Auld Garbs (KH)

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Katharina Hauptmann's picture

As some readers may have noticed I have a thing for old things. For instance I wallow in pleasure when looking at old photos of Reykjavík.

To me, something else wielding magic are the Þjóðbúningar, the Icelandic national costumes.

The term ‘Icelandic national costume’ first came up in the 19th century while Iceland intensified its fight for independence.

In many of the photos and video clips I’ve seen depicting the old days in Iceland, people can be seen wearing the national costumes in their everyday life.

Nowadays, of course, nobody wears the national costume in the streets anymore, very much to my dismay. What a bummer…

Since 2001 the business of the national costume is regulated by the Þjóðbúningaráð (The National Costume Board). Its role is to “conserve and pass on knowledge of the Icelandic traditional costumes and how they were made, as well as to provide advice about the costumes.” The National Costume Board has a wonderful website full of interesting information and photos!

Once a year Icelanders celebrate National Costume Day.

Most information we have about the history of Icelandic fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries is provided through paintings and manuscript, whereas the sources from the 18th century are more extensive and include not only pictures and written accounts of the living conditions in Iceland and the way of life, but there are also actual fragments of clothing from that period.

But let’s talk details!

When it comes to women’s garbs, there are five different types of costumes. Two of them, kyrtill and skautbúningur were especially designed in the 18th century from scratch as ceremonial costumes, while the other types are traditional daily wear of Icelandic women in olden times.

The faldbúningur (costume with hemline) were worn since at least the 17th century and well into the 19th and had disappeared almost entirely by 1850. This costume type had a characteristic hat decorated with a curved sheet-like ornament protruding into the air; previously a large hat decorated with gold-wire bands was worn with it, as well as ruff. This costume was made of colorful materials and beautifully decorated with gold embroideries and silver belts etc.

Iceland's national costume

National costume from the 19th century. Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

The peysuföt followed the faldbúningur but were simpler and less decorative than their predecessor. They are woolen, darker clothes and usually consist of a twill skirt and a jacket of fine knitted woolen yearn with a black tail cap made of velvet. It is believed that this outfit was designed when women were seeking simpler working clothes than the faldbúningur. Therefore they started incorporating certain articles of men’s clothing into their attire. This includes both the tail-cap and the peysa which originally was a jacket with a single row of buttons, but evolved into this costume and eventually discarded with the buttons.

In the 20th century, peysuföt were still worn with some modifications.

Upphlutur, some kind of tight shirt or bodice, had always been part of the old faldbúningur as an undergarment. The upphlutur evolved from undergarment into its a costume of its own right and it was characteristic for its brightly colored bodice and its tail cap.

When the faldbúningur wasn’t used anymore, an Icelandic artist, Sigurður Guðmundsson, designed two new costumes, the skautbúningur and the kyrtill.

The skautbúningur is supposed to be a modernized variation of the good, old faldbúningur. The dress itself is mostly black with a white lacy shirt worn underneath. The dress is decorated with lavish embroideries as well as with buttons, belt and brooch made of gold. And of course it goes with a weird hat.

The kyrtill (‘frock’ or ‘blouse’) was designed to look like Viking-age costumes. It however incorporates a strange looking hat similar to the one on the skautbúningur. While Sigurður’s vision of the Viking age costume remains popular, costumes designed to more closely resemble archaeological finds have gained some popularity as well.

I’ve seen pictures of brides here in Iceland wearing either the skautbúningur or kyrtill at their Viking style wedding ceremony. How cool is that?

I wish more people would still wear those costumes today… I think they are just beautiful if only it wasn’t for those ridiculous hats!

I’m aware that I’ve only talked about women’s clothing here. As usual, women’s fashion is more elaborate than men’s clothes and therefore way more interesting.

Sorry boys! Maybe I will explore the men’s versions of the national costumes next time.

Katharina Hauptmann - katha.hauptmann@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.