Designing Norway: Fashion and Culture
Even though we were in the land of the midnight sun, we knew the fiery globe was over the yardarm somewhere in the world. It was the rationale my two fellow journalist trip-mates and I used to relax with a bevy after a journey, which included disembarking MS Nordnorge, our Norwegian coastal cruise ship, flying from Kirkenes to Oslo and participating in a guided tour of the city.
Ten days before, we'd started in Bergen and then sailed past panoramic views of waterfalls, mountains and glaciers to the North Cape. Stopping at ports along the way gave us the opportunity to tour mansions and farmhouses, urban districts and remote rural villages, where we were greeted with warmth and gracious hospitality by hosts. At present, we were on our own for the afternoon, and felt that shopping along Karl Johans Gate, Oslo's main thoroughfare, was less of a priority than we had imagined. For one thing, bargains were nonexistent, as Norway is among the most expensive countries in the world, and, for another, we were more interested in absorbing the atmosphere of the capital of this fantastic country.
Grand HotelOpposite the Parliament building, Marci and Theresa noticed an arrangement of tables fronting the white stone façade of an opulent 19th-century building. It would have been lovely to sit outdoors at this site and watch passersby, but the afternoon threatened rain, so we decided to have our drinks inside. Unbeknownst to us, we'd chosen the lobby bar in the famous Grand Hotel, Oslo.
A soft glow from Victorian sconces lights the traditional English-style Limelight Bar. Deep burgundy-colored leather club chairs, dark-paneled walls and a gleaming wooden bar are reminiscent of an era when men appeared in tailcoats and sported top hats and walking sticks.
We walked past the potted palms that separate the bar from the café and took in the gracious, two-tiered dining area, brass and wood balustrades, tall windows and rococo-style vaulted ceiling. Inquiring of the maitre d', we learned that the hotel and café had opened in 1884 and that the large mural at the far end of the room was designed to portray life as it was at the end of the 19th century. Painted by Per Krogh in 1932, the work represents the artists and intellectuals who gathered at the café to exchange ideas that they had brought with them from the Continent. Among the notables are playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose plays depict Norwegian society and who made daily visits to the Grand Café (patrons stood when he arrived), and painter, printmaker and the pioneer of Expressionism, Edvard Munch. Even in the absence of today's Nobel Prize winners, the rich and the famous who frequent the restaurant, we were in auspicious company.
Norway and FashionReturning to the bar section and our order, I noticed a half-dozen stylishly dressed young women at the far end of the room. While in Norway I'd developed the opinion that the younger generation follows the practical fashion statements of their forbears. In the warmth of summer, no bare bellies, pierced body parts or tattoos appeared from beneath t-shirts and shorts. Nor did it seem likely that the affluent would consider outwardly displaying their financial success, a habit that often accompanies prosperity. That's because wealth is a relatively new concept for Norwegians, and, even if it weren't, showiness or ostentation has been frowned upon for generations.
Since the late 1960s, Norway has become a prosperous country due to the exploration and production of its oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, its hydroelectric power production and the farming and harvesting fisheries all around the coast. Free-market activity and government intervention keep the economy buoyant, and the result is a good educational system, an excellent health care plan and low unemployment (despite twice voting to stay out of the European Union). Coming from modest means, Norwegians can expect, at long last, to have a good life.
The young women sitting opposite us looked like they'd fit in easily in a trendy New York café. With the encouragement of my friends, I approached the group and introduced myself. Sara Skjold, Fashion Editor for Cosmopolitan, Oslo was with friends and colleagues, enjoying an apéritif after work. After a short discussion, she agreed to join us briefly for an interview.
When I asked Sara about the fashion scene in Norway, I wasn't surprised to learn that she felt that for decades the focus of both sexes has been on sports, and that women in general have been in a fashion rut. "The traditional woman doesn't have a definite fashion identity," she admitted, adding that it's impossible to tell the well-to-do from the not so well-off, because women feel clothing is covering, not decoration. She went on to say that some women today are just learning how to spend money. "They tend to dress conservatively yet sophisticated, as opposed to dowdy. Others," she continued, "take fashion ideas from the media or from what the sister countries are showing." Sara mentioned that there are several designers in Oslo who are developing their own style, and concluded by saying that she looks forward to featuring more of Norway's own distinctive designs.
After Sara returned to her colleagues, it occurred to me that she had verbalized what I'd intuited throughout the trip. I wondered if the country would again take its place among the avant-garde. Would there be another mural at the Grand Hotel depicting radical thinkers, and perhaps even women radical thinkers and doers? As one reporter wrote: "Famous Norwegians are easy enough to name: Ibsen, Munch, Nobel, Grieg. . .. But women? Well, there's Liv Ullman, the actor. . .."
A stunning and clever update is on the Grand's special Ladies' Floor, where photographs of 13 Norwegian women, who excel in sports and the arts are displayed on the doors of suites that were designed expressly for them. These rooms were the only place I saw throughout most of my trip where dazzling color and bold patterns shout, "Here I am!"
The country is hardly drab, although anyone can sense its stark aesthetic spirituality. One need only walk a steep pathway that leads to majestic waterfalls, sheer glaciers and rocky precipices, or sail past the jigsaw of mountainous islands to be awed by the natural splendor of Norway. Few can watch dandelions and tiny violet wild flowers buffeted by a strong, cold wind high up on a naked cliff without thinking about the who and why of the universe.
On the other hand, the experiences of standing alone atop one of the largest waterfalls in the world and feeling the plume of mist on your face, gingerly picking your way down a rocky hillside, and staring into the blackness of a fjord, are, although exhilarating, humbling and sometimes even frightening. Imaginations can run wild in a country so vast and isolated. It's an ideal setting for the creation of mythical creatures.
TrollsDescribed generally as ugly, brutish giants, having long tails, long noses and Cyclopean eyes, the creations are called trolls, and they've been an integral part of Norwegian folklore for centuries. Their powers include changing shape, or traveling on the wind or even underwater. Still, no matter what form they take, they're said to wreak all-purpose havoc on all living things. Today, giant effigies to trolls can be found at the entrance of every town, and, for those who dare risk taking one home, small versions are available in souvenir shops.
Edvard Grieg, the most important Norwegian composer of the late 19th century, wrote: "The peculiar in life was what made me wild and mad. . . dwarf power and untamed wildness. . . audacious and bizarre fantasy." Grieg was speaking of the influence that myths and the countryside had had on him. His home in Bergen was named Troldhaugen, the Troll's Hill, and is now a museum), and he composed several pieces with trolls as themes, including a score based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. One of Grieg's composing cabins is preserved at the hotel overlooking the spectacular Ullensvang Fjord.
The creatures were classified as pagan and denounced as evil with the introduction of Catholicism, which reached Norway from the British Isles and Germany in the 9th and 10th centuries. King Olav Haraldson, whose Romanesque/Gothic cathedral in Trondheim was built around 1070, spread the religion in an attempt to unify the country. The cathedral burned down in parts throughout its history and the impressive modern restoration was finished in 1969. By the end of the 12th Century, the Catholic Church was firmly established in Norway.
After the Reformation, Evangelical Lutheranism became the official religion of Norway, and, from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century, a puritanical ethic dominated churchgoers.
Culture -- Folk and DecorationAgainst an austere natural background, creatures that go bump in the night, and a stern ethical standard, one might expect the population of the entire country to behave in an appropriately powerless manner, and to be artistically repressed as well. Not so. The Folk Museum in Oslo, the Polarmuseet in Tromso and the Arctic Museum in Brandal exhibit remains that portray early Norwegians as warriors (Hollywood is responsible for placing horns on their head gear), pioneers and seamen. Their strength and determination is evident among the remains of Viking ships and early whaling and sealing expeditions, in addition to accounts from arctic explorers Roald Amundsen, Willem Barents and Helmer Hansen. It's said that Norse vessels were made of wood, while the men were made of iron. Yet many of their everyday tools and equipment were honed to be aesthetically pleasing as well as useful. Unfortunately, there are few accounts, art or artifacts created by women in the museums I visited. Their artistic expression seems to be largely ignored. There are, however, statues of resigned-looking women stoically facing seaward, generally with children clinging to them, at the entrance to every port. The memorial to the children of the world at the North Cape is a perfect example of this.
Ornamental decoration evolved to became the work of ingenious artisans, who carved intricate patterns from wood, copper, silver and gold, and who created pictorial weavings and tapestries. Textiles, ceramics, glass and silverwork took their place in artistic design, and today, due to grants from the Norwegian Design Council, young designers are able to develop and promote their ideas. In the industrial sector, subsidiaries of petroleum companies employ professional designers to create furniture, installations and interior products that are received to international acclaim. Continuing a centuries-old tradition, everyday functional objects are being transformed into beautiful tools for contemporary life.
As we left The Limelight, I was reminded of my afternoon wandering through the city of Bergin, where brightly painted wooden Hanseatic-style houses line the shopping streets of Bryggen dock. I'd found a jacket in a store window that was from the fashion design firm Oleana, based outside the city. A brochure informed me that the chief designer, Solveig Hisdal, had created a collection that drew inspiration from Rosendal, the Baronet's manor house in Bergin that dates from 1665. Porcelain house wares, paintings, tapestries and the stunning rose garden of the barony all found their way into her creations.
Having attended a concert in the music room of Ole Bull's gingerbread-style mansion (the renowned 19th-century violinist was the first musician to bring Norwegian folk music to Europe and America), I recognized the delicately carved vegetal forms in the room that had inspired the Oleana team in the creation of their textile designs.
Wandering into some of the shops in Oslo, it occurred to me that as Norwegian women step out of the fashion rut, the impact won't be merely on how
they wear clothes, but on how they see their place in the world. Perhaps Sara will be reporting about that before long.
Denise Mattia is a freelance photojournalist living in New York City. She is the recipient of two degrees in Theatre and Art and a grant for her work in reef conservation. Her worldwide travel features and photographs (topside and underwater) appear in national and international publications. She is an active member of NATJA.
All photos by Denise Mattia