Dressed Borders

May 12, 2022
The origin of traditional culture may more often than not be assumed to have a natural origin that is taken for granted. But where do they come from and how is it that these are chosen to represent the authentic within any given culture. Might our concept of the traditional be a construct made in a different time and place than that in which it represents, and are there any clear cut border to these?
Sweden Hills
Source: Gaudi9223 via Wikimedia Commons
As the sun lingers later and later with each passing day, summer’s arrival draws closer and the dark and cold winter is finally gone. Swedes have long rejoiced at the warming weather that comes with this season of the midnight sun, culminating with the celebration of midsummer's eve. A night of more than just hedonistic drinking and partying, it is tied to folk customs and myths representing the ancient and traditional. Indeed, it might be regarded as Sweden’s unofficial national day. There is music, dances, food, decoration and in some cases, even costumes that represent authentic Swedish customs and values. It’s celebrated from Trelleborg in the south to Kiruna in the North, Strömstad in the west and Tobetsu, Hokkaido in the east. To find such a celebration so far away in Tobetsu might be surprising to most. Tobetsu has a deep connection with their sister cityLeksand in Dalarna County since the 1980’s, which was preceded by the Sweden Hills housing development project in the late 70’s that mirrored the Swedish red cottages with white awnings in rural Hokkaido. In their Midsummer celebration you find everything from the maypole, the music, the dancing and of course, folk costumes. Attending a midsummer celebration in Sweden does not always feature anyone wearing folkdräkt (folk costumes), as this really isn’t the norm.

But the reason why this celebration looks the way it does is because of a deep cooperative relationship with Leksand, where all the traditional folk elements are ubiquitous (not the case for most of Sweden). The citizens of Tobetsu participating in the parade, raising of the maypole etc. are dressed in communally-owned folk costumes that are shared by organisers of the event. There are costumes for girls, boys, men and women that follow the costumes you would find in Leksand: However, the colours have changed to the town’s own colour scheme of green and yellow, and some design elements have been simplified by making them into one piece dresses for the girls. Some others are more strictly following clothing traditions, especially those that are most often worn by young couples wedded at the celebration (another local adaption). Tobetsu isn’t then just a case of copycat, but rather a real appreciation that has then been reworked in accordance to local tastes and ideas of what Sweden and the Swedish are like. The process in which this has been created is similar to the committees and organisations that created the original traditions back in Sweden.
Japanese Residents wearing Swedish traditional clothes
Source: Gaudi9223 via Wikimedia Commons

The Creation of Tradition

Tradition and Modernity are often seen as opposites representing a distinction between past and present. The former may be viewed as “authentic” and “real”, whereas the latter is often observed to be “synthetic” and thereby “fake”. Although this sentiment isn’t a universal view on how past and present is conceptualised, it does show an often-made assumption of the truthfulness behind that which we label “tradition”. Folk costumes of any kind are closely tied with the idea of a people, their land, their society and their values. Japan already has their own kimono, representing the modes of dress before the importation of Western modernity. When Western clothing started being adapted by the ruling classes, the distinction between foreign and domestic became apparent. In this break from tradition, the term kimono was created, anything before then was labelled according to style and represented different professions and roles within feudal society (Assman, 2008, pp.360-363). Similarly, folkdräkt was an adaptation of the local dress of wealthy farmers of Swedish agrarian society. This dress was the finery worn to celebrations and not used in everyday life, certainly not worn by everyone in a village. Industrialisation signalled the beginning of modernity in most places around the world and often came with a break of tradition. Bourgeois scholars from the cities noted that traditions were disappearing and this began a movement of ethnographers trying to document local traditions in order to preserve them (Gustavsson, 2014, pp.46-48). But it wasn’t about simply preserving the memory but also reviving these traditions by creating societies for producing and dressing up in these costumes. This coincided with a national romantic era where the identity of Sweden was being created. Local committees set out to standardise what the local customs were. Some had documentation and preserved garments but were limited, meaning that a mode of dress from one valley became the standard for a whole region regardless of whether the colours, patterns or cut represented other places (Liby, 1997, pp.113-114). This would now be the “authentic tradition”. But even so, this all follows the assumption that these are authentic garments that did not follow the whims of fashion in the first place. But the fact is that they probably did, as no one mode of dress in the rural villages would have dressed the same for hundreds of years. Authenticity as such was based on the hierarchy of perceived tradition being purer and more stable than anything labelled fashion due to ever changing nature (Hyltén-Cavallius et al. 2014). But how can we understand the adoption of this dress in Japan?

Clothing has a profound way of imposing values on the dressed body, outwardly communicating these values. Folkdräkt follows a specific set of rules on how it is to look and be composed according to the standard of whatever regional folkdräkt one would wear. The folkdräkt is at once both local and national, as it represents regional belonging but also a wider connection to the Swedish ethnic identity. With all its rigorous rules concerning design of garments and how these are supposed to be worn, the folkdräkt wasn’t formalised until 100 years ago, prompting questions about this notion of the traditional and authentic. The fact that people who preserved folkdräkt are from a different time, social context, and led entirely different lives than those who originally wore these clothes. The making of “traditions” then suggests a relativity about who, why, and where these traditions can live on. The way in which the citizens of Tobetsu have adapted the midsummer celebration with costumes and all proves this argument, it might just be clearer that these practices are outside of its original context. Even when the very same costume is worn on different bodies, the meaning it conveys changes. Something otherwise so tied to ethnicity transcends any border erected by nationalism, while also depending on context symbolises belonging. I do not seek to draw any real conclusion on this matter, but it is clear to me that ethnically coded modes of dress could perhaps transcend their intrinsic borders. Folkdräkt was made for a specific purpose, to frame a national identity, and when worn by a diverse set of bodies this purpose is subverted.


Assmann, Stephanie, Between Tradition and Innovation, Fashion Theory, s.360–363, 2008

Gustavsson, Karin, Expeditioner i det förflutna: etnologiska fältarbeten och försvinnande allmogekultur under 1900-talets början, Nordiska museet, Diss. Lund : Lunds universitet, 2014,Stockholm, 2014 http://lup.lub.lu.se/record/4628738

Hyltén-Cavallius, Charlotte, Gradén, Lizette, Norman, Natalie, Annerborn, Erik, Dressing Swedish – from Hazelius to Salander, Mångkulturellt Centrum, Botkyrka, 2014 

Liby, Håkan, Kläderna gör upplänningen: folkligt mode - Tradition och trender : Studiehandledning, Upplandsmuseet, Uppsala, 1997

Nilsson Alexander, Folkdräkt på vift - En etnografisk studie om

nygammalt dräktbruk i Tobetsu, Japan, Bachelor's Thesis, Lund University, 2021

Swedish Center Foundation, about us, http://swedishcenter.or.jp/about-us/

Alexander Nilsson

Alexander has a background in Fashion Studies with work focusing on the intersection of fashion, clothing and the body. He also has a background in Japanese language studies, spending one year abroad in Tokyo where he studied Japanese language and society. He is currently a first year student in the Asian Studies program at Lund University, studying how queer identites are communicated through clothing in Japan.
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