Editor’s note: Carol Colburn originally wrote this essay for Ethnic Dress in the United States: A Cultural Encyclopedia, edited by Annette Lynch and Mitchell D. Strauss (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). For Norwegian Textile Letter readers, the author provided additional photos.
The busserull, or Norwegian work shirt, was historically a jacket rather than a shirt. It has been worn as a loose fitting over-shirt, constructed with squares and rectangles cut to allow full range of movement for physical labor. There have been a number of variations in the cut, but most include a band collar, shoulder yoke that extends over the upper arm, and body with a button front closure either ending with a placket to mid-chest or open to the waist. Loose sleeves are attached from the mid-point of the yoke at the shoulder, and greater movement and ease around the body is allowed by inserting square gussets at the underarm. The waist may be either half-belted with an adjustable belt at the back, or on some of the oldest examples opening all the way down the center front, a shorter body ends in a waistband which buttons at the center front. On historical examples, a front opening is closed with simple metal, bone or shell buttons. When used for work, the most common fabric was traditionally striped cotton, and the most typical color was blue with white stripes. Other colors in striped fabrics were used, and plaid or plain fabrics. Plain or twill woven cotton was used for warm weather work wear, where wool shirts with similar cut was used for colder seasons.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the shirts were used functionally in Norway as one layer of protection by many types of workers; railroad workers, lumberjacks, builders, agricultural workers, harbor workers and fishermen. Photographs of the era show the shirt worn as a single garment over the torso, or under or over a woolen vest, and in the coldest weather under another form of heavier woolen jacket. Shirts in Norwegian museum collections show the signs of being well worn and are often patched, or new sections sewn in to replace collars, cuffs, or shirttails. A variety of sturdy wool and half-wool (cotton warp and wool weft) shirts are available for study at the Norsk Skogmuseum (Norwegian Forest Museum) in Elverum, Norway. Anne Holen has written an unpublished study Busserullen på Hedmarken (The Bussarull in Hedmark), for the Norwegian Institute of Bunad and Folk Costume in Fagernes, Norway. Her findings show that historically, a new work shirt could be used for occasions other than work, but this garment was not considered suitable for church on Sunday. Approaching 1900, Norwegian nationalistic sentiment grew for independence from Swedish rule. Rural dress in many forms took on a nationalistic meaning, and the busserull, especially in the colors of the Norwegian flag (red or blue with white stripes) became widely used. These colorful shirts continued to be popular in Norway throughout the twentieth century for leisure activities outdoors, or for occasions such as folk dance or rural folk festivals. As in international fashion in general, rural forms of clothing were revived in the 1960s and 1970s and this was true also of the use of the busserull in Norway.
When Norwegian immigrants settled in America in agricultural areas, they continued sewing work shirts as needed within the family. Photographs from the 1870s in rural Wisconsin by the Norwegian-American photographer Andreas Dahl show men in variations of the busserull; the older generation favoring the shorter version with a band at the waist, and younger men the longer style. The busserull generally went out of favor for agricultural work as farm operations were mechanized. It fell out of use when overalls became the new American workers’ uniform by the 1920s. Instead of continuing as a sturdy shirt for work, in the U.S. the busserull evolved to be worn for outdoor leisure activities, folk dance, and for festival occasions. They were imported or brought from Norway by tourists as souvenirs, often embellished with decorative pewter buttons.
Among Norwegian-Americans, these shirts in blue or red striped fabrics are worn today in informal or formal settings. Norwegian-American heritage style weddings might include the busserull for the men’s wear. Non-Norwegians also wear the shirt; more often if it is produced in fabrics other than the blue or red striped imported Norwegian fabric. Classes in sewing the shirts are popular where traditional folk crafts are taught such as at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa; North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. In classes, students can customize their shirts to suit their work or leisure activities with adaptations appropriate for fishing, sailing, gardening, woodworking or building.
Currently busserull style fabric as well as work shirts are manufactured by the Norwegian company Grinakervev, a small factory in Brandbu, located the central agricultural region of Hadeland. These ready-made garments are available via internet to an international market. Grinakervev work shirts are available in a variety of colors and sized for men, women, and children. In addition to the traditional styles, unique models include Pilgrimsskjorte (pilgrim shirt) in dark brown fabric and Statsrådsbusserull (cabinet meeting shirt) appropriate for formal wear in blue fabric with red damask woven bands the front closure, collar, cuffs, and pocket. In America, the current interest in reviving hands-on sustainable skills has created an interest in sewing and wearing these comfortable, adaptable, and natural fiber shirts. Individuals who choose their own fabric and create their own work shirt understand the satisfaction of a custom made garment for work.
Colburn, Carol and Laurann Gilbertson. “At Work: A Study of Norwegian Immigrants and Their Work Clothing” in Norwegian American Studies Volume 36, edited by Todd W. Nichol, 105-124. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 2011
Colburn, Carol. ‘”Well, I Wondered When I Saw You, What All These New Clothes Meant” in Material Culture and People’s Art Among the Norwegians in America edited by Marion Nelson, 118-156. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1994. (On the cover photo, two men on the left are wearing busseruller; an older style with a waistband, and the second shirt worn under a vest.)
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa
Carol Ann Colburn is Professor Emerita of Theatre/Costume History and Design at the University of Northern Iowa and lives in Duluth, Minnesota.