Bunads: What you need to know about Norway’s national costume

A group of Norwegians partaking in a May 17th parade in their bunads.
A group of Norwegians partaking in a May 17th parade in their bunads. Photo by Arild Finne Nybø on Flickr.
Norway's traditional national costume, the bunad, plays a massive role in special events in the Scandinavian country and is of great cultural importance. Here's everything you need to know about them. 

If you have spent any time in Norway, it is almost without doubt that you will have seen or at least heard of a bunad.

The national costumes are a huge part of Norwegian culture. So much so that five organisations in Norway, the Norwegian Youth Association, the Norwegian Handicraft Association, the Study Association for Culture and Tradition and the Norwegian Institute for National Costumes and Folk Costumes have all joined forces in a bid to nominate the costumes to be added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, which recognises unique and important traditions. 

So, what do you need to know about the costumes? 

What is a bunad? 

Bunads are instantly recognisable and are traditional rural costumes, hand-stitched and adorned with multiple metal buckles, buttons, jewellery, and even knives.  

Accessories such as shoes with buckles and cloaks are also considered part of the costume.

Outside of that, they can be tricky to describe as there are around 400 regional variations. We’re sure some Norwegians would take exception to us saying they all broadly look similar, so we’ll include some examples below instead. 

A woman pictured in her bunad talking to three others. Typically more woman than men wear bunads.
A woman pictured in her bunad talking to three others. Typically more women than men wear bunads. Photo by Landbruks- og matdepartementet on Flickr.
Four women all in bunads of various styles. Sigmund on Flickr.

Where do they come from? 

The sight of so many Norwegians clad in traditional folk costumes on May 17th, the national day, is quite something to behold and the history of the costume is indeed linked to national sentiment.

The origins of the bunad has its roots in the period of national romanticism in Norway in the 19th century. This period led to an interest in traditional folk costumes in Norway and countries such as Germany. 

Folk costumes were worn in Norway a long time before the period of national romanticism, however. For example, in Setesdal, southern Norway, there is a tradition of folk costumes that stretches back to the 14th century. 

When do you wear a bunad? 

The most common time to wear one is Norway’s national day, May 17th, but the costumes are worn on all manner of special occasions such as weddings, confirmations, christenings. 

You might draw an odd look if you pop out for a pint of milk adorned in a bunad, though.

Are there any special rules? 

The answer you get will depend on who you ask. Like any tradition, some purists feel that things should be done precisely as they were in centuries gone by. 

In Norway, the colloquial term for those who feel there should be rigid rules for national costumes is “bunadspoliti” or bunad police. 

In 2018, Siri Sveen Haaland set up an association called Bunadspolitiet for bunad makers to ensure that the traditional Norwegian craftsmanship that goes into making the outfits is protected. 

Many purists argue that a bunad should be completely handcrafted with Norwegian materials to be considered authentic. 

Generally, most people agree that the bunad should be in the style used in the part of the country you are from or where your family originates from. 

How much do they cost? 

If you are lucky, they won’t cost you a penny. This is because bunads are typically inherited from family or given as a gift on a big occasion such as a confirmation or a milestone birthday. 

However, for the person paying for the costume, they will set you back a lot. 

A bunad will cost anywhere between 17,000 kroner and up to 100,000 kroner, depending on the materials used, the metal used to adorn the bunad, and how much is handcrafted. 

A lot will depend on whether you buy from a well-established company or a local craftsperson. In recent years China has begun manufacturing bunads as a cheaper alternative. 

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