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How do you respect tradition while remaining true to yourself? Matilda Welin investigates how re-imagined, non-binary national dress is gaining traction with a new generation.

What is your most cherished item of clothing? My outfit is a traditional folk costume from my home country of Sweden. My grandmother made it by hand and gave it to me a few years before she died. The dress – or, should I say, ensemble, as it includes a hat, shoes, an apron, and even a removable pocket – is from the province where she was born, which is adjacent to mine. It has blue and purple stripes and a green bodice with red trimming. The scarf is held in place by a tin brooch. Gran and her three older sisters are photographed in identical dresses outside a hembygdsgrd in old family photos (cultural centre), and my father and grandmother in his-and-hers costumes against a bright Swedish summer backdrop. My clothing reflects my family’s musical and folk heritage. There is only one issue. I don’t dress up. How do you respect tradition while remaining true to yourself?

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Scandinavia has had national costumes for centuries. They evolved from everyday peasant clothing to formalwear during the national romanticism era of the early 1900s, with strict rules for colours, cuts, and fabrics. Since then, even wearing a dress from another region than your own can be considered a violation of tradition. But now, Scandi folk clothing is evolving. People are increasingly changing their costumes to fit the times. One of them is Norwegian Tiril Skaar.

I thought, ‘I can make up my own style – that’s something I’ve done my whole life’ – Tiril Skaar

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Skaar, who is non-binary and transmasculine and uses they and them pronouns, purchased a women’s bunad (traditional Norwegian costume) for their adolescent Church confirmation ceremony, thinking it could be passed down to future children. But as time passed, they became increasingly uneasy in such a traditionally feminine outfit. The beautiful, detailed bunad was increasingly being left unworn in their wardrobe. “If you had asked me back then, I would have said I didn’t dare [to defy the norms],” Skaar tells BBC Culture. “‘What do you think about a gender-neutral bunad?’ I asked my classmates. Some people were hesitant. I was terrified. ” Some traditionalists defend folk dress customs. Skaar refers to them as the “bunad police” because they can be very particular about bunad rules and codes.

Skaar pondered the situation during the pandemic. “I thought to myself, ‘I can make up my own style – that’s something I’ve done my entire life.'” They repurposed an original piece of their bunad jewellery into a pocket-watch chain after combining the original female shirt with masculine trousers “From a distance, the outfit appears more masculine, which is how people perceive me. Maybe when I’m richer, I’ll be able to add more details. My grandmother’s bunad skirt was embroidered with birds and nature scenes. I’d like to transfer it to my new vest.”

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Skaar tested the new bunad in smaller groups near the end of the pandemic, when Norwegians were advised to avoid large crowds. They wore it out and about on Norwegian Independence Day last year. “I wasn’t nervous by then,” they explain. “I’d already done interviews and TV shows and received a lot of positive feedback. Many people expressed similar sentiments to mine. I felt obligated to serve as a representative for others.”

Marianne Lambersy is a co-owner of Embla Bunader, a Norwegian company that sells bunads and accessories in five stores across the country. Embla also offers a bunad-matching hijab in order to make traditional garments more accessible to everyone. A new group of customers looking for non-binary bunad alternatives approached the company a few years ago. Could Embla assist?

“It was a challenging design,” Lambersy tells BBC Culture. “Many nights, I lay awake. Should I make shorts available to everyone? To everyone, a skirt? A skirt that resembles a kilt?” Finally, either shorts, trousers, or a skirt were offered. Lambersy chose damask, a patterned silk fabric, for the legwear “because everyone who knows bunad knows that is high quality,” and kalemank, a woven wool fabric, for the jacket because it is a traditional bunad fabric, originally imported from Norwich via old Norwegian-British trade links. “It’s the best fabric we have here in Norway; it exudes quality,” she says. There’s also a black knitted vest with patterns in the Norwegian flag colours of white, blue, and red. The new bunad sparked a lot of excitement. But there was one thing that surprised Lambersy. “I expected people to get creative with the different options,” she says. “But no. They want things to be the way they should be. They want to play by the rules.”

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That may not come as a surprise. The Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume (which began as a government department) has classified and catalogued most regional bunad in Norway since 1847. Lambersy even warns customers who ask her to change their usual costume, whether in a gender-conformist or non-conformist way, that this may result in negative reactions. However, she believes that mixing accessories, such as removing an apron or adding a silk scarf, only adds to cultural wealth. After the non-binary bunad was completed, the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume eventually supported the innovation.

A new folk tradition.

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In 2018, while Tiril Kaar was pondering the style of their Norwegian folk dress, Swedish artist Fredy Clue was considering culottes. Clue, who also uses the pronouns they and them, was looking for their own place in Swedish folk culture. They realised they were non-binary when the trouser skirt became the basis for the design of a non-binary Swedish folk dress. “My inner self communicated through my ideas,” Clue tells BBC Culture.

Clue collaborated with artist Ida Björs to create the Bäckadräkten unisex folk dress. They researched historical clothing designs, visited the folk-culture-rich province of Hälsingland, and led a focus group with five young, non-binary people.

Ida is from the Swedish province of Hälsingland. “I got so many things from there, like the belt and the shoes,” Clue says. “I live in Gothenburg, and I sail a lot, so we have also incorporated port and starboard symbols as jewellery, and the shoe heel is inspired by a boat. The theme of water runs throughout the suit as well. The brook, or beck, represents our life force, which flows and changes on a daily basis, despite the fact that we are still the same water.”

The costume’s hat is a wedge hat, which is typically worn by boys and men. Clue and Björs discovered one place in western Sweden where it was worn by women during their research. “The hat is the most bizarre part of the suit,” Clue remarks. “We are fortunate to have fabric from a groom’s waistcoat from Ljusdal that has the same colours as the trans pride flag. We make use of wool and linen. This is vintage, and it all fits into the folk-dress category. It’s just for fun to bring it to life.”

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