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Imagine that you were walking through a Swedish town on a normal day and everybody you met was wearing a folk costume - the men in yellow breeches and bright white linen shirts, and the women in long, colourful skirts with aprons, bodices and a little bonnet covering their hair.

Unless you were visiting Skansen or attending a folk music festival, a scene like that would floor you. Yet just one hundred and fifty years ago this was what it looked like in Swedish towns and villages.

At this time Sweden was still an agrarian society and 90 percent of the population earned its living from agriculture. But just like in the rest of Europe, there were big regional differences in the country. Each region had strong characteristics, the peasants built their houses in the same fashion, they furnished their homes in the same way, ate the same food and, above all, dressed in the same way.

Every province had its own style of clothing, and every village displays its history and culture through their outfits. When people from Dalarna came to work in Stockholm it was easy to identify them through their attire, even to the point of exactly which place in Dalarna they were from.

Before the industrial revolution only the nobility, the clergy and the rich in the cities could afford to have all their clothes made for them. In the countryside it was just like children’s author Elsa Beskow describes it in Petter’s New Clothes. The farm was self-supporting, everything was done “in-house” except perhaps for certain bartered services. There were different folk costumes for different endeavours.

The folk costumes that have survived to this day tend to be the party clothes that involved the best materials and the most expensive textile techniques. These are the costumes that were normally not made in-house, but rather by the male parish tailor who probably was paid in kind. These are the costumes that fetch high prices at auctions and that you now can study at Nordiska Museet. They come with the best accessories like handmade shoes by the local shoemaker, fantastically embroidered gloves, exquisite bridal crowns, knives and scissors as well as other types of small tools that can hang from the belt. Each costume involves countless hours of sewing, embroidery, tailoring, crocheting, knitting, lace-making as well as silver-smithing, blacksmithing and leather-work.

A dazzling array of materials was needed to make the costumes - cotton, linen, wool, silk, leather and fur, beads for embroidery and silver for brooches. However their use in various costumes was regulated. All over Europe there were ordinances against such extravagancies as silk, as such vanities could be harmful for common people and give them lofty ideas. A simple silk ribbon used to tie hair could result in eight days in prison on a diet of bread and water.

In Sweden the last such edict disappeared in 1794, five years after the French Revolution. People were now allowed to dress in whatever way they liked, and one generation later, in the 1870s, the folk costumes started disappearing. Men were first to let them go, while many women continued to wear the practical outfit long into the 1920s.

When you travel the world you come to countries where folk costumes still survive in the form of, for instance, sarongs, caftans and saris. There are many rules regarding their wear and this was exactly how it was in Sweden. By looking at the clothes you could, for instance, see whether a woman was married, or a widow and whether a young girl had had her first communion.

Many women wearing Swedish folk dresses today without covering their hair completely, do not know that that was a deadly sin in the past. Hair was considered the most erotic part of a woman and just like in Iran today a married woman had to cover her hair completely. Another mistake folk costume experts react to is when garments are used at wrong occasions, or when skirts are shorter than 20 centimeters from the ground.

In the Rättvik folk dress, for example, there are seven aprons, each one for a different type of occasion. The red one is for going to church on Sundays and the white one is for funerals. In the 1870s two young Rättvik girls appeared in church without any aprons at all and were reprimanded with a severe lecture about how “those who come to church dressed in such an immoral manner do not show proper respect for the church”.

The main garments in a woman’s folk costume are a shift or a blouse with a waist skirt, or a bodice and skirt in one piece, or a bodice and a jacket. Add to that an apron and a head-dress and in many areas a waist bag. In Skåne you would wear as many as seven skirts, each showing a bit of the hem. An absolute minimum was two skirts, so you could use the top one to cover your head if it started raining.

Nobody wore any underwear (a tradition still honoured by Scotts wearing kilt) unless you could call the särk or the shift that. The linen shift also served as a nightdress and was what later became the night shirt.

“The young bride-to-be, so it is said,” writes Ewa Kewenter in Swedish Folk Costumes (Cordia Culture Guides 1996) “must wear her shift or ‘be-in-with-skirt’, her särk, when she was in bed with her young man on Saturday and Sunday nights in the ‘girls’ shed. There the girls slept in summer, and there hung her textile dowry - including not only bed linen but also the most important garments. There she met her young man at weekends. Should she become pregnant she could not wear the bridal crown at the wedding, which was a great disgrace.”

Women wore their shifts only when they helped to bring in the hay as noted by Carl von Linnaeus in Småland: “The everyday dress that women folk wore in the summer as they worked was only a white shift girded with the red band and at the same time they also wore a linen apron”.

Today here are 840 different regional costumes identified in Sweden, 550 women’s and 210 men’s. Although the folk costumes differ from region to region and you can identify influences from many styles in each and every one. The little round hat or skull cap was popular in medieval times, just like the pixie cap and the tasselled garters that are so prominent in the Delsbo men’s costume. Similarly the wide leather belts for men and women’s belts with buckles all originate in the Middle Ages as did the hanging waist bags that were common before pockets were invented.
One of the most famous folk costumes is the one from Vingåker in Södermanland with its high white kerchief, its woollen red skirt with the yellow embroidered silk bodice attached. It is one of the oldest surviving costumes, defined as early as in 1674 at a parish meeting so that it would always remain exactly the same. It did, mostly because the area was surrounded by such extensive forests that even the Västgötaknallar peddlers that spread fashions to outlying areas didn’t bother to go there.

In our days the original folk costumes are but one of many categories. Many areas now also have newly reconstructed costumes based on a sampling of older regional costumes. When only one dress or a depiction on a painting has been used for a new pattern one talks about a constructed costume.

National costumes are complete fantasies that sprang up during the turn-of-the-century folk art revival and the most famous of these designed costumes is the Sweden dress. Queen Victoria wanted all her servants at the Tullgarn Palace to wear the local Tullgarn folk costume. Märta Palme Jörgensen who worked there as a gardener loved the freedom the dress gave her compared to the fashion of the time with long, long dresses and corsets. She started the Swedish Female Folkdress Association in 1903 and together with Carl Larsson and other artists she designed the Sweden dress in far more varieties than the one we most commonly see today. Carl Larsson’s wife Karin had one year earlier designed the Sundborn dress. The upper class and the national romantics of the time quickly adopted what became the latest fashion. In the 1970s, the back to nature movement gave folkore another comeback and Bo Skräddare in Stockholm, who tailors folk costumes, designed a male version of the Swedish dress.

When Queen Silvia, put on the Sweden Dress on the National Day in 1983, the dress achieved instant popularity, 80 years after its conception. Folk dresses can be a bit warm to wear at times but they are practical as they are always “right”. They can be worn at the Nobel festivities instead of a long dress. Prime Minister Torbjörn Fälldin’s wife Solveig wore her Hälsinge dress at all official occasions. Queen Silvia and Crown Princess Victoria often wear the Sweden Dress and the Crown Princess now also has a brand new Vadsbo dress as she is the Duchess of Västergötland.

The costumes are a wonderful way of reviving and treasuring your heritage and the interest in the pricey costumes are at their height right now. It is interesting to see how they have also influenced current fashion, and how modern interpretations of the traditional folk dress have started springing up everywhere.

© Scandinavian Press from the Fall 2003 issue