Mending the Past 19: Costume Drama


“Some of you who are children of emigrants who left their homeland at the turn of the century may have no memories of your parents in bygdedräkt [parish costume]. There may be two reasons for this. First, they had probably not participated in their home district’s choice of a typical bygdedräkt, since the process was concluded in the years after their emigration. Second, as they selected what items would be most useful in the new country, they probably left behind those oldest garments in favor of clothing that would last them a good while, at least until they had made their fortune!”

Wearing the Parish Colors, By Syrene Forsman, Swedish Finn Historical Society

Of the old photos our family has from Sweden, and we have mighty few, there is not a single one that features an ancestor in folkdrakt, folk costume, the colorful, handcrafted hyper-local clothing that is evident in many vintage photos and postcards from Sweden. I have wondered about our ancestors’ clothing because the 19th century represented the waning days before mass produced fashion displaced handmade clothing that spoke in a unique and complex way for a person’s place in the world. This was especially true for women who, through clothing they spun, wove, dyed, sewed and decorated themselves, signaled their marital status, wealth and geography as well as their individual talents and aspirations.


Sofia and Oscar, at the time of their marriage in 1857. They became King and Queen of Sweden and Norway in 1872, reigning until 1907. This was known as the Oscarian Era in Sweden.

Historically, Sweden was stratified politically by class, each representing the business of a group of people. There were the nobility, adelsståndet; the clergy, prästeståndet; those doing business in the towns and villages: the burghers, borgarståndet; and those who produced food, the great majority of people living in 19th century Sweden who were peasants, bondeståndet. Each of these classes was represented in the riksdag, Swedish parliament, until 1866. This system of government dates back to Viking times as does the practice of wearing clothes that distinguished the social classes.

In fact there were laws about what people could wear. Such laws were not uncommon in Europe and are called sumptuary laws (“Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.”). The laws attempting to limit luxury in wearing apparel among the common people last occurred in Sweden in the 1790’s. ”

At that time the government decree was read out in each parish at a community meeting. The church and community officials presided. Among other things “…none of the male sex among the country people may wear velvet or other expensive ribbons on their hats, and neither use dear (expensive) buttons on their clothes or corduroy or silk fabric underclothes, while the female gender may use silk fabric caps and silk neckerchiefs, but all embroidery, gold and silver needlepoint on the caps, expensive thread needle-point on articles of clothing, … silk coats, or cardigans or jackets or skirts are now forbidden, as well as silver buckles both for men and women..” further, “… Now concerning the country people and the inferior classes of the residents of this city among the men folk, then we in all humility request they return to their forefathers’ praise-worthy and serious style of dressing, which has always consisted of home-produced friese (homespun), grey, white, or black in color, besides which those in responsible positions and farm owners even utilized some home-produced woolen cloth … for coats…, but since some of the youngsters in recent times wish to ape people of rank with clothing of blue color and buttons on it, boots and shoes (which are) fine and brightly made with large buckles, often of silver, silk neckerchiefs, pant-pocket watches and other such unnecessary and expensive gaudy pretensions, so the Elders, who can foresee what damaging consequences this might bring, desire that all such uppityness might be put aside and in the strongest measure, most particularly among the torpare and serving people, … be forbidden under heavy penalties of fines…”

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(Left) Wedding couple in folk costume from Floda Parish, Dalarna circa 1895, Nordiska Museet. (Right) Folk costume embroidery, Dala-Floda.

Nothing inspires creative opposition like being told in a parish meeting that you are forbidden to use colors or textures reserved for your betters. Folkdrakt, or peasant clothing was handcrafted, by necessity. Much of what is preserved today as folk costume was ornate to the Nth degree. Using wool from their own sheep and flax from their own gardens, peasants produced their own fabric, dyed with local plant stuffs. They knit and stitched and embroidered flowers and elaborate designs on every item of their best clothing. The final layer of embellishment was silver filigree jewelry in jangling sun-shaped discs that fastened blouses and adorned belts, pocket purses and even shoes.

The climate in Sweden has a lot to do with the devotion to homemade clothing and many other items. The short growing season with its high and low periods of work load allowed farmers time for other tasks. Nordic peasant-farmers have been called ‘producers of everything.’ When not plowing and planting, farmers produced their own lumber, built homes and furniture, smithed metal goods, and journeyed to sell and purchase goods, etc. Women’s creative activities included the aforementioned textile arts.

Distinctive costume styles evolved in communities that were defined by geographical areas separated by boundaries such as waterways, mountains and valleys. There were also cultural boundaries such as parishes, villages and provinces. Outfits also varied by season, the religious calendar and rituals, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. There are some 850 documented costumes from Sweden today.


The women of the Swedish royal family in Sverigedräkten, the national costume, based on peasant dress. 2015

“Peasants began to imitate the fashions used by the ‘Better folk’. And ironically, during this national romantic era, “better folk” began to dress up as peasants.” 

Bo Skräddares sides of the costume

There is no simple encyclopedia of Swedish folk costume. There was always a complex interplay of clothing styles in the 19th century. The outfits of the upper classes, influenced by imported fashion from European countries, and the aspirations of the lower classes to appear equal to those above them, resulted in Sunday best or dressy outfits that appear not folksy at all. Mass production of fabrics and materials led many in the peasant class to abandon distinctive handmade costumes. At the same time, the National Romantic revival of all things folksy led to the middle and upper class people adopting peasant style folk dress.


Did the ancestors wear Västergötland green? What did they use to dye this brilliant color?

It is most likely that in the 19th century, peasants, such as my ancestors Maja Lisa and her daughter Kajsa and granddaughter Ada dressed in work clothes most of the time. These were probably plain and simple outfits that were not preserved for posterity or portrayed in art or photography. I wonder what clothing Maja Lisa wore as a young woman in the early 1800’s. Perhaps she owned a fine green or red skirt like other Västergötlanders with an apron, a fitted bodice over a linen blouse and a bonnet or head scarf. It is also possible that as someone with Pietist leanings she may have dressed in somber colors with few embellishments.


Ada Quist (right), age 14 or 15 in the early 1880’s, Sweden.

This old photo, which we believe is one of the oldest we have from Sweden, shows my great grandmother Ada. There is no date written on the back of it so I have studied it for clues.  First, it is a tintype photo, produced by a process that was popular from the early 1850’s to about 1905 in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Something like a polaroid or photo booth quality picture, tintypes were popular with common people because they were affordable and quickly produced. The four people in the photo stand in front of a painted backdrop. Perhaps the photo was taken in a studio or, more likely, an itinerant photographer came through a nearby town.


A 19th Century Swedish woman in an everyday dress.

Secondly, it is possible to date photos by examining the clothing people are wearing. To begin with, it is notable that Ada does not present herself here as a peasant in head scarf and apron. Rather, she wears a rather fancy dress with a high necked bodice and a run of perhaps 20 buttons down the front. Her sleeves are long and tight fitting with just a tiny bit of pucker at the shoulders and dark trim at the cuffs. Her skirt is long (not too full), and sweeps the ground with a pleated hem; it is also draped with an overskirt with deep folds like a window valence. Her long blonde hair is brushed straight back from her face, most likely held in a bun at the back. Her dress challenges the social hierarchy. Whatever the reality of her situation, her dress says that she does not want to appear part of Fattigsverige, the poverty-inflicted Sweden of the nineteenth century. It also signals that she is not provincial, that she lives beyond the borders of her parish. She is part of the modern world.

Just as we identify fashion in our own times in terms of decades, the bell bottoms of the sixties, the disco shirts of the seventies, etc., so too can we identify the fashion decade in Ada’s photo. The young women are “so 1880’s” with high collars, long, tight sleeves and draped, layered skirts. Next to Ada sits a friend or relative in a lighter colored dress with more embellishments–white lace peeking above a velvet collar that matches the lapels of her jacket. The bodice appears fitted with laces and she wears fingerless gloves. Her bangs are fashionably frizzed. Both of the young women appear to be wearing stays or corsets, squeezing them in at the waist and propping them upright. Ada’s dress puckers a bit into a ridge at the bust edge of her undergarment. The boy and the young man who pose with them are dressed much more simply. Their jackets look wrinkled and are worn. Their white shirts are without collars or ties. Clearly, the girls are interested in their appearance while the boys give away the true social status of the group, farm youth on a day off from regular chores.

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(Left) Princess Amalie of Württemberg. (Right) Frizzy bangs.

Clearly even peasant girls like Ada Quist were influenced by fashions beyond the borders of the parish. Her outfit reminds me of this one worn by teenage style icon and German princess Marie Amálie of Württemberg, (1865–1883). Ada, born in 1866, was the same age as the princess. Even if Ada did not have a princess’s budget, mass production of fabric and clothing had begun in the 1850’s making continental fashion more accessible. Mass production extended to fashion magazines too. Publications such as Freja, spread dress trends far and wide. It was possible for a piga, a farm servant, to save enough money to put together an outfit that made her look more like a sophisticated German princess than a folksy peasant Swede in homespun folkdrakt. 


Corsets like this were worn in Sweden during the Oscarian era (equivalent to the Victorian era). I imagine that this rather adult piece of clothing signaled Ada’s emergence into adulthood around age 14 or 15.


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