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FALQs: The Rules Surrounding the Norwegian Bunad Dress

This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series and describes the Norwegian bunad dress.

Today, May 17, marks the Norwegian Constitution Day (Syttende mai), and the creation on this day of the Norwegian constitution of 1814. In a normal year, the Karl Johans Gate (“Karl Johan”) in Oslo, which is located between the parliamentary building and the royal castle, is filled to the brim with children celebrating, waving the Norwegian flag (which celebrates a bicentennial this year). A distinct symbol of the day is the national costume worn by the girls and women in attendance, the bunad.

Høytidelig åpning av det 164. Storting (2019). Photo by Flickr user Stortinget, used with attribution per Creative Commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.

The bunad dress is a Norwegian folk costume worn by girls and women. A matching bunad suit is worn by men. Folk costumes have historically been common in many countries around the globe. The Norwegian bunad is said to have originated in the 1700s. The dresses (as well as the equivalent male suit) signified the region of Norway from which the wearer originated. It regained popularity as part of the Norwegian freedom movement for leaving the Union with Sweden in the early 1900s. The use of the bunad was especially promoted by Hulda Garborg. Today, it is commonly worn during the Syttende mai celebrations, weddings, and during the opening of the Norwegian Parliament.

The national cultural significance of the bunad is illustrated by the fact that, since 1947, Norway has had an institute specifically designated to the culture and history of the bunad. Today, that institute is called the Norsk institutt for bunad og folkedrakt

 2. What is the Norsk institutt for bunad og folkedrakt?

The Norsk institutt for bunad og folkedrakt (Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume) was first created in 1947 to guide interest in bunads from all of Norway. It does not have the power to approve or reject the creation of new bunads, but issues guidance in matters related to bunads and conducts research related to bunads. It is currently part of the Valdres Folk Museum, and is working to get the bunad accepted to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

3. What does the Bunad og folkedraktrådet do?

The Bunad og folkedraktrådet (The National Costume and Folk Costume Council) is tasked by law with protecting and promoting the Norwegian bunad, and the Norwegian government issues instructions for its work (Retningsliner for Bunad- og folkedraktrådet).

As specified in section 1 of the instruction (all translations by author):

The National Costume and Folk Costume Council (hereinafter the Council) shall promote, protect and continue the use and manufacture of national costumes and folk costumes in Norway, as an expression of cultural identity and which carry distinctive qualities.

Cultural heritage is not an exact and unchanging magnitude. All cultural expressions develop in the interplay between tradition and new impulses. Norway is characterized by a great diversity that gives us a dynamic and vibrant culture. In this diversity, it requires knowledge and insight to facilitate the development of the traditional cultural expressions we want to preserve, so that they can live on in a dynamic and meaningful interaction with the people of today.

In addition section 4 provides that the Council should:

  • Facilitate collection, documentation, reconstruction, research, preservation and dissemination within the national costume and folk costume area
  • Contribute to increasing awareness, interest and understanding of national costumes and folk costumes as cultural expressions
  • Contribute to increasing knowledge about the manufacture and use of traditional Norwegian national costumes and folk costumes
  • Seek to facilitate development and revitalization within the national costume and folk costume area
  • Stimulate the development of multicultural meeting places

The council shall provide professional advice and support for the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume in their management of the national costume and folk costume work. The Council shall:

  • assess the achievement of goals and comment on the annual report from the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume
  • contribute to the preparation of plans and budgets for the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume, in consultation with the Valdres Museum
  • make a statement when appointing a department head and participate in the process in consultation with Valdres Museum

4. Does the Bunad og folkedraktrådet have any special powers?

The Council does not have any specific powers to sue for copyright infringement on behalf of others, or to create rules for bunads, but has an advisory capacity in relation to the Norwegian Ministry of Culture and shall, in accordance with section 4 of the aforementioned instructions, advise the Ministry by:

  • commenting on the annual report from the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume and giving an overall assessment of the work and goal achievement in both the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume and the Council
  • commenting on the part of the annual budget application from Valdresmusea that applies to the work at the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume

The council shall take the initiative for public debate and speak publicly on issues of national costumes and folk costumes.

5. Are there rules on who may make a bunad?

Traditionally, bunads were made by hand by the wearer. Today, bunads are big business, and although some are still made by hand in Norway, others are made in China.

Historic bunads with patterns and embroidery that represent specific regions of Norway are registered by the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume and may be accessed by searching “bunad” in the Digital Museum of Norway. The Institute also keeps historic patterns.

Persons who want to make bunads professionally can take Bunadopplæringa courses that lead up to a certification process (sveinebrev) that the person is specialized in traditional bunad creations.

6. Are there rules on who may sell a bunad?

Under Norwegian law, bunads are not covered by any bunad-specific copyright provisions. Depending on the pattern and design of the bunad, a specific bunad may be subject to copyright (Åndsverkloven) and marketing regulations (Markedsføringsloven).

For example, in 1996, the Gulating Appeals Court found that bunads hade been designed in violation of copyright and sold in a manner that created a risk that a consumer would be confused about the origin of the bunad. The claimant was awarded NOK 30,000 (US$5,000) in compensation for the infringement. (Gulating lagmannsrett – Dom LG-1996-303, on file with author.)

In 2003, however, the Frostating Appeals Court found that a bunad pattern, designed and created in 1929, was not sufficiently original to create legal protection in relation to a similarly newly designed bunad, as it had heavily relied on historic bunad patterns and traditional folk dress customs. (Frostating lagmannsrett, LF-2000-1155 – RG-2003-109 (18-2003), on file with author.)

In 2010, the Borgarting Appeals Court decided a case related to warnings on the internet that a person was selling bunads from China. The case was unique as it dealt with two former business partners speaking ill of each other on the internet. The case did not determine the accuracy of the statements and no compensation was awarded. (Borgarting lagmannsrett, Dom LB-2009-85294 on file with author.) Selling bunads that are not produced in Norway is not illegal per se, as long as the bunad doesn’t violate the copyright of another bunad and the consumer is not deceived to believe that it was produced in Norway.

7. What are the traditions surrounding the bunad dress?

Typically, a married woman wears a bunad with a white bonnet, whereas an unmarried girl does not wear a bonnet. Today though, as many women remain unmarried but cohabitate with a partner, the Council advises as part of its FAQs that there are no set rules for wearing and not wearing a white bonnet. In addition to the white bonnet, bunad dresses are typically worn with silver jewelry.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there have also been reports of use of special bunad masks,” i.e. cloth face masks designed to match the historical patterns on the bunad dresses. 

Below are some photos from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division collection that feature girls and women wearing the traditional bunad from Hardanger and Telemark.

Norwegian Bride, Hardanger Costume, Norway. Keystone View Company. 1905. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s33992.

A Hardanger girl, Hardanger Fjord, Norway (ca. 1890. to 1900). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.06131.

A Norwegian Maud Muller in Telemarken Costume, Norway. Keystone View Company (1906). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s34526.

Rosy-Cheeked Hardanger Girl in National Costume Serving Coffee in the Garden, Norway. Keystone View Company (1906). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s33993.

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