Nostalgia, Politics, and the Tricorne

On the whole, folk dress in Sweden is used as a nostalgic device, preserving heritage and remembering ancestors through textile and dress traditions. It is worn to a variety of events, such as Midsommar pole-raising or a loved one’s funeral; apparently it is also an appropriate alternative to black-tie formalwear (as with Scottish kilts and regalia), and my boyfriend plans to wear Bodadräkt when he defends his PhD in the fall.

Folk dress, or folkdräkt in Swedish, is intensely regional. It is fiercely defended by those who come from areas where strong dress traditions developed, and is most common and apparent in areas such as Dalarna, Lapland, and Skåne, among others.

From a personal as well as a professional point of view, I absolutely adore it; I also happen to now be involved with a family with deep roots in Dalarna, and am probably more than a bit biased. Does this not look like the most fun:

Okay….maybe not everyone’s speed.

Many Swedes are not as interested in this tradition. Folkdräkt has a very long history with many stylistic changes, and even in the most dedicated communities there is a relaxed attitude about what constitutes “authentic” or “appropriate” dress, which should be encouraging. For example, in the above video, people participating in one of the biggest celebrations of the year wear traditional clothing of varying sources (some from grandmothers, some newly purchased or newly handmade) and from various towns in the surrounding area–not just Boda, where this was held. Some women have high-holiday dress on, some do not; perhaps this is a matter of preference, or a not-yet-complete collection.

However, to some it can feel like a closed system, seemingly restricted to only those who inherited the outfits from their ancestors. For example, journalist and fashion expert Daniel Björk argued in an article for popular publication Expressen that folkdräkt is elitist, prohibitively expensive, and inaccessible to the “common folk” the dress is seen to represent.

Sweden Democrat Party Leader Jimmie Åkesson in traditional folkdräkt from Blekinge at the opening of the Riksdag, September 2010. From Daniel Björk's website. Photo: Christian Örnberg.

Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats has not helped right this negative view. The Sweden Democrats are a far (far-far-far)-right nationalist party with extremely conservative views on immigration and abortion, and are often associated with a motto of “Keeping Sweden Swedish“. In the fall of 2010, this group won almost 6% of the vote and thus were allotted twenty seats in Parliament; this change upset the majority formerly held by the center-right Alliance (the Moderate, Social Democrat and Green Parties), as well as the stomachs of millions of Swedes.

Party leader Åkesson famously wore dress from his native Blekinge to the opening of the Riksdag in 2010, while his girlfriend Louise Erixon was outfitted in Sverigedräkt, a sort of generic folkdräkt-inspired outfit that represents all of Sweden. These outfits definitely jibe with his ideas about returning to a nineteenth-century Sweden, when immigration was theoretically less of an issue, and regional difference was easily identifiable through the weave of one’s apron. His detractors generously call it a longing after a “homogenous” culture. (1)

The saving and wearing of folkdräkt is very important to Swedish heritage, but also to maintaining one part of a broadening contemporary national identity. Åkesson has taken it to a different place, claiming a specific, glorified, and reductive history of Swedish identity; one journalist suggests that Åkesson dreams of returning to a “Christmas market at Skansen in 1895”, conjuring up Lutheran faith, a gently nationalistic museum, and the perceived idylls of the nineteenth century. (2)

Reverend William Temple, far right, Tea Party supporter and media "darling". Here portraying his usual historic alter-ego, Button Gwinnett, at a rally in D.C, 9/12/10. From Talkingpointsmemo website. Photo: TPM Media, LLC.

I personally draw a parallel between this and the use of “colonial dress” by Tea Party Movement members in recent years. I absolutely do not want to suggest any political parallels, especially with all the explosive language used to describe the Sweden Democrats. However, I would argue that Tea Party members who choose to wear “colonial-inspired dress” are interested in promoting an idealized and well-polished concept of “our forefathers”, much like Åkesson, here realized in beautifully tailored folkdräkt or a spotless white colonial-style outfit.  Historic-costume-wearing political activists from both sides of the Atlantic have glommed onto romanticized forefather myths created by turn-of-the-century citizens seeking respite from the ever-quickening pace of industrialization and globalization. (3) From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, nostalgic longing often manifested itself with varying degrees of historial accuracy into decoration of both house and body, coming to a head in America through the Colonial Revival inspired by the centennial in 1876 and the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution in the 1920s. (4)

Protesters at an unidentified Tea Party event, no date. From Momsintopolitics website. Photo: uncredited.

Significantly, Dan Amira of New York Magazine has pointed out that many people at Tea Party rallies are actually not wearing “colonial-era” outfits, Uncle Sam costumes, or–most painful and confusing to me–“Native American” dress; the Family Research Council is worried that these people are being targeted by the liberal media to marginalize the group in the press. It is true that much of the commentary is skeptical and almost mocking; even famous name Glenn Beck isn’t convinced it’s a good idea. In America, the People are the ones choosing to visually evoke their forefathers; in Sweden, Jimmie Åkesson has used his public position as a Leader to push this concept.

But…what does this dress really stand for? I think this is an interesting exercise in continuing to question who creates meaning, both in our present and our collective past.

Is it compelling to you to see people dressed in “historic” costume? Does it mean anything to those who are theoretically displaced by its nationalistic manifestation? What does this dress have to do with being Swedish or American in 2012? Is that visually definable?

I would appreciate your respectful comments and thoughts in the section below.


(1) Consider also the relative silence on Nalin Pekgul’s so-called “Kurdish folkdräkt, worn to the same event; it is nearly impossible to find pictures or any information. Especially interesting when such a large portion of the current Swedish population has roots in Kurdistan, and regional identity in that area continues to be a hot topic.

(2) After Åkesson wore his Blekinge outfit, it was pointed out in the Swedish media that many of the aspects of the outfit were imitations of or inspired by other European countries, such as knee-breeches from France; the Swedishness (or Amerianness) thus less concentrated than suggested.

(3) For more on the history of public acts of Americanness, see John Bodnar’s Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century.

(4) For more information on Colonial Revivals and their effect on clothing and interior design, please see Bridget A. May’s work in Performance, Fashion and the Modern Interior , and anything by Beverly Gordon.

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  • Mikael February 23, 2012 07.21 am

    Interesting thoughts. However one needs to keep in mind that Jimmie Åkesson’s wearing of the blekingedräkt is still something of an anomaly in SD’s ranks (it is striking that he didn’t even showed up in his own garments, but had to borrow them from the Skansen wardrobe…), and that its use in a Swedish political setting is not limited to his party, far fromt it. At the Riksdag opening in 2011, prominent representatives from MP, KD and C also wore their respective folkdräkt including at least one male member of parliament.

    Moreover I disagree with the notion held by some that the dräkt-tradition should be seen as an intrinsic nationalistic manifestation. On the contrary the different dräkts are strongly regional as opposed to national, whether they are derrived from authentic garments worn by the pre-industrial peasantry or designed during the past century. In the case of the Sverigedräkt, it is theoretically open to anyone wishing to represent the Swedish nation regardless of ancestry (and made popular thanks to its use by an immigrant woman – Queen Silvia…).

    On the matter of displacement I don’t think that the wearing of certain dräkts can be used for excluding or discriminating people, as its use is not commonly regarded as being a privilege. In contrast to Norway, the Swedish dräkt-tradition has failed to establish itself as a cornerstone of our national identity. On the contrary Swedes (outside Dalarna) generally deride the dräkt as either an oddity – a quaint stage apparel to be used by children and the elderly at Midsummer gatherings, or an embaressingly stupid “fancy dress” that has no place in a modern society that effectively and remorselessly has cut its roots to past generations. It’s just not “hip” to wear folkdräkt (outside Dalarna that is), especially if you’re a young or middle-aged male, and if you have the audacity to do so you run the risk of being the subject of ridicule and bile.

  • Arianna February 23, 2012 03.45 pm

    Hej Mikael,

    Thanks for your comments, I was hoping to get some Swedish insights. Really great points, definitely some things I wanted to include but am glad to hear from a “native” point of view instead (more of a conversation). Especially glad for the last one–I’m interested in hearing about how people from both countries react to the use of this clothing, as the rarity of the practice means those who chose to wear it are looking for reactions. Of course, I would also love to hear about how this plays out in other countries.

    Tack igen, and keep reading–and commenting!


    p.s. vad jättefina kläder du skapar! och vad kul att höra från någon som är så folkdräkt-intresserad.

  • Mikael February 24, 2012 08.06 am

    Tack detsamma Arianna!

    “…as the rarity of the practice means those who chose to wear it are looking for reactions”

    I think you have touched upon something important here, although I haven’t really reflected on this particular question myself before now. I take it that you are already familiar with Ulla Centergran’s treatise “Bygdedräkter: Bruka och brukare”? If not, I would highly recommend it due to it’s interesting discussion on the contemporary use of folkdräkt, and why Swedes since the 1980s have disassociated themselves with the practise of wearing this kind of garb (despite its widespread acceptance and popularity during the 70s).


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