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University of Minnesota

Identity in clothes

March 25, 2009

Folk costumes from Norway and Sweden

The Goldstein museum's current exhibit features the richly embroidered folk costumes from Sweden (right) and Norway.

Photo: Pauline Oo

The Goldstein's current exhibit offers a whirl-wind tour of ethnic clothing near and far

By Pauline Oo

If you look closely enough, you just might see the beautiful, nearly bare princess in that richly embroidered skirt and blouse just inside the Goldstein museum. Or not. "Some things are best left to the imagination," says Kathleen Campbell, co-curator of the museum's current exhibit, "Expressions of Stability and Change: Ethnic Dress and Folk Costume," through June 14.

The outfit from Mexico, which supposedly tells the story about magical leaves, flowers, and feathers swooping in to protect a princess's modesty after an admirer chances upon her bathing, is one of 30 ensembles of ethnic dress and folk costumes chosen to represent how apparel is used as a form of cultural expression and unification.

The exhibit is organized geographically, with clothing from the Americas greeting visitors as they enter and apparel from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia displayed counterclockwise through the museum. Labels appear alongside each outfit—ranging from a robe to a whole collection of items—to explain where it came from (country), what it was made of, who wore it, when it was worn (year and occasion), and, for some, what the symbols or design on it meant. Pictures or photos are also included to better illustrate how an outfit is worn. Two University students from a museum studies class helped curators Kathleen Campbell and Jean McElvain with the design the space.

"To our eyes, some of the clothing may look strange," says Campbell. "But this exhibit is about looking at ethnic dress as an outward symbol of cultural identity."

In addition to clothing, Campbell says ethnic groups are tied by religion, places, aesthetic preferences, ways of organizing their society, and language. For example, some groups like somber or dark colors; others like to reveal the body.

"We avoided using 'traditional' because the word doesn't capture that dress changes over time," explains Campbell. "Ethnic dress is not static. It changes in response to other cultures, technology, and the roles of men and women in the society."

For example, European folk costume of Norway, Poland, and Croatia has evolved from mostly handmade to machine made and is now worn only for festivals, weddings, and other special occasions. In Nigeria, Guatemala, and Bhutan, on the other hand, ethnic dress often still includes hand-woven, hand-printed, or hand-dyed textiles and is still worn on a daily basis. Additionally, weaving patterns and colors are distinct from village to village or town to town.

"Even though it changes," Campbell adds, "people have feelings of meaning and belonging in a group when they where the dress. People outside the group know these people belong to a particular group."

Related lectures

Thursday, April 2, 6 p.m.
"Kalabari Dress of Nigeria as an Example of Cultural Authentication," by Joanne Eicher, Regents Professor Emerita, College of Design

Thursday, April 23, 6 p.m.
"Somali Immigrants in Minnesota and Scandinavia: Cultural Authenticity and Economic Dynamism," by Benny Carlson, economic history professor, University of Lund, Sweden, and fellow at The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis

Both events will be held in 274 McNeal Hall; a reception follows.For more information, see

Related class

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is offering Bookends: Exploring Heritage Through Ethnic Dress, a class on the ideas behind the exhibit. Participants should bring an object, memento, photo, or memory of their family's traditions to share with the group. Limit 20 people. Thursdays, April 16 and 23, 10 to 11:30 a.m., 333 McNeal Hall. Learn more at

Take the Baba riga, for instance, on one of the walls of the Goldstein. The Hausa people of Nigeria, West Africa, wear the voluminous (about the size of a dining table for six) calf-length formal robe, and they have been making them since the early 1900s. Simple as it looks, the Baba riga is actually made from narrow-strips of weaved cotton and embroidered with an asymmetrical design around the neckline. Embroidery is an important indicator of social status among the Hausa, and the designs are commonly found on other objects, such as pottery, bowls, basketry and body decoration.

Speaking of voluminous, another outfit that is surely a can't-miss: the deep blue uchikake (wedding kimono) embroidered with silk and metallic peacocks, peonies, and cherry blossoms. It is lavish in every respect-color, size, and embellishment. Today this kimono is worn only by Japanese brides for special ceremonies, and most would rent it.

"You can go in and appreciate this exhibit at different levels, from superficial to detailed," says Campbell. "Even at the superficial level, you'll go away with some important impressions—there's a huge variety in ethnic dress, there is so much handiwork, and ethnic dress for men are every bit as interesting."

The exhibit is supported in part by the University of Minnesota Imagine Fund and donations from the McKnight Foundation, the College of Design, and the Friends of the Goldstein. Some of the ancient and modern outfits are on loan; others were selected from the Goldstein's vast collection of international apparel, which includes hundreds of donated ethnic costumes—collected over a span of 75 years—from the International Institute of Minnesota.

The Goldstein Museum is located on the second floor 241 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Ave., St. Paul campus. Visiting hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on weekends from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Closed on Mondays. Admission is free.

Related Links

Goldstein Museum of Design

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