identity, including an appropriated Sámi-style Rosie the Riverter image. For the contemporary eye, some of the most exciting clothing in the exhibition are by young Sámi designers and activists – ranging from Sámi-inspired home goods, modern woven designs, and even ready-to-wear party dresses from Sámi clothing lines.
The examples from Sámi makers demonstrate how design and fashion can help to reconnect young people with their ancestors’ heritage that society blotted out.
This wonderful exhibition demonstrates exactly how old traditions can be reinvented to gain traction, even in the 21st century. Take a look through our Flickr album.
Resistance and revival continue in the far North. Meet Jenni Laiti, one of the Sámi artists, activists, and change-makers, who introduces you to art-making in the Arctic: