Sweden is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. It is the third-largest country in the European Union by area, but with a total population of over 9.8 million it has a low population density of 21 inhabitants per square kilometre, with the highest concentration in the southern half of the country. Approximately 85% of the population live in urban areas. Southern Sweden is predominantly agricultural, while the north is heavily forested. There is apparently no official data with respect to minorities in the country but Finnish, Meänkieli (a form of Finnish), Romani and Yiddish are recognised as minority languages.
Germanic peoples have inhabited Sweden since prehistoric times, emerging into history as the Geats/Götar and Swedes/Svear and constituting the sea peoples known as the Norsemen. Sweden emerged as an independent and unified country during the Middle Ages. In the 17th century, it expanded its territories to form the Swedish Empire, which became one of the great powers of Europe until the early 18th century. Swedish territories outside the Scandinavian Peninsula were gradually lost during the 18th and 19th centuries, ending with the annexation of present-day Finland by Russia in 1809. The last war in which Sweden was directly involved was in 1814, when Norway was militarily forced into personal union. Since then, Sweden has been at peace, maintaining an official policy of neutrality in foreign affairs. The union with Norway was peacefully dissolved in 1905, leading to Sweden’s current borders.
The 25 provinces (landskap) of Sweden, which early in their histories had poor intercommunication, each have a distinct culture and as such they each have their brightly coloured national costumes. These are called various names nowadays: Folkdräkt (folk dress), Landskapsdräkt (national costume), Sockendräkt (provincial costume), Bygde– or Hembygdsdräkt (district or home district costume), Häradsdräkt (the costume of a Härad, an old jurisdictional county, which is common in the province of Skåne and the south of Sweden.) or Folkdanskostymer (folk-dance costumes). As the Swedish proverb says “”A dear child has many names”.
The provinces long ago lost their importance as administrative and political regions, but are still seen as cultural ones, and the modern population of Sweden identifies with them. Each province has a specific history and some of them even constituted separated parts of Sweden with their own laws. Other regions have been independent or a part of another country, such as Denmark or Norway, etc. They have different indigenous dialects of North Germanic and some have ethnic minorities.
As early as the 18th century, Carl von Linnaeus (the famous botanist) and others began collecting information on the differences in peasant dress seen in the various regions of Sweden. They thought this style of dress more genuine than the modern dress and it was adopted by the upper class for “fancy dress” or for festivals. In the 19th century, Swedish peasant dress was used in the country’s pavilions at various international trade fairs. At this time, Swedish museums started to collect examples of the costumes and the importance of peasant dress was celebrated in the shaping the national costume of Sweden at the Nordiska Museum (founded in 1870s). The costume shifted from being just practical to being a ceremonial or special-occasion dress.
The present-day Swedish national folk dress, the Sverigedräkten, was designed and promoted by Marta Palme in 1903 to help promote a feeling of national pride. The colours, blue and yellow, are taken from the Swedish flag. The response of the Swedes was luke-warm until Nation Day, June 6, 1983 when the dress was worn by the Swedish Queen Silvia; since then it has been the established national costume and is worn by the Swedish royalty on certain official occasions. A man’s costume was first designed in 1982 by Bo Skräddare (Bo ‘the Tailor’) to would agree in both style and period with the woman’s costume.
What is called Folkdräkt in Swedish was the daily dress of the commoners — the peasants — until about 1850: the clothing they used in their work in the fields and meadows, in the kitchen and barns, in winter as well as summer, when they went to church and on festive occasions. After this date, in certain areas such as the province of Dalarna, famous for its preserving old traditions which have disappeared in other areas of Sweden, this form of dress was in use far into the 20th century. Nowadays, the traditional Swedish national costumes are sometimes still worn on special occasions, such as Midsummer.
In Swedish culture, garments and the rules of protocol developed for creating and wearing them reflected a person’s place in society. The garments identified each person by gender, occupation, social class, marital status and geographic location. The fabrics and garments were home/hand made. Each district had its own tailor. Both the producer (the shoemaker and the tailor) as well as the customer could be fined by the parish if the ‘wrong’ model of clothing was produced. Sometime the customer who ordered some new version instead of a traditional one, could be punished by being placed in the stocks outside the church, several Sundays in a row, as a warning to others. The form of dress used in such a district became, in the course of time, quite similar but never become exactly identical. Small differences could be tolerated.
After about 1850, the Swedish peasants began to imitate the fashions used by the ‘upper classes’ and ironically, during this national romantic era, the‘upper classes’ began to dress up as peasants (just like in Germany), recreating and reconstructing costumes from areas in which they were living if there was not any locally distinctive costume available. Sometimes several pieces of clothing were found which could be used to reconstruct a costume, at other times perhaps only a piece of headgear was used. A ‘frame-cap’, a traditional piece of headgear, used in both the peasant ‘Folkdräkt’ as well as the clothing worn by the burghers in the towns, could set the tone for all the other pieces of clothing used in the newly created folk dress. This led to the creation of a district (Bygdedräkt) or home district (Hembygdsdräkt) costume was born. These creations are valuable as a symbol of the strong local feeling of identity within an area, and express something about the cultural history of the time. But it is seldom that they reflect the older style of Swedish dress.
During the national romantic period, around the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Nationaldräkter (national costumes) became popular. This is the name which was given to the Folkdräkt (and even to newly created folk costumes) that the upper classes amused themselves by wearing. The term is incorrect as it would mean that all in Sweden had a uniform dress. National costumes became a collective name for all the picturesque costumes that the upper classes appeared in. Even Landskapsdräkt (provincial costume) is an absurd term which was often used at the time. Both terms are more romantic than correct.
The main garments for both men and women (skirt, blouse, waistcoat, breeches, jackets, coats, etc.) were made of animal skin (elk) or leather or homespun materials (linen, wool and then later cotton). Wooden clogs (trätofflor) are a traditional article of Swedish clothing that remains common even today. Nowadays, however, there is leather on top for added comfort, but they used to be made entirely from wood, because of the availability of the resource, and because people were too poor to afford leather shoes. Waist bags (kjolvaska) made of linen, wool or leather were worn by both men and women outside the skirt or trousers. The design announces the parish or province of the wearer, with some of the designs dating back to the medieval ages.
Although each of the provinces have their own costumes, certain articles of women’s clothing are found throughout Sweden. The apron (forklade) is the focal point of a woman’s costume. The aprons were originally made of linen or wool and later, cotton, crepe or silk. The neck scarf (sjan) is made from a square piece of material that is folded on the diagonal and worn on top of the blouse and vest and either tied or secured with a pin. They are made of linen, wool and cotton or silk and are decorated with a variety of designs or embroidery. Long-sleeved white blouses are common in most regions. The sleeves are gathered at the wrists and may feature a turned-down collar trimmed with embroidery. Over this is a tight-fitting sleeveless red or black bodice (sometimes laced), trimmed with pewter or silver eyelets (snörmärlor). A long full skirt typically devoid of decoration is worn, though it may have hem trimming.
Swedish women wore various types of headdresses (huvudbonad) ranging from white linen scarves folded or draped in elaborate forms (huvudduk or klut) to formed hats made of silk or satin (bindmossa). The hats often have a ruffled lace edge/lining to protect the fabric from hair oil.
Men’s traditional dress is made up of knee breeches, a waistcoat, a white shirt, knitted stockings and leather shoes. They are adorned with metal buttons, embroidery and knitted trims, with the style varying from region to region.
Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8
Please note: there are an amazing number of pictures referring to Swedish costumes on Pinterest for the interested.
1) Girls in ‘modern’ Swedish national costumes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Sweden#/media/File:Swedish_national_costumes_1.png
2) Various different costumes from the Swedish provinces: http://3q8b9e2wad0r2wvsr3e4idrh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/IMG_3860-600×450.jpg