Bunad v. festdrakt: Expert Deb McConaghy explains and creates

Two examples of a festdrakt, the less formal version of the bunad.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni
Two festdrakts McConaghy brought to her D.C. workshop. Festdrakts are a less formal version of a Norwegian national costume.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Many Norwegian-American women dream of someday wearing their very own bunad. But often it remains only a dream because of the high cost of this national dress. The average cost of a bunad in Norway today is approximately $4,000, with additional money being spent on the jewelry.

So what is one to do? The best solution is to find an excellent seamstress who has in-depth knowledge of the bunad and its less sophisticated sibling, the festdrakt.

Deb McConaghy is one such person. She makes presentations on the bunad and offers festdrakt workshops to Sons of Norway lodges and other interested groups such as Nordic Dance groups and the John C. Campbell Folk School. She recently held a festdrakt workshop for members of the Washington, D.C., SON lodge and every participant went away delighted.

 Photo courtesy of Deb McConaghy Deb shows off her bunad.

Photo courtesy of Deb McConaghy
Deb shows off her bunad.

When she was thirteen, Deb received a Hardanger bunad from her grandmother. She liked to sew, so she made the necessary alterations herself. She later began making bunads, first for a niece, then for a cousin, and for a few other close relatives.

A concerned aunt then gave Deb a book on bunads. She wanted to make sure her niece was doing it right! The rules for what makes an authentic bunad are very strict. This book inspired Deb and she began doing additional research. She spent hours and hours reading as much as she could. She bought many books and read whatever she could find on the internet. She continues to read and deepen her knowledge. She now has a very nice library of books on the bunad and festdrakt, and is probably as knowledgeable as anyone can be.

Deb greeted the participants at her latest workshop, sponsored by the Washington, D.C., Sons of Norway lodge. All had different ideas and needs and she skillfully satisfied everyone.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni Doris Goodlett made a purse to match her festdrakt with Deb's help.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni
Doris Goodlett made a purse to match her festdrakt with Deb’s help.

Doris Goodlett, the lodge’s Vice President, arrived wearing the festdrakt that Deb had made for her at a previous workshop. She had returned because she wanted to add an appropriate purse to her ensemble. Deb embroidered the pattern on her embroidery machine and then Doris completed the purse. It was a design that Deb had created and had sewn out a few times for other folks.

Pat De Roche had planned to ask Deb to sew a festdrakt for her but, when she arrived, she saw three costumes that Deb had made and was offering for sale. She was very attracted to one of them and bought it on the spot. She made a few alterations and then was good to go! It was a festdrakt made from linen and cottons and dressed up with a fancy buckle and a silk scarf.

Deb said that scarves are currently quite popular in Norway. They are often chosen by color or whatever goes well with the person’s bunad.

After going with a group of Tronders to Trondheim for the Syttende Mai bicentennial in 2014, Tenley Erickson decided she wanted a traditional dress. When she heard about Deb’s workshop, she thought a festdrakt would be a great way to have a less formal dress, but one that still honored her heritage.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni Tenley Erickson worked with Deb to design the perfect bunad.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni
Tenley Erickson worked with Deb to design the perfect festdrakt.

She spent time poring over several of Deb’s books and then showed Deb what she liked. Deb took her to a table with a wide assortment of fabrics and discussed what would be appropriate. The materials of her festdrakt resemble the Trøndelag regional bunad. Her skirt is dark blue damask, her vest light blue damask, and her apron off-white damask. Her blouse is embroidered in the Trøndelag style. She also chose a brooch to wear at the neck from Deb’s jewelry display.

I had also done some research ahead of time and wanted my festdrakt to reflect my ancestral roots. But which roots? I have ties to Lom and Dovre in Gudbrandsdal and to several places in Hallingdal including Gol, Hol, Nes, Hemsedal, and Ål. I decided on something from Lom because it is the only place—so far—where I have located living relatives. Then I made an exciting discovery —the reconstructed Graffer bunad. This bunad was first sewn in the 1930s, based on a skirt and vest worn in the area in the 1830s found on the Graffer farm. I had ancestors who had lived on that farm!

I looked at photos of the Graffer bunad in Deb’s books and found what I liked. Then Deb asked a series of questions. Did I want a black or dark blue skirt? Wool or cotton? Did I want a white or ivory blouse? Cotton or linen? Did I want embroidering on the neck and on the cuffs? What material did I want for the red vest? What about brocade? I decided to have a dark blue gabardine skirt, a white cotton blouse with embroidery, and a red brocade vest.

Elizabeth Bruening arrived with her bunad, which had belonged to her great-grandmother Svanaug Olavsdatter Vasstveit, who had worn it at her wedding to Gregar Halvorson Stordahl in 1848. Elizabeth eventually inherited it, and, with Deb’s help, it is periodically lovingly restored.

Deb is passionate about Norway’s national dress. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her knowledge impressive. She mainly makes festdrakts, as she does not do much handwork and many of the bunads have a great deal of handwork on them. She has, however, made quite a few Hardanger bunads and a couple of Voss bunads. They do not have the handwork but they do have hardangersøm (Hardanger embroidery), which she does.

When asked to explain the differences between a bunad and a festdrakt, Deb gave this response:

The answer is quite long and drawn out. But, simply put, bunads are very specific to areas of Norway and they often have designs that are based on textiles that were used in those areas for generations. In some cases, they were commissioned by the region so that they had a bunad for their locality or, in the case of some areas such as Hallingdal and Setesdal, they have been in use for many, many years and really have not changed much.

The festdrakts are much less expensive than the bunads and are normally more generic in nature. They can still be quite fancy, however, with trims and the use of velvet and brocade fabrics. Festdrakts offer a great alternative for folks who cannot afford a bunad. The festdrakts are not as “regulated.” This term is touchy but the bunads have very specific ways in which they must be made and this is not true of the festdrakts. Many new designs of festdrakts come out each year and in that way they offer “fun” and more creative designs.

According to Deb, the very best book on bunads is Norsk Bunadleksikon by Bjørb Sverre Hol Haugen. It is a three-volume encyclopedia of over 500 different bunads of Norway. Each volume covers different regions in Norway and provides the history and description of each bunad. It is, however, available only in Norwegian and costs around $1,000. But the new paperback version can be ordered from Sue Sutherland, the U.S. authority on bunads, at www.bunadbutikken.com. This one-volume edition costs approximately $300.

Deb highly recommends three books that are available in English: A sampler of Norway’s Folk Costumes by Thorbjørg Hjelmen Ugland, Folk Costumes of Norway by Heidi Fossness, and Norwegian Bunads by Bent Vangerg (also referred to as Our Beautiful Costume: Våre Vakre Bunader).

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Avatar photo

Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.