Mending the Past 10: Unbound


anine by odd nerdrum, Norwegian, born 1944

The belief that a promiscuous maiden, just by looking at a child with her onda öga (evil eye), praising it with her onda tunga (evil tongue) or touching it with her onda hand (evil hand) could cause a painful encounter, made her a walking hazard.
–Jonas Frykman, Om Kvinnors ondska (On the Evil of Women)

Maja Lisa clearly was not completely cast out of her community despite confirming her status as a whore by having two more children out of wedlock. She remained in Härja Parish until 1882 when she became an emigrant at age 66. However, it is likely that for many years she was singled out. Swedish ethnologist Jonas Frykman notes, “it was important, in the old agrarian community to separate the unmarried mother from decent society. To this end, she was forced to wear a whore’s cap, a head-dress which differed in appearance from that of the married woman.”

Frykman has written a whole book about whores in Swedish peasant society, Horan i bondesamhället, 1977, where he describes whore caps and other kinds of social control practiced in the old days. A horluva (whore cap) or horklut (whore scarf) was usually red, but also came in shades of brown, black or sometimes white. The rule was that the head wear was different and made the whore stand out in public–so she and her evil eye could be avoided.

What did women wear in that time? It is fascinating to explore the clothing of the era. There was so much individual artistry and craftsmanship that went into the everyday items people wore. Clothing was also a visual language that expressed the character of communities and the nation.

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I am quite fond of this photo from an old family album that shows three ladies, heads covered in different ways, circa 1930’s in Sweden. The elder in the center wears 19th Century clothing. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016.

“In 19th century Sweden, it was tradition among the rural populations for women to have long hair, covered indoors as well as outdoors.” This custom, common throughout Christian Europe at the time, was associated with the Bible (Corinthians 11:5) and propriety and modesty. In 19th Century Sweden there were several styles of head dress. Most common for peasants was the klut (a cloth or scarf), often white linen, folded into a triangle and wrapped around the head in simple and sometimes amazingly complex ways. Plaid kerchiefs became popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Social status was understood and community norms dictated who could presume to wear a hat or bonnet.

Hair and head dressing also signaled rites of passage in the life of a woman. It is clear from reading the parish records that women were categorized by their marital status: flicka (girl), piga (maiden),fästmö (fiancée), hustru (wife), widow, etc. It is difficult to know what Maja Lisa may have worn in the way of clothing. How did it signify her status? She inhabited a nether world of neither maiden or wife. In the parish books, she remained a piga, an unmarried daughter living with her parents on their farm even though she was, by 1845, the mother of two children.

Upon marriage most women bound their hair up and tucked it properly beneath a cloth or cap. Ingela Martenius writes in Rites of Passage in Sweden, “The day after the wedding ceremony was the time for several important events that would confirm the ceremony. The new wife now had to don such articles of clothing that were locally reserved for wives: it often meant some special headgear, but also other details in her clothing could change. From this morning the woman was not allowed to show as much a single hair to anybody but her husband. To really emphasize this it was some places customary for the woman’s hair to be cut off on this her first morning as a wife.”


Västergötland Costume, 1750–1850, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Maja Lisa probably wore adult clothes after her confirmation at age 15, including most probably a scarf over her hair, as most young women did. I have wondered if she wore a sockendräkt (parish costume), clothing that was distinct to her area. In my research I have not been able to find it. In this watercolor by Emilie von Walterstorff, a woman from Toarps parish (in the county south of Maja Lisa’s) in Västergötland wears a “ceremonial dress,” estimated era 1750 to 1850. It would have been made of homespun linen and wool with embroidery. The black cap is called a stopamössan. The colorful folkdrakt, folk costumes, that are so often featured in images of old Sweden tend to present idealized versions of the Swedish peasant.

After the 1850’s, peasants wanted to dress in a more upper class and European way. At the same time there was a middle class interest in and revival of folk culture and costume (the National Romantic movement). The result is probably that Maja Lisa dressed more like this (below) while artwork depicted something more like the Västergötland costume (above).


The truth is that the poorest of peasants owned few clothes. They often went barefoot all summer, reserving shoes for winter time. Textiles were valuable. Västergötland was well known for the production of linen. It was woven by women on looms in their homes and sold by peddlers throughout the country. It is likely that Maja and the other women in the family grew flax and knew how to spin it into thread and weave it.

Did Maja ever wear something fancy or special clothes? We know that she was poor and never was a bride and so did not experience dressing as one. There is a film from the Nordiska museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden (a rich repository of Scandinavian cultural images) of a woman being dressed for a wedding. The binding of the hair, and the winding of the strings of the bonnet, the ribbons and pins is elaborate. The film strikes me as quite a beautiful thing, bearing witness to the kind of cultural transmission that was so disrupted by emigration. In the film, Brudklädningerska (Bride dresser) Brita Mann dresses a couple of brides in the traditional Leksand (Dalarna) fashion. Mann was born in 1859, so in 1951, when filmed, she is 92-years-old. (All stills below captured from the film at the Nordiska Museet, Stockholm)

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First the bride’s long hair is bound with ribbon on the back of her head.This is called oppombindning. It creates a wreath of hair to which the bonnet can be attached.

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Then a linen cap is cinched and fastened to the back of the head.

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Then another cap is placed over this one. It is trimmed with lace around the edges that frame the face. It is tied into place and then secured with a decorative ribbon that is tied in a bow at the nape of the neck.

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Finally a fitted gauze veil is placed over the cap, pleated and pinned into place and tied once more with an embroidered ribbon.


Image from Nordiska Museet

Another type of cap that was common in 18th and 19th century Sweden is called the bindmössa. It is a small, hard papiermâché cap “often made of the leaves of the hymn books, an excellent paper quality for the purpose.” These special caps were then covered in silk and embroidered with flowers, often made as a confirmation gift.


The bridal crown from Härja Church

Maja Lisa would never be a kronbrud, a crown bride. The crown was loaned by the church “to brides who had not shared a bed with their husband during the betrothal period.” Virtue was rewarded with a crown and sin was punished with a horluva. We can imagine that Maja received a red cap, either in reality or in some other form. Frykman writes with some indignation about the effect.

“For the young woman who received and bore the sign of shame, it was the beginning of a journey straight down into the very lowest ranks of society. After such social exclusion, it was almost impossible to get one’s honor back and marry. Many single mothers were driven to flee from their villages and to the cities. The proportion of “illegitimate” children born in the big cities was disproportionately high. It highlighted promiscuous maidens as sinners. Horkarlen (whore men) were more difficult to trace. Given that Sweden during the 1800s had the most children born outside of marriage of any country in Europe, attempts to punish men were cruelly ineffective.”


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