Exhibit examines identity through clothing
Dressing with purpose in Santa Fe
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
Traditional dress may be defined as the ensemble of garments, jewelry, and accessories rooted in the past that is worn by an identifiable group of people.
Dress helps us fashion identity, history, community, and place. Dress has been harnessed as a metaphor for both progress and stability, the exotic and the utopian, oppression, and freedom, belonging and resistance.
Dressing with Purpose: Belonging and Resistance in Scandinavia, at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., until Feb. 19, 2023, examines three Scandinavian dress traditions: Swedish folkdräkt, Norwegian bunad, and Sámi gákti, and traces their development during two centuries of social and political change across northern Europe.
To give full transparency, I was born and brought up in the textile center of Lowell, Mass., America’s first cotton manufacturing center and so the history of clothing is a subject close to my heart. In addition, my very first travel article in 1996 was Lapping It Up: Folk Art on the Arctic Circle, based on my visit to Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland in Finland. I was able to glimpse everyday Sami life. So, I was thrilled when subscriber Georgia Shaw brought these exhibitions to my attention, and I immediately ordered the exhibition catalog.
Lowell’s water-powered textile mills catapulted the nation into the industrial era. This was particularly true for immigrant groups and female factory workers, many of them straight from the farm for their first jobs. Lowell’s National Historical Park tells the story of the Industrial Revolution in America.
Changing society, changing clothes
By the 20th century, many in Sweden worried about the ravages of industrialization, urbanization, and emigration on traditional ways of life. Norway was gripped in a struggle for national independence. Indigenous Sami communities, artificially divided by national orders and long resisting colonial control, rose up in protests that demanded political recognition and sparked cultural renewal.
Within this context of European nation-building, colonial expansion and Indigenous activism, traditional dress took on special meaning as folk, national, or ethnic minority costumes, complex categories that deserve reexamination today. In this exhibition, visitors are introduced to individuals who adapt and revitalize dress traditions to articulate who they are, proclaim personal values and group alliances, strive for sartorial excellence, reflect critically on the past, and ultimately, reshape the societies they live in.
Clothing sends a powerful message, exploring the links connecting it to art and ritual.
The catalog for the exhibition published by Indiana University Press is a richly illustrated academic work, but it is not overbearing. Carrie Hertz, curator of textiles and dress at the Museum of International Folk Art, has traveled to Scandinavia, and she tells stories about the national costumes of today by describing individual visits with women who are involved in producing contemporary national costumes.
It is a behind-the-scenes look into traditional clothing today. Laurann Gilbertson, chief curator at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, writes about the transnational and personalized bunad of the 21st century. Camilla Rossing, director of the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume in Fagernes, Norway, discusses the headdress and hijab: Bunad in Multicultural Norway.
In addition, if you want to learn more, there is an excellent and lengthy bibliography.
Or, better yet, if you have the time to take a trip to Santa Fe, N.M., and visit the two exhibitions, Dressing with Purpose: Belonging and Resistance in Scandinavia and Fashioning identities: A Companion to Dressing with Purpose that offers examples from the museum’s permanent collection. If you want to travel domestically this summer, it would be well worth it.
Learn more at internationalfolkart.org.
Many thanks to Carrie Hertz of the Museum of International Folk Art for her support.
This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.