Sápmi Dreams, Nordic Themes

Appropriation into the Western fashion system of themes, designs and even whole objects from cultures widely perceived to be “authentic“, “original” and “provincial” has inspired ongoing discussion in our field. For example, readers living in America will be familiar with objects featuring geometric, colorful patterns erroneously sold under the name “Navajo”, and the general and more insidious misunderstanding and loss of nation- and tribe-specific adornment traditions.

"Sami Woman from Sweden", 1870-1898. Photo: Hélène Edlund. From the collections at Nordiska Museet.

A similar situation stands here in Sweden, where the crafts and dress of the Sámi people have been romanticized and introduced to the larger market as “trend”. Many of these families have lived for centuries in a large area called Sápmi, in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and have exclusive rights to the herding and husbandry of reindeer. Their relationship with these animals influences much of their craft.

Man in Karesuando kirtle, c. 2011. Photo copyright Leila Durán. From her Folklore Fashion blog.

The bright costume identified with Sámi peoples are, of course, as varied as the men and women themselves, as well as distinctly regional. Many parts of Sweden are committed to continuing their specific dress traditions, and this work is supported by local and federal governments. Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet, founded at the turn of the twentieth century to celebrate and preserve all aspects of Nordic life, is invested in the Sámi aesthetic, featuring a permanent exhibit of clothing, objects and oral histories.

It is rare that the skirted kirtles and distinctive hats are worn by a larger public. However, certain objects have come (back?) into the general consciousness in the past few years, such as “Sámi bracelets” and “Sámi boots”. I happen to own both! I was given the bracelet as a graduation present in May, and we saw them everywhere here this summer. They were even abundant at the Christmas market at the Falun Copper Mine in mid-December as well, and can be found on Etsy.

Sami bracelet, c.2010. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

They are of a “traditional” design, the more accurate featuring various braids of silver wire over a reindeer-leather band, with a reindeer-antler button closure. Apparently, everyone from Sheryl Crow to Steven Tyler (and probably some famous Swedes too) have been seen wearing them.

Sámi boots from "Lappland" (the former name for the Sápmi region), no date. Accessioned 1979. Photo: Nordiska Museet. From their collections.

My “beak boots” were a recent purchase from a second-hand store. I believe they are 1970s approximations, with a tiny “beak” at the toe and subtle embossing of a generic-looking design. I think it’s the yellow rubber soles that give them away as “inspired-by”.

"Sámi"-inspired boots, probably Docksta Sko, c. 1970-89. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

In fact, I think they might be a vintage version of the models available from Docksta Sko, who have been around since 1923, and apparently sold many beak boots in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Detail, "Sámi"-inspired boots, probably Docksta Sko, c. 1970-89. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Here are a pair presented as “street style”:

"Vintage Jacket, Diana Orving dress, and Sami boots from her mother." February 2010. Photo: Gunnar at StyleClicker.

Lovikka mittens, also from “way up north” in the town of Lovikka, Norrbotten county, have also experienced a resurgence in interest. The first pair was knitted by Erika Aittamaa, in 1892, who worked various handcrafts to make extra money for her very poor family. She stitched the unique pattern in traditional Sámi colors and “felted” the outside to make them softer after a customer complained that they were too stiff.

"Lovikka"-pattern mittens, from the town of Lovikka in Norrbotten, Sweden, no date. Accessioned 1976. Photo: Nordiska Museet. From their collections.

Although the local company that used to produce them has gone bankrupt, the pattern is iconic and highly recognizable here. The theme of a white background with red, blue and yellow “x”es has been translated into a bikini, an ice scraper for the car, and in an especially zeitgeisty move, even a limited-edition pair of Converse:

Collaboration between Swedish brand Sneakersnstuff and Converse, "Lovikka"-style sneaker from December 2010. They sold out quickly, and ironically Converse says they might offer them again...in "other color combinations". From Hypebeast website.

The leather items seem to be at least close to their “original form” (in materiality if not use), but the Lovikka theme has been more extensively “translated”, and Chinese companies have been producing the mittens for tourist shops in Stockholm.

Some suggest that the interest in Sámi objects is a reaction against overconsumption and mass production, and the production processes (and prices) quoted at Docksta Sko and Kero reflect that idea. The boots and some of the bracelets are made in various parts of Sapmí by Swedes, many of whom appear to have Sámi ancestors.

But what of the Chinese-made mittens, supposed by visitors to be representative of Swedish handcraft? Is it problematic for the mittens to be considered emblematic of Sweden, when they are from what could be considered a separate nation, the way we recognize Native American Nations in the US? Or is it good advertising? Interestingly, the newspaper we read every morning picks up (late, of course) on these trends, and chooses to publish an abbreviated history of these traditional items, including their various incarnations in the world of fashion. Is this helpful, seeing as these objects seem to be taken up regardless–even if it’s only available to those who read Swedish?

Photograph of "Eva Brita Mulka (née Granström, 28 years old, from the town of Tuorpen (?) in Lule Lapmark, 1873". Photo: Lotten von Düren. From the collections of Nordiska Museet.

This brings to mind portraits of Sámi peoples taken by eugenics practitioners in the late nineteenth century, on view at Nordiska Museet. These photographs were not taken with positive or purely anthropological mindsets, but they have become rich and beautiful source material for the study of the history of Sámi appearances and aesthetics. Does the continued manufacture of objects like these bracelets and boots–even if not precisely accurate or with the preservation of the culture in mind–help preserve objects and traditions that might otherwise be lost?

What kind of appropriations do you see in your area? Do you see local adornment (not just of native peoples) becoming national symbolism, especially in the ever-more-global world of clothing and fashion? Do you think it’s inappropriate for me to own and/or wear the bracelet and boots? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Further Reading:

Sápmi Homesite [English]

The Sámi Blog [English and Norwegian]

Leila Durán’s Folklore Fashion Blog [English]

“Samefolket: The Sámi Culture and Community Magazine” [Swedish]

Åhrén, Mattias. The saami traditional dress and beauty pageants: indigenous peoples’ rights of ownership and self-determination over their cultures. Tromsø, Norway: Universitet I Tromsø, 2010. [English]

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2 Comments

  • Laura Ricketts June 13, 2012 01.55 pm

    Thank you so much for this posting! I am a knitter and historian in the States and have been studying the Sami peoples this past year in an independent study. I think there needs to be a distinguishment between “Sami” items and “Sami-inspired” items, and it needs to be clearly marked.

    I agree that out-sourcing to China seems to be exploitation — of both the Sami and the Chinese, but I do think that incorporating motifs, colors, and living expressions of the Sami into inspired clothing helps the cause of promoting the people, their history and lifestyle.

    i have a quick question about the Lovikka mitten. I have read about it, and own a pair, but I don’t have a clear understanding of whether their maker was Sami or Swedish (or Finnish?). Since I am not from the area, I don’t have an understanding of the names. Doesn’t look Scandanavian to me, but I certainly make many mistakes with words I’m not familiar with!

    Thanks for your help!

     
  • Arianna June 14, 2012 06.11 am

    Thanks so much for your comments and question Laura!

    Making clear demarcations about origins based on names can be tricky, and in this case I think it’s not totally necessary. As the mittens’ origin story has come down over the decades, it isn’t clarified whether she identified as or had ancestors who were Sámi, but instead emphasized that (a) she was poor, (b) but she was hardworking, creative and practical, and (c) she came from Lovikka, a town in Northern Sweden.

    I understand the confusion, though: her name definitely sounds Finnish. I don’t know enough about identity politics or genealogy here in Sweden at the turn of the century to tell you how exactly she would have identified, unfortunately!

    I think the thing to keep in mind is that, as you know, Sápmi extends over many different Nordic countries, and that it is possible to identify as Sámi AND Swedish, even with a Finnish-sounding name! As I see it, there is a fluidity to the lifestyles, borders and identities of those who live up North, encompassing many traditions. Very romantic, for better or worse, and sometimes difficult to nail down for research purposes. It was tricky for me as a true outsider to try to word this piece correctly.

    I would definitely suggest checking out the links at the bottom of the post, and I think you’ll be especially inspired (read: blown away!) by the Folklore Fashion Blog.

    I am far from an expert on Sámi culture, but might be able to connect you with some people or organizations. Please feel free to contact me directly (arianna@wornthrough.com) with more questions, and I would be happy to suggest more print and online sources anytime!

     

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