To most Icelanders, the Icelandic National Costume, Þjóðbúningurinn, holds great significance as it symbolizes Iceland´s independence and is therefore essential to the country´s identity.
The origins of the national garb are not quite clear as historical evidence before the 16th century is hardly found. But from the 16th and 17th century onwards paintings and manuscripts provide more information on Icelandic fashion. The sources from the 18th century are more extensive and include not only pictures and written accounts of the living conditions in Iceland and the way of life, but there are also actual fragments of clothing from that period bearing witness to the dress style of the ancestors of the modern day Icelanders.
Interest in the traditional costume grew considerably in the 19th century when Iceland’s eagerness for independence from the Danish rule was on the rise. The Þjóðbúning turned out to be an effective tool for a nation with a growing sense of national identity and became a symbol for Iceland’s spirit. Since its early days, the national costume of Iceland has enjoyed various levels of popularity since the term was coined in the 19th century, during said fight for independence. In the beginning of 2001, the Icelandic Minister of Education and Culture established the Þjóðbúningaráð (“The National Costume Board”). Its role is to conserve and pass on knowledge of the traditional costumes and how they were made, as well as to provide advice about the costumes.
There are five different types of women's national costumes. Two of them, kyrtill and skautbúningur, were especially designed in the 18th century from scratch as ceremonial costumes, while the other types are traditional daily wear of Icelandic women in olden times.
The faldbúningur (“costume with hemline”) was worn since at least the 17th century and well into the 19th and had disappeared almost entirely by 1850. This costume type had a characteristic hat decorated with a curved sheet-like ornament protruding into the air; previously a large hat decorated with gold-wire bands was worn with it, as well as ruff. The faldbúningur was made of colourful materials and was beautifully decorated with gold embroideries and silver belts etc.
The peysuföt followed the faldbúningur but were simpler and less decorative than their predecessor. They are woollen, darker clothes and usually consist of a twill skirt and a jacket of fine knitted woollen yarn with a black tail cap made of velvet. It is believed that this outfit was designed when women were seeking simpler working clothes than the faldbúningur. Therefore they started incorporating certain articles of men’s clothing into their attire. This includes both the tail-cap and the peysa, which originally was a jacket with a single row of buttons, but evolved into this costume and eventually discarded with the buttons.
In the 20th century, peysuföt were still worn with some modifications. Upphlutur, some kind of tight shirt or bodice, had always been part of the original faldbúningur as an undergarment. The upphlutur evolved from undergarment into a costume of its own right. It is characteristic for its brightly coloured bodice and its tail cap.
When the faldbúningur wasn’t used anymore, an Icelandic artist, Sigurður Guðmundsson, designed two new costumes, the before mentioned skautbúningur and the kyrtill. The skautbúningu is supposed to be a modernized variation of the conventional faldbúningur. The dress is worn with a white lacy shirt underneath and is mostly of a dark fabric. Lavish embroideries as well as buttons, belt and brooch made of gold complete the outfit along with a prominent, protruding hat.
The kyrtill (‘frock’ or ‘blouse’) was designed to look like Viking-age costumes. It however incorporates a distinctive looking hat similar to the one on the skautbúningur. While Sigurður’s vision of the Viking age costume remains popular, other costumes designed resemble archaeological finds of actual, traditional garbs closer, have gained some popularity as well.
In comparison to the women's Þjóðbúning, there is even less information about the historical background of the male national costume. Also, very few pieces of antique men’s garments have survived. One can find three very different versions of the male Þjóðbúning, whereas the typical þjóðbúningur karla is the only direct descendant of traditional daily wear of Icelandic men, while the other were designed from the start as ceremonial costumes.
The Þjóðbúningur karla (loosely translating to “guy's costume”) was mostly worn from the 17th until the 19th century. It was commonly made of navy blue, black or brown loden cloth and came with woollen breeches or trousers, a usually double buttoned vest and a double buttoned, short jacket called treyja. Sometimes a woollen peysa (“cardigan”) with a single row of buttons was used instead of vest and treyja. Just like their female counterparts, this costume was worn with a prominent tail cap, though historically different hats were also en vogue.
In the middle of the 19th century, when the traditional þjóðbúning had gotten out of fashion and many Icelandic men had taken to using continental clothing, Sigurður Guðmundsson also designed a costume which closely resembles 10th century Nordic clothing. This fornmannaklæði or litklæði (‘coloured clothes’) was quite popular for some time but eventually disappeared at the end of the 20th century. Although not really a traditional costume, the hátíðarbúningur (‘festive costume’) was conceived as a modernised version of the common national costume.
As for the children’s costumes, búningur barna, the costumes for boys and girls were, generally speaking, similar to the adult clothing but only slightly adapted in size and amount of decoration.
Traditional shoe wear
Nowadays, Icelanders wear modern shoes when sporting the national costume or put on leather chaussures with buckles similar to the shoes commonly used with the Faroese and Norwegian national costumes in the 18th or 19th century. In the old days, however, shoes were made of either fish or sheep skin and known as roðskór (‘fish skin shoe’) and sauðskinsskór (‘sheep skin shoe’) respectively.
Icelanders value and celebrate their national costumes on different occasions and in different manners. There are special tailors and associations dealing exclusively with everything revolving around the Þjóðbúning from the right fabrics to silver jewellery to the original looking tassels and so on. Every Icelandic Independence Day (June 17th) an Icelandic actress is chosen to play the role of the fjallkona (the lady of the mountain) who symbolizes Iceland as a whole. The fjallkona appears in full traditional garb, the splendid skautbúningur, complete with elaborate embroidery, belt of linked silver, silver brooch and a high white headdress.
Furthermore, once a year National Costume Day is celebrated all over the country. Today, for special occasions such as weddings ceremonies or other festivities, some Icelanders choose to wear the national garb instead of a regular bridal dress or dinner jacket.