Espen Kutschera is a museum educator with the Horda Museum just outside Bergen, Norway. Hordaland is a county in western Norway known for its breathtaking beauty–it is home to the long, deep Hardangerfjorden, one of Norway’s main fjords, along with many spectacular waterfalls, such as Vøringsfossen and Stykkjedalsfossen, and the Folgefonna and Hardangerjøkulen glaciers, as well as the charming and historic small city of Bergen.
The Horda folk museum focuses on agriculture, fishing, archaeology, arts and crafts and has a collection of traditional houses from Western Norway. Espen, a Bergen native, is also part of the team that creates exhibitions
While I was in Bergen, the Horda Museum featured an exhibit on a specific piece of the local folk costume, called a brøstduk. Espen was kind enough to educate me about the history and significance of this beautiful element of a Western Norway tradition.
Meg: What is a brøstduk?
Espen: A “brøstduk” (local dialect) or “bringeduk” (most common term) is a cloth that covers the front opening in the vest of the female folk costume. There is documentation that they have been in regular use at least since the mid 18th Century, but the tradition might be older. The inspiration probably comes from the 17th and 18th Century fashion dresses. “Brøstduk” is a typical Western Norwegian phenomenon. The exhibit was developed in cooperation with “Bunadsgruppen i Fana Ungdomslag”, a local folk costume group with intimate knowlegde about the costume traditions in the region. The exhibition is their idea, and they deserve most of the credit for the result.
Meg: Are brøstduks and folk costumes worn today and if so by whom and on what occasions?
Espen: Today “brøstduk” is mostly worn in the folk costumes of Hordaland, but back in time they were used along the coast from Sogn og Fjordane to Rogaland, and were also common in parts of Hallingdal, Valdres and Telemark, which are interior parts of Norway that had close contact with the western coast.
The use of “brøstduk” is an unbroken tradition in Hordaland. In the old days they were part of the general folk costume, used every day. They had several of them, for everyday, for Sundays, for feasts, for mourning etc. Today they, and folk costumes (“bunad”) in general are used only for special occasions like national day, weddings, confirmations, christenings etc.
The “brøstduk” was, and still is, a very personal thing. There is a lot of work and consideration put into the decoration of it. In the old days this was true in the choice of symbols. Today people are more into family traditions or local traditions, or even personal taste (within the range of available motifs), when they want to make a new “brøstduk”. Some people also carry old heirloom “brøstduks”. In the old days it was common to sew an important memory or another personal thinginto the “brøstduk”, like a love letter, a nice picture, a piece of cloth from an old garment etc.
Meg: Is there symbolism in the designs used in the brøstduks?
Espen: The designs are full of religious and magical symbols, probably a lot more than we are able to decipher. Most people of today are probably unaware of this, but a century ago or maybe even further back in time, people knew the meaning of these symbols. Some of the symbols are common in other folk art, and has a “magical” meaning connected to folk belief or superstition, while other are Christian symbols, probably copied from the decorations in the churches, some of them dating back to before the reformation.
Meg: Are the brøstduks inherited or are they being made today?
Espen: Some make their own folk costumes or costumes for their own family, but most people order them from professionals. There are tradition bearers, women working in the traditional way. Some of them live off making costumes, others as an additional job or hobby. Then you have the tailors that have specialized in folk costumes. Because folk costumes are expensive, there are also firms hiring women in low cost countries in Asia and Africa to make costumes. There is of course a debate on the consequences of this, but I will not go into it here.
Meg: As an educator at a museum that specializes in preserving the traditions of your country, can you share with me why you view preservation as important?
Espen: Traditions are not merely heritage, but also knowledge and skills built over centuries, sometimes even millenia. When these traditions are ignored and forgotten, we loose more than our roots. It is important to tell people that we can learn from people in the past, even in times where technology and theoretical learning are considered more worthwhile than practical work and the know-how of generations.
Meg: What drew you to the work you do?
Espen: I wish I could say this insight about the value of traditions was the reason why I started working as a museum educator, but the truth is that it was a mere coincidence. As a former archaeologist, I was more into digging up stuff and cataloging them. Suddenly my new position showed me the value of preserving and teaching history and traditions, not only identifying them. During my 14 years as a museum educator, I have never regretted this reorientation. I also have learned myself a lot of old handicraft techniques (however not making breast pieces), not only because they are important to preserve, but also because it gives me pleasure as well as insight into some of the many skills of the old ways, even if I am only scratching the surface.
If you enjoyed learning about brøstduks, you might find Oselvars of interest! Check out another Norwegian cultural tradition!