Friday, August 29, 2008

In costume

A few years ago a friend and I went to an exhibition highlighting Korean culture at the Helsinki Museum of Cultures.

While the entire exhibit, including dishwares, religious items, and a house was interesting and impressive, I was really taken aback by the two Hanbok displayed with accessories and the children's version of the dress.

Hanbok, the display explained, is the Korean national costume, which while somewhat antiquated in modern Korea, is still appropriated for everyday use, by many Korean women. Being classic and comfortable, it can be worn for any dressy occasion, and the more subdued colored even double as office wear.

The images of young, hip Korean women dashing off to their important jobs in Seoul's financial district, wearing their Hanboks, made me think of the national costumes of my native land. Having recently recently rekindled my interest in Finnish culture, particularly the pagan aspects of the earlier, agrarian Finnish society, I wondered why national costumes weren't thus appropriated to our everyday life. They were mostly worn by old women on independence day, and had not at the time, been appropriated by the women of my own generation.

Promptly, I asked my mom (who's a super thrifter) to keep her eye out for one. A few months later, on the eve of Summer Solstice she delivered to me a Munsala costume (sans the headdress). Summer Solstice being a national holiday something akin to Christmas in Finland, I decided to wear it to our trip to a friend's cabin. My friend Kristiina got so excited about my new dress, she insisted on driving by her mom's house to borrow her costume. Thus properly outfitted we celebrated in style.

Finnish National costume, kansallispuku, as it is known, originally developed during late 1800s, a era of Russian rule. Finnish intellectuals, organizations and politicians were desperate to assert Finland's nationhood through cultural variation from the occupiers. Painters depicted scenes from Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, composers embraced folk songs, or wrote symphonies in honor of their land and its people.

To this same end, in 1885, a women's organization reached back into Finnish history and created several costumes to be displayed during a visit from the Tsarinna. The original models were based on folk wear of earlier centuries.

After Finland gained its independence the national costume remained a part of its celebrations, and became a signifier of a person's origin. Young women would often create their county or township's costume, from spinning the yarn, to weaving the fabric on a loom. The costume would then be worn on independence day, Christmas, Summer Solstice, and other important occasions throughout her life. Often it would be passed onto her daughter or niece, making the piece a family heirloom.

After the war however, most of the population migrated from the country into the cities, severing the ties to their agrarian heritage. National costumes by and large became a thing of the past, something that no longer had a function, or place in modern society. Even when folklore first became a popular trend in the 70s, young Finns overlooked their own heritage in favor of Mexican, Guatemalan and even Slavic folk-styles.

I am however hopeful that this trend is slowly being reversed, as young people everywhere in the world have begun to look for a more authentic way of life. In the wake a of a renewed interest in farming, natural remedies and handicrafts, it is entirely possible that young Finnish women will once more embrace their roots by wearing the traditional costume.

It's very much a trend I am proud to be in the forefront of. Kristiina and I already each have two of our own costumes, and have garnered nothing but compliments for them. The costumes are warm, but airy enough to be comfortable in summer, they feature fine craftsmanship and detailing, and are of flattering shapes and in vibrant colors. As a matter of fact, I plan to get married in one tomorrow.

"Be no longer full of sorrow,
Dry thy tears, thou bride of beauty,
Thou hast found a noble husband,
Better wilt thou fare than ever,
By the side of Ilmarinen,
Artist husband, metal-master,
Bread-provider of thy table,
On the arm of the fish-catcher,
On the breast of the elk-hunter,
By the side of the bear-killer.
Thou hast won the best of suitors,
Hast obtained a mighty hero;
Never idle is his cross-bow,
On the nails his quivers hang not,
Neither are his dogs in kennel,
Active agents is his bunting.
Thrice within the budding spring-time
In the early hours of morning
He arises from his fare-couch,
From his slumber in the brush-wood,
Thrice within the sowing season,
On his eyes the deer has fallen,
And the branches brushed his vesture,
And his locks been combed by fir-boughs.
Hasten homeward with thy husband,
Where thy hero's friends await thee,
Where his forests sing thy welcome."



  1. This is a really interesting post - I agree about the idea of folk costumes. New Zealand Europeans (of which I am one) don't really have such a costume tradition, though pacific styles have been incorporated into designers work which is pretty cool. Kalevala is such a great poem - I've been reading it. Happy Wedding day!

  2. This is just lovely. I've been fascinated by Finnish culture for years, studying the Kalevala and the Finnish language. The poetics of the spells in the Kalevala are particularly fascinating.

    (Oh, and I've been reading your blog for months. It's always inspirational.)

  3. You are lucky; my countries national clothes disappeared into the mists of history a long, long time ago, "thanks" to colonialism.

  4. Good choice of subject :) And good information as well!
    Have to post pictures of my costume no2 as well soon. And you have to too!

  5. Interesting indeed, I always love your informative posts :)

    Can't wait to see wedding pics too, I'm sure you were beautiful in your national costume!

  6. yeah i always thought that the traditional costumes from both cultures are pretty much common!