Norway - VOSS Costume

What is a Folk Costume?

A folk costume—sometimes called a regional costume, national costume, or traditional costume—is a garment or ensemble that expresses an identity, usually associated with a geographic area or a period in history. These garments, like all clothing, can reflect changing styles and bodies and can tell us about the lives and activities of the people who wore them.

Before the 1900s, most of the world’s clothing was made, at least partially, at home, using materials that were available to the makers. Fabric was an expensive, labor intensive, and deeply important part of people’s lives. Garments that people wore might indicate social, marital, religious, or ethnic identity or status and reflect the events or activities that a person might participate in, from festivals or everyday workwear to marriages or burials. Some garments or materials were only accessible to certain classes or groups. Often clothing was made using extant materials from the natural environment and a knowledge of how these materials could be made into garments. Importantly, traditional dress was not a single, unchanging form, but reflected function and fashion over people’s lives–a dress’s closure might expand to make room for a pregnancy, or a blouse might not close with buttons to facilitate nursing.

By the late 1800s, traditional clothing became a site of study for European academics concerned about the ways that the countryside was changing and modernizing. These academics sought to collect, codify, and categorize folk dress, resulting in codified forms and styles that symbolized certain regions. As access to factory-made textiles expanded and homemade clothing was replaced by store-bought goods, the making and wearing of folk costumes became increasingly tied to festivals, performances, and special occasions, rather than the everyday. By the 1930s, people like Jane Farwell, Mary Ann Herman, Karin Gottier and others collected and used folk costumes to teach about different cultures of the world. In this way, these garments became “costumes,” or the clothing of another place or another time, used for performance. While the use and meaning of folk costumes differ from group to group, region to region, and person to person, for many people, wearing one is often a claim to an identity.

At Folklore Village, most of these costumes were used for dance performances, special occasions, and as educational tools to teach about the communities they represented. Jane Farwell’s lessons paid attention to traditional materials, patterns of making, and use. These items were made, repaired, and sourced by the community and these practices reflect both the traditions of the regions they represent and the needs of the community. Many of these costumes are made in styles that rely on the codified costume descriptions, but their pattern of use, making and repair, and the meaning that has been ascribed to them is informed by local materials, skills, and concepts of what it means to be dressed for the community to which they belong. Many of these items have become treasured garments that have been worn by many people. The collection of folk costumes at Folklore Village was not developed intentionally by one person, but instead reflects the interests, skills, and activities of the community over the last 100 years. The collection represents connections and cultures across the globe.

Traditional Materials and Techniques

Many of the oldest garments in the Folklore Village Collection are made with materials that were easily sourced from their regions of origin. Many of the traditional garments that are held in museum collections, and the costumes that are modeled after them, are representative of festival clothing. These garments were usually made of fabrics that were costly or labor intensive to make and had more embellishment than a typical workday outfit, which helped ensure that they were saved. Wearing these garments showcased the skill of the maker, the wealth of the wearer, and could be used to signify identity or place in the community. Everything from the pattern of weaving on an apron, the style of embroidery or needlework, even the use of accessories can relay information about the wearer’s geographical region, social status, and the culture to which they belong. 

"Costumes have changed over the years. Some of them have become shorter, some of them have become simpler....."

Jane Farwell, 1992 Interview

Linen: In Europe, many of the shirts, skirts, aprons, and petticoats used in folk costumes are made of linen. Linen is made from the flax plant, which was widely available in Europe and used to make everything from everyday to fine fabrics like damasks and lace to industrial ropes and canvas. 

Linen is made through a labor intensive process that involves harvesting the plant, drying it, and then processing it to become a textile. This is known as threshing and retting (removing the seeds and breaking the straw from the fibers), dressing (cleaning and pulling the threads through iron combs to make it flexible and soft), and then spinning it into a thread. These threads are then used, dyed or undyed, to make textiles and eventually the garments. It is sometimes woven together with other fibers like cotton and wool. 

At Folklore Village the linen shirts and aprons often wore out or were misplaced and replaced with cotton replicas, which were easier to find and cheaper to buy in the twentieth century. Cotton was also used in older garments in some locations and as it became more widely available in the 1800s.

Woven and embroidered natural linen on a shirt/skirt of a Croatian Slavonija Vinkovci Women's Costume. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)
Wool embroidery on a wool skirt belonging to a Gudbrandsdal "Gafferbunad" from Norway. (Folklore Village Collection)

Animal Fibers: Many of the outer layers of folk costumes from around the world are made of animal fibers. Wool from sheep would have been easily available in most of Europe and provided warm and water resistant protection from cold weather. 

Wool is a natural fiber made out of animal hair. Usually people sourced wool from sheep, but goats, rabbits, alpacas, llamas, silkworms, and other species of animals can provide materials that can become part of a folk dress. 

After shearing a sheep, the wool would be cleaned, sorted and graded by quality, and then carded to help all of the fibers line up. Then, the fiber might be dyed and finally spun into a thread, which can be used in weaving, knitting, and embroidery.

Luxury or Mass Produced Textiles: Many of the costumes in the Folklore Village Collection are made with fabrics that would have been purchased, rather than handmade at home. As different types of materials like rayon and cotton became widely available in the 1800s, people incorporated them into their folk dresses. Sometimes these materials became signifiers of wealth and were used for the whole ensemble, and in others, they were used in combination with other locally sourced materials.

The types of materials used can also tell us about the trading partners or fashion trends of the time, as seen in the Dutch example to the right.

People also made use of materials that we might not think of as being commonly used for clothing, such as horse hair. Jane Farwell once remarked, “I imagine all the horses in Switzerland hide behind the haystack because their hair is always being used for hats.”

The black lace edging on this bonnet from Lucerne, Switzerland, is made out of horse hair. (Folklore Village Collection)
On the Dutch Island of Marken in the 1800s, the decorative chest panels worn on the women's costumes, pictured here, are made of batik cloth from Indonesia, linking everyday wear to global trade and fashion. (Bea Lever Collection)
This skirt from Poland is reinforced with newspaper to give it stiffness, demonstrating the continued change and adaptability of people designing and wearing folk dress. (Folklore Village Collection)
This costume has a number of embellishments including beadwork, cording, embroidery in silk, ribbons, and sequins. Dated around 1918 "Juzny Tekov" Czechoslovakian Vest. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)

Embellishment: In some areas, embellishments on festival dress could include a wide range of materials, including coins, beads, cord, tassels, embroidery, lace, and more.

Traditional Techniques

Often, traditional dress requires specialized sewing and crafting techniques to achieve the desired effect. Handmade cloth was made by weaving, knitting, knotting, and crocheting—skills that were sometimes learned in childhood and practiced throughout someone’s life.

Other techniques are used for constructing the garments themselves.  For example, some of the pleats seen here were made by folding the cloth, securing it, and then baking it in an oven. Others are maintained by paying attention to the drape of the cloth or storing the garment in particular ways. 

“That’s the interesting thing, is… wherever possible, you escape doing extra work! So under the apron, you don’t have any. But there must be forty or fifty pleats in the behind.”

- Jane Farwell, Interview in 1992
The pleats of this dress from Slovakia are used to give volume to the skirt. They are held together with stitches at the waistband and hem. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)
This heavily pleated skirt from a Hluk, Moravian festival dress, was folded and sewn with black thread, then reinforced with decorative embroidery in yellow thread to reinforce the pleats. The cotton blouse underwent a similar process on the sleeves. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)
Farwell remarked that this festival dress from Łowicz, Poland, was "new" but the heavy folds and pleats in the skirts of "the old ones" made them "so heavy you couldn’t hang them up… you had to let them stay on the closet floor...." (Folklore Village Collection)
The hundreds of pleats on the back of this dress from Transdanubia, Hungary, were made by carefully folding it, then baking it in a bread oven. This process of baking helps keep the pleats intact over time and permanently sets them in their waves. Farwell stated that she had to rebake this dress at a local bakery when she purchased it. (Folklore Village Collection)
Pleats on a woman's costume from Juzny Tekov in Czechoslovakia. This ensemble is dated to around 1918. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)
Farwell says, "you’ll notice that the apron is folded back and forth so that when she ties it, it never gets wrinkled..." (Folklore Village Collection)

A Garment to Last a Lifetime

You know I think that all those folds are for the expansion of people…

Jane Farwell, 1992 interview

One of the most important things about many folk costumes is that they were made to last a lifetime. These were and are culturally and materially valuable costumes that were worn again and again, passed down across generations. As such, they would need to be adjustable and able to fit a variety of bodies. 

These folk costumes have many adjustable parts. Women might wear their costumes from their confirmation onwards and this often meant creating a garment that was capable of expanding to fit a changing body through pregnancy and motherhood. Shirts could be replaced or layered, bodices could be changed out or laced to fit a changing body. Skirts tied in the front and aprons covered the opening that accommodated a growing belly—a dress might reflect a whole range of styles and functions!

Sometimes, people needed to make do with what they had in a pinch. This dress from Östergötland, Sweden, should be worn with a scarf around the neck. According to notes in the costume collection, Becky Rehl, involved with Folklore Village since the 1970s, once arrived at a performance to find the scarf missing and dashed over to an antique store to find a stand in. (Folklore Village Collection)
Farwell, in explaining some of the Norwegian blouses, stated that “I suppose you’d call it a nursing nap… there are no buttons. You find no buttons on any of the Norwegian blouses… Actually some of them really cross over, and that makes it easier to nurse the baby.” Pins and scarves were worn to help provide coverage to shirts without closures. (Folklore Village Collection)
This costume from Rättvik, Sweden, includes a lace up bodice and tie skirt that could be adjusted to fit the wearer. (Folklore Village Collection)
The skirt closes with a series of strings and loops that cinch the skirt together in the front for this Hungarian folk dress. The apron is worn over this opening and covers any gaps in the materials. (Folklore Village Collection)
The bodice of this Swedish costume from Dala Floda laces to fit a wide range of body shapes. (Folklore Village Collection)
This Slovakian skirt closes in the front with a tie and is covered by a decorative apron with a large silk tie-sash. The vest could be changed out if it no longer fit—this collection has several vests in different colors and styles. (Karin Gottier and Mary Ann Herman Collection)

When you get married, you have to think about this married business. When you get married, you have white embroidery on your blouse. Then you have to have a blouse with black embroidery. So then you have to go and redo all your embroidery on your blouses...Aren't you glad you got married here?

Jane Farwell, 1992 Interview

As Farwell notes, sometimes, there are strict rules about who can wear what with what, but more frequently, the study of traditional dress shows the connections between different people through craft, symbols, economics, and the transmission of knowledge. Variation in the garments can make it hard to tell exactly where a garment is from, but there are many stories to be explored in these garments.

In some cultures, there are strict rules and meaning around the types of clothing that different people wear. In others, it is more flexible. Regardless, the study of traditional dress shows the connections between different people through craft, economics, and the transmission of knowledge. A closer look at some of the costumes can reveal a lot about the communities that made them. Decorations on folk dress may have symbolic or cultural values that can tell us about a person’s social standing. Wearing a specific hat, apron, or pattern of embroidery might let us know if a person is, for example, married or in mourning. These variations and decorations may even be a part of a wedding dress.  Jewelry can be a marker of region and wealth or perhaps just personal taste. 

This headscarf was a part of a wedding ensemble by its original owner in Skopje, Macedonia, in the 1930 or 1940s. Head scarves are not worn by unmarried women, so this bride’s hair would have been covered with a white silk scarf like this one. (Folklore Village Collection)
The embroidery on the back of this wool vest from Skopje in Macedonia incorporates the Tree of Life motif. This symbol is common in the Balkan region and often symbolized abundance and fertility, perfect well wishes for a new family. In some regions, women first wore this symbol when they entered into adulthood. (Folklore Village Collection)
The Breton costume features a white headdress (bigoudène) of starched lace. While once seen as a mark of vanity, it has evolved into a symbol of regional pride. (Bea Lever Collection)
This heavy necklace from the “Skopska Baltija Skopje” costume includes coins, a style influenced by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Balkans for around 400 years. (Folklore Village Collection)
The embroidery on the hem of this shirt may serve as spiritual protection as well as decoration. (Bea Lever Collection)
The embroidery from Hardanger, Norway, became particularly famous. Here, we see it on the high collar and decorative tie on this woman's bunad. This embroidery uses a "satin stitch" to create the blocked pattern. The center of the pattern is cut out, and then worked again to make a lace effect. Similar embroidery techniques are used in other regions of the world but the Hardanger region became known for the geometric, white-on-white style. (Folklore Village Collection)
Silver jewelry in Norway and other parts of the Nordic countries was a way to signal wealth and region. Certain villages might have distinctive broaches and cufflinks unique to that region, like the ones shown with this East Telemark costume. (Folklore Village Collection)
This dress is from Volendam in the Netherlands, which is very near the Island of Marken. The striped wool skirt of this costume is worn as the underskirt in Marken, but the outer skirt in Volendam. (Bea Lever Collection)

Like now, the clothing that people wore was often in anticipation of the weather and the occasion. Outfits could be comprised of many layers to help cope with cold winters or hot summers. In addition, the steps of getting dressed might not always be intuitive to us. The costume from Marken in the Netherlands has many layers—undershirt, striped underskirt, boned and embroidered bodice, overskirt, apron, vest, decorative cotton stomacher, and finally, a many layered lace and cotton hat.

To wear this folk dress from Marken, first, put on a linen undershirt and wool striped skirt. (Bea Lever Collection)
Next, add a wool vest and cotton apron. (Bea Lever Collection)
Finally, the outfit is not complete without putting on one's choice of many hats of lace and cotton. A scarf keeps out the chilly winter wind. (Bea Lever Collection)
Next, put on the black bodice and overskirt. (Bea Lever Collection)
After this, pin the decorative printed cotton cloth, called a beuk, to the front of vest. The Folklore Village Collection has a number to choose from. (Bea Lever Collection)

Historical garments can help us learn about daily lives of people in the past, but the ways that these garments are collected and used can also help us understand how they become and why they remain important to different people in different contexts.