A Fresh Look at Mid-century Design

Sweden has long been known for its beautiful women, but its reputation for clothes has been popularly based on wearing none at all.LIFE Magazine, October 6, 1958 (1)

With the increasing global visibility of Swedish labels from Cheap Monday to Ann-Sofie Back, the concept of “Scandinavian Design”–so rooted in interiors of the mid-twentieth century–is slowly expanding to include clothing and fashion. (2) Perhaps in light of this, many costume curators are looking back through Sweden’s fashion design history and have found exciting new topics in this well-researched era. Blogs and boutiques here are overflowing with mid-century dress, but often they are inspired by French or American images from the time. Instead, museum curators seem eager to concentrate on Swedish subjects, highlighting and rediscovering designers and fashion houses all but forgotten in the twenty-first century.

As Karin Falk notes in her new book, Det svenska modeundret [The Swedish Fashion Miracle], “Sweden exporting both style and lifestyle internationally is nothing new. The elegant and functional ‘everyday’ products of the 1950s won world recognition as ‘Scandinavian Modern.'” According to Falk, fashion designers such as Mah-Jong and Katja of Sweden were able to develop and export functional, forward-thinking, political clothing in the 1960s and 1970s. (3) Swedish community ideals and Social Democratic leanings jibed well with burgeoning ideologies and youth movements worldwide, and their expression found in the wildly colorful, comfortable outfits from Mah-Jong were certainly something to wear to the next protest against Suits–or just against wearing a suit. (4)

Katja of Sweden was a hit in America, and is arguably the most famous name in Swedish vintage. However, the exhibition “Vävda Modedrömmar: från Ripsa till New York” [Woven Dreams of Fashion: from Ripsa to New York] at Hallwylska museet seeks to give recognition to a forgotten contemporary who balanced the color of Mah-Jong with the traditional textiles and shapes associated with Scandinavian dress, and exported a more conservative side of Sweden.

Set in three rooms of the von Hallwyl mansion in the center of Stockholm, this straightforward exhibition features the textile and clothing design of one woman, Countess Ebba von Eckermann, through the personal collection of another, Ann Forsberg, wife of the former American ambassador. I found the flow of this exhibition to be palpable and well thought-out, and the narrow scope satisfying and inspiring.

The Countess Ebba von Eckermann in the "Ripsa Skirt" of her own design, c.1955. Photograph: Ebba von Eckermann.

This is an interesting exploration of the role of weaving in fashion; even though in Sweden weaving was still an art and a pastime in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the awareness of the average clothing consumer was shifting away from process and technique.

"In the Weaving Studio 1961." Inga-Lill Andersson warping a loom. There were seven looms in the workshop. Published in Den glömda kjolen.

As the fashion industry explored the futures of synthetics and electronic machinery, weaving woolen cloth on a human-powered machine must have seemed a bit quaint. One contemporary writer lamented,

‘Handwoven’–that might sound a little outdated to many ears in these automated times. No-one has very sentimental views on hand-weaving nowadays. That which people presently demand shall first and foremost be practical, correspond to their needs, preferably be beautiful and furthermore be reasonably priced.” (5)

However, that Ebba The Countess had woven many of the textiles herself in the Swedish countryside played to the pastoral fantasies of her clients, and her stylish eye translated these traditional-looking fabrics into fashionable, if conservative, dresses and gowns. (6)

The first room of this exhibit was set in the ladies’ drawing room of the Hallywyl house. The visitor is introduced to the designer’s most well-known garments, heavy woven skirts with wide elastic waistbands, and short coats that–with a little Swedish ingenuity–are simply blankets, folded and buttoned:

Directions on how to assemble a Ripsa "pläd", published in Den glömda kjolen.

Dior was enchanted by the countess’ ingenuity, and offered both garments in his Paris boutiques in the 1950s, introducing the small Swedish brand to the global fashion market. But this is the first and last we hear of him: this exhibition is about Ebba. Seventeenth century tapestries hanging on the wall remind the visitor of the long history of textile construction, and sounds of shifting heddles and rolling shuttles transports the visitor to the weaving rooms at Ripsa, the idyllic countryside town in the Södermanland region of Sweden where these fabrics and garments were produced.

Model in "Marg" Ripsa Jacket (named after the Countess' mother), 1952. Modern photograph recreating contemporary outfit. Photograph: Jens Mohr.

Contemporary photograph of model Erika Sundt in "Marg" Ripsa Jacket, 1952. Photograph: KW Gullers. Published in Den glömda kjolen.

These workaday noises gave way in the next room to tinkling laughter and clinking glasses, overlaid with slow jazz. In concert with the grand piano and the chandelier in the von Hallwyls’ grand ballroom, this soundtrack set the scene for more than twenty colorful, woven dresses and gowns for day and evening, some with matching coats. These were garments aimed at women such as Mrs. Forsberg, who worked as hard as they played, balancing traditional ideals and national identity (here represented through weaving) with contemporary silhouettes and color palettes.

Colorful wovens in the ballroom. Photograph: Erik Lernestål, LSH.

The first word I thought when I walked in was, färgstarka!: literally, “color-strong”. Sure enough, that’s how the curators describe Ebba’s typical customers: färgstarka kvinnor, colorful women. These complex textiles were crafted into simple silhouettes–basplagg” in Swedish–common to the 1960s or 1970s, especially smart for showing off the expert weaving that was central to the Ripsa name. And the sparkle! Metallic fibers woven into garments displayed a modern attitude toward the ancient craft.

Woven dress and coat, 1960s. Photograph: Erik Lernestål, LSH.

The strength of this exhibition was that the emphasis was on the objects. Much of the accompanying text is available only through printed handouts (in six different languages), giving the audience the choice to engage further with the objects–or just be present. There is plenty of background on the designer in the attendant book (available in the gift shop!) and perhaps the idea is that this information is better consumed at home, along with a cup of tea and a kanelbulle, after you’ve had the chance to see these garments up (relatively) close and personally.

I find this material-cultural approach exciting. Of course I also value well-researched text-rich exhibitions, but the apparent simplicity and near uniformity of these garments is enhanced by the pared-down presentation. This telescopic view of seemingly omnipresent mid-century fashions is valuable for a more complex understanding of these decades. The exhibition offers a local counterpoint to the clothing the visitor sees on TV while maintaining the glamour that draws people in. I think there’s something to be learned here about the breadth that can be found in a narrow focus.



(1) I assume this is referring to notorious Swedish pornography, famously “exposed” in the article “Sweden & Sin” from TIME Magazine, April 25, 1955.

(2) “To many people, the link between Scandinavia and design is still a familiar story of functionalism and the social democratic welfare states of the twentieth century. But until recently, the Scandinavian countries–Denmark, Norway, and Sweden–had not sought to connect themselves with fashion design. This, however, has changed since the turn of the millennium.” Melchior, 2011, 177.

(3) Falk, 31

(4) For more on Mah-Jong, please see Eldvik, 101-120, and Söderholm, 99-125 [Swedish].

(5) Lundbäck, 21, my translation. A more nostalgic view can be found in Henschen’s Handcraft in Sweden, where the authors long for pre-industrial handweaving done in the home. [Swedish and English]

(6) Lewenhaupt, 7


Works cited/Further Reading:

Eldvik, Berit. “Mah Jong: Mode och livsstil” Fataburen: Kläder. Stockholm: Nordiska Museet, 1988.

Falk, Karin. Det svenska modeundret. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2011. My translation.

Henschen, Ingegerd et.al. Handcraft in Sweden. Stockholm: Svenska Hemslöjdsföreningarnas Riksförbund, 1951.

Lewenhaupt, Lotta. Den glömda kjolen: Ebba von Eckermann textilier 1950-1980. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Signum, 2011.

Lundbäck, Maja, “Handvävt Tradition i Modern Stil” Våra Textilier, Kristina Lindstrand, ed. Stockholm: Sohlmans, 1957.

Melchior, Marie Riegels. “From Design Nations to Fashion Nations? Unpacking Contemporary Fashion Dreams.” Fashion Theory 15 (2011): 177-200.

Söderholm, Carolina. Svenska Formrebeller: 1960- och -70-tal. Lund: Historiska Media, 2008.

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  • audrey December 16, 2011 12.54 am

    Nice job. These clothing are elgent. I like it. Thank you for shareing.

  • Alex May 07, 2012 07.02 am

    This is a great post. Thank you and Google for chance to read it.

  • Carl March 26, 2015 08.17 am

    Thank you for a very nice post and report on the exhibition.
    You might find it interesting that the Countess von Eckermann brand has been revived.


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