For about 150 years the peasant costume had the form with which we are familiar from painting and general
scenes of everyday life. The period was from about 1750 to 1900, and much of the clothing was home-made in one way or another.
'Home-woven' did not necessarily mean the fabric was woven at home, merely that the yarn had been spun at home from wool or
flax which the peasant and his wife and helpers had harvested.
Before enclosure of common land about 1800, most Danes lived in village communities, with farm holdings built close together.
The people lived physically and socially dependent on reciprocal aid. When a new cottage needed building or plastering with
mud or when wool had to be carded and spun, the young folk from the village would assemble and help in the work - and the
woman of the house would supply food and drink for her 'guests'. This mutual aid system also worked well in times of illness
Conitues from ...Dance in Copenhagen
In such societies three generations frequently lived under the same roof. The grandparents took on the status of pensioners
but still lent a hand in everyday life - grandmother perhaps minding the children as she turned the spinning wheel. Men and
women had a sharp division of labor; his domain was the field and livestock, hers was to handle indoor work, milking and poultry.
'Indoor-work' was more than merely cooking and cleaning (although the latter was not exactly overdone, and indeed may have
been omitted altogether). More important was the manufacture of various fabrics and garments - not only for the family-members
but also for the servants, whose payment might well consist in part of an agreed length of woollen or linen cloth. And the
domestic servants probably had a corner of the flax field as their own, having a week off to return to their parents' home
to prepare flax for weaving. Even servant lasses needed a trousseau!
Today we generally marry on account of mutual feelings but in those days marriage was an economic relationship between
two families. There was no 'safety net' to catch the socially deprived, and it was essential to secure a decent future for
your offspring - which meant ensuring their economic prospects. The farsighted mother began work on her daughter's trousseau
while the child was still quite young. This increased the girl's assets - and thereby her marital chances. And what mother
did not have higher hopes for her daughter than she herself had fulfilled? The aim was to improve her social potential.
If a girl - in spite of all these preparations - failed to marry, she frequently faced a miserable future. The spinster
had virtually no place in society, which was based on complete almost self-sufficient families. The unmarried woman could
perhaps work at home as a domestic servant or become a weaver or spinner or seamstress. Some became private tutors - but came
usually from higher social strata than the peasantry.
The Hope Chest
Roughly speaking, a girl aimed to have three types of woven fabric in her hope chest. This receptacle stood in the main
room of the cottage, and it was usual for female visitors to be invited to admire the contents of the chest. Each daughter
preferably had her own chest. In southern Jutland, adjacent to the German border, people took a pride in showing off their
possessions, and there are examples of hope chests not only standing along the parlor walls but also lined up for instant
inspection in the middle of the floor!
The three woven fabrics a girl simply 'must' have were fustian and ticking for bed linen, frieze and linsey-woolsey for
garment-making, and linen (for shirts and shifts and, in certain parts of the country, decorative pieces hung on the walls
on festive occasions). For the most part, garments were of woollen fabric, made by the woman herself or by the professional
weaver. The peasantry had only a limited range of colors to draw from but they mastered the art of combining the various possibilities
with immense inventiveness. Many patterns appear virtually all over the country, and of course there were innumerable variations
of the stripe.
Every smallholding had at least a few sheep because clothing was something you produced yourself - and the woollen variety
could be made at home from start to finish. Wool was carded, spun and perhaps dyed at home (with boiled vegetable coloring).
The latter process might, however, be delegated to the professional dyer in town - who could also be relied upon to dye finished
knitwear or handprint linen items with patterned blocks.
It is in women's Sunday best we see most readily the distinction between various regions, and the most obvious differences
were in the arrangement and composition of the headdress. Women always wore some form of head-gear either a bonnet or a scarf.
The black bonnet was a sign of the woman's dignity, showing that she had honored society's expectations, having married and
set up a family. Great ingenuity was exhibited in ornamentation of the headpiece. It frequently comprised a number of items:
the bonnet, the piece of linen underneath, and the scarf holding the whole assembly place. The latter might be in broad lace
or finely embroidered tulle - showing the economic standing of the wearer, or rather of her husband. The same applied to the
The island of Zealand had a tradition for trailing bonnets, with embroidery in gold and silver thread. And not only was
there a difference in what the smallholder's wife and farmer's wife might wear, but there was also a difference in which bonnets
ladies might be seen wearing on which occasions. A 'gold neck piece' was, of course, the finest of all.
Women's costumes were made up of a variety of parts that could be combined in many ways. Petticoats were worn by the layer,
and long. Only the foot was free. Underneath, the woman wore a shift but no knickers or bloomers. In rural communities these
were not used until the end of the 19th century. She wore an apron whatever the occasion - kitchen chores or family festivities.
It might be of fine silk or embroidered mull. The upper part of the body was covered by a fabric jacket or blouse (occasionally
this was knitted).
In some localities it was also the custom to wear a close-fitting bodice-piece fastened by hooks or laced at the front.
The bodice, jacket and petticoats were almost invariably edged and decorated with silk tape, flat or patterned. It was widely
considered indecent to reveal the shoulders and throat; consequently women wore one or more light scarves about their necks,
usually held in place by pins.
The minor parts of the costume were bought at the door from pedlars or in the nearest town. The law prohibited shops to
be set up in rural districts in those days. One of the few exceptions was the wool merchants in the area around Herning. They
were expressly authorized to travel around the country selling woollen knitwear made in the Herning district of Jutland.
The male dress was fairly straightforward and, like that of the women, was made mainly of flax and wool - materials the
country people could produce themselves. Men of the period wore knee-breeches, usually of leather, which was a highly practical
material and also available on the farm. The breeches were windproof, and stretched slightly as the men went about their field-work.
Men did not wear underpants either, resorting instead to stuffing their long shirts well into their trousers. They normally
wore home-knitted, white, woollen stockings reaching up above the knee and held (either above or below the knee) by a garter
It was quite customary for men to wear several jerseys and jackets. They might well be made of the same fabric. In
front they displayed a row of buttons - and if you were fairly well-off or had inherited from a richer relative, the buttons
might be of silver. More ordinarily, they were of tin or some other metal. Horn buttons were common, too.
Nightcap and Top-hat
Like their womenfolk, men always wore some kind of headgear. This was partly traditional - but it was also due to the poor
quality of contemporary housing: there was invariably a draft whistling through the house. To safeguard your health, you kept
your head warm.
Men wore knitted 'nightcaps', woollen and either a natural brown or red in color. The cap was double, the outer piece being
long and carrying a tassel, the inner fitting the wearer's head neatly and bearing loop-stitching or other open-work to improve
its warming qualities. For the finer occasion a man might wear a tall, black top-hat over his nightcap.
Men and women both wore clogs for everyday purposes. They were inexpensive and hard wearing, if bad for the user's feet.
Men often had a long, leather top-boot for better wear, and both sexes wore a dress shoe of leather, with a buckle in front.
Invited to a dance or other celebration at a neighboring farm, the custom was to wear your clogs as far as the courtyard and
switch into your shoes just before entering the house. You had to look after them well - they were probably the only pair
of shoes you would ever have.
Every celebration or festive occasion called for a dance. There were often many people packed into the farmhouse - but
they all managed to dance at the same time because many dances were chain dances or done in strict rotation, one couple with
the next. Everyone knew the direction in which they were supposed to move - so dancing did not need the same space as 20th
century rock'n'roll! The traditional national costumes began dying out in mid-19th century, and with them the old dances also
began to disappear. They were closely associated with the special form of country music played on the violin.
Around the turn of the century a number of groups were set up in Denmark to revive the old country culture. Initially it
was the music and dance that attracted but these led naturally to an interest in national costumes. The dancers jigged and
swayed to the old country music in copies of the old costumes produced as faithfully as possible.
The Danish Country Dancing Society was set up in Copenhagen in 1901, the first formal move to put folk dancing on official
footing. Local dancing societies later sprang up throughout the country. Today Denmark has about 15,000 regular folk-dancers,
forming a federation through their 140 local societies. Courses are arranged in music, dancing and dressmaking, and folk-dancers
from many countries take part in rallies and conferences.
Some folk-dancers approach their subject with deep cultural interest, making a thorough study of the historical background
to the old peasant life-style and folk-dancing movement. Others treat folk dancing as an enjoyable hobby, meeting like-minded
friends in a lighthearted atmosphere and at the same time getting plenty of healthy exercise. But both categories may well
invest in a costume that can cost between DKK 10-15,000. Many of the materials for the new copies have been produced specially
by people who have studied the old items in museums and in private collections. And this creates a firm link between Denmark's
ancient peasant culture and our own industrial society.