In which I embarrass my cousin

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Drew Gardner

Photo: Amy Skogen
Drew all dressed up for Seattle’s Syttende Mai parade (with his charming girlfriend, Tatum).

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

Since 2013, my cousin, Drew*, has been the star of Syttende Mai. That’s the first year he had his full Hardanger bunad on full display. Of course, at Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebrations, Drew is far from the only person all decked out in their Norwegian finery, but his costume is sufficiently impressive to turn heads. Strangers ask to take photos with him, like he’s a Disney prince.

I confess that I don’t entirely understand the appeal.

I watched with a strange kind of curiosity as he made the choices in 2012, at a shop in Bergen, from hat to socks and every bit of fabric in between.

It was my first trip to the land that my father and Drew’s mother left as children. He’d been there countless times. I was meeting our cousins and other extended family for the first time. He had relationships with them going back years. I knew only a few food-related words; he’d grown up bilingual. It’s safe to say we had pretty different relationships to Norway.

(We did both march in Seattle’s Syttende Mai parade as kids, though. I’ve got the photos to prove it. Back then, I was the one in Norwegian garb.)

I didn’t see all the price tags involved in Drew’s bunad, but I have a sense that the whole shebang cost more than my car (though, to be fair, I drive a crummy and very used car). But even if I’d been in a financial position to buy one for myself, I wouldn’t have chosen to.

For one thing, I don’t feel like the bunad is really mine to wear. Even after working at this paper for over five years, I still don’t. Is it imposter syndrome? Or maybe just the natural way to feel about a cultural garment from a country I’d never had more than a distant relationship with. Or maybe—it’s been suggested—I am just a particularly unenthusiastic and grumpy person.

For another thing—and you will just have to forgive me for this heresy, dear readers—I’ve never really fancied women’s bunads. I can appreciate the artistry of them, and the craftsmanship that goes into embroidering them, but the whole thing is just never going to be my style. I mean, they’re a bit old-fashioned, right? By design, they’re old-fashioned, a nostalgic look into a romantic version of Norway that I sometimes think exists primarily in people’s minds.

But if there is ever a day for looking back in nostalgia, Syttende Mai is it. Norwegians can be unabashedly proud of their constitution and their patient, peaceful struggle to become the remarkable country it is today.

The country is so remarkable that it continues to fascinate descendants of immigrants. Some, like Drew, are only one generation removed, while others who don bunads to celebrate Syttende Mai have ancestors who moved to America closer to the time of the signing of Norway’s constitution. Perhaps even their celebratory clothes have been passed down for generations, let in and out to fit the changing needs of each new family member.

It’s impressive. I’m constantly impressed by the allure of Norway.

It’s fun to be around. Even for this grumpy non-bunad-wearing Norwegian American, it’s fun to be around someone like Drew on Syttende Mai.

So here’s to all of you, dressed up or not dressed up. Hipp, hipp, hurra!

* Some of you may remember Drew Gardner from the masthead of this paper. He was our advertising manager from October 2013 to April 2016.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.