Friday, August 29, 2008

In costume

A few years ago a friend and I went to an exhibition highlighting Korean culture at the Helsinki Museum of Cultures.

While the entire exhibit, including dishwares, religious items, and a house was interesting and impressive, I was really taken aback by the two Hanbok displayed with accessories and the children's version of the dress.

Hanbok, the display explained, is the Korean national costume, which while somewhat antiquated in modern Korea, is still appropriated for everyday use, by many Korean women. Being classic and comfortable, it can be worn for any dressy occasion, and the more subdued colored even double as office wear.

The images of young, hip Korean women dashing off to their important jobs in Seoul's financial district, wearing their Hanboks, made me think of the national costumes of my native land. Having recently recently rekindled my interest in Finnish culture, particularly the pagan aspects of the earlier, agrarian Finnish society, I wondered why national costumes weren't thus appropriated to our everyday life. They were mostly worn by old women on independence day, and had not at the time, been appropriated by the women of my own generation.

Promptly, I asked my mom (who's a super thrifter) to keep her eye out for one. A few months later, on the eve of Summer Solstice she delivered to me a Munsala costume (sans the headdress). Summer Solstice being a national holiday something akin to Christmas in Finland, I decided to wear it to our trip to a friend's cabin. My friend Kristiina got so excited about my new dress, she insisted on driving by her mom's house to borrow her costume. Thus properly outfitted we celebrated in style.

Finnish National costume, kansallispuku, as it is known, originally developed during late 1800s, a era of Russian rule. Finnish intellectuals, organizations and politicians were desperate to assert Finland's nationhood through cultural variation from the occupiers. Painters depicted scenes from Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, composers embraced folk songs, or wrote symphonies in honor of their land and its people.

To this same end, in 1885, a women's organization reached back into Finnish history and created several costumes to be displayed during a visit from the Tsarinna. The original models were based on folk wear of earlier centuries.

After Finland gained its independence the national costume remained a part of its celebrations, and became a signifier of a person's origin. Young women would often create their county or township's costume, from spinning the yarn, to weaving the fabric on a loom. The costume would then be worn on independence day, Christmas, Summer Solstice, and other important occasions throughout her life. Often it would be passed onto her daughter or niece, making the piece a family heirloom.

After the war however, most of the population migrated from the country into the cities, severing the ties to their agrarian heritage. National costumes by and large became a thing of the past, something that no longer had a function, or place in modern society. Even when folklore first became a popular trend in the 70s, young Finns overlooked their own heritage in favor of Mexican, Guatemalan and even Slavic folk-styles.

I am however hopeful that this trend is slowly being reversed, as young people everywhere in the world have begun to look for a more authentic way of life. In the wake a of a renewed interest in farming, natural remedies and handicrafts, it is entirely possible that young Finnish women will once more embrace their roots by wearing the traditional costume.

It's very much a trend I am proud to be in the forefront of. Kristiina and I already each have two of our own costumes, and have garnered nothing but compliments for them. The costumes are warm, but airy enough to be comfortable in summer, they feature fine craftsmanship and detailing, and are of flattering shapes and in vibrant colors. As a matter of fact, I plan to get married in one tomorrow.

"Be no longer full of sorrow,
Dry thy tears, thou bride of beauty,
Thou hast found a noble husband,
Better wilt thou fare than ever,
By the side of Ilmarinen,
Artist husband, metal-master,
Bread-provider of thy table,
On the arm of the fish-catcher,
On the breast of the elk-hunter,
By the side of the bear-killer.
Thou hast won the best of suitors,
Hast obtained a mighty hero;
Never idle is his cross-bow,
On the nails his quivers hang not,
Neither are his dogs in kennel,
Active agents is his bunting.
Thrice within the budding spring-time
In the early hours of morning
He arises from his fare-couch,
From his slumber in the brush-wood,
Thrice within the sowing season,
On his eyes the deer has fallen,
And the branches brushed his vesture,
And his locks been combed by fir-boughs.
Hasten homeward with thy husband,
Where thy hero's friends await thee,
Where his forests sing thy welcome."


Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Cup Of Tea

Yesterday, my flatmate and I, made mint tea from some mint we had been growing in the back yard. We let the leaves seep in scalding water and then flavored it with lots of Indian Sugar, Moroccan-style.

I've been sick for days with a terrific cough and have lost count of the precise number of cups of tea I've had since it started. Tea is a comfort. It cheers you up.

I love tea. Green tea seeped in a little jade-green Japanese pot in the morning. Black tea with with oriental cakes from a friend's business trip. Spicy chai (not strictly tea, I know) in the first fall days. Tea in Mom's kitchen with illicit slices of her famous carrot cake, that we're supposed to be saving for company. Tea flowers blooming in the water, like sea anemones. One solitary cup of Oolong, with a very expensive and intricate pastry on the side, in some foreign city. Camping tea, with it's smoky taste, brought to boil over the fire, and with a metallic tinge in the after-taste, left by the enamel mug.

The hardware too is lovely; from the first miniature tea-set, for serving the uppity dolls, to the japanese earthenware mugs and lovely blue and white English landscapes on mis-matching single saucers, rescued from thrift stores, one by one. Tall cups, small cups, floral cups, gilded cups, cups with patterns on the inside, cups with a single decisive stamp in the underside.

There is one thing I will surely take to America with me, in the time-honored tradition of all immigrant women: my grandmother's old teacups. My mom saved them for me, because no one else in the family cared for them. They are ornate, and awkward, and maybe even a little tacky. There is no sugar dish, no pot, no creamer, all lost to time and misplacement and gravity, just four cups and seven saucers, and a little bit of history too.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Call Of The Wild

It began with Jack London. Or, to put it another way, like so many of my obsessions, it began with bedtime. For as long as I can remember, my mother read to me at bedtime, mostly books that were way too advanced for my age. The Moomin-books (more about that in a future post) when I was a little over a year-old, the entirety of the Lord Of The Rings, before I was five. Somewhere in between them came The Call Of The Wild. Followed, in pre-school, by White Fang. As you can imagine, in this context Alaska became something of a mythical place for me, not unlike Narnia, or the Earth Sea.

With its sky-high mountains, desolate landscapes, Northern lights and giant bears, what was not magical about Alaska?

Later came John Krakauer's "Into The Wild", cementing Alaska as the place where young men (and women, surely) still escaped the pressures and triviality of modern society, the last frontier, where honour and courage still meant something.

A little romanticized I'm sure, but what can I say? Literature tends to elevate it's subjects.
What really pushed me over the edge of the iceberg though, and into a full-blown Alaska obsession, was, of course, the 1990 TV-series Northern Exposure. Not only was the show set in a fictional small town of Cicely, Alaska, but the it was also inhabited by the coolest, most off-beat characters, to whom the strangest magical things happened every episode. And how philosophical they(especially Chris!) could be about them. Small, wondrous events followed one another. Amazing allegories abounded. This was my Alaska all over.

Watching those episodes from the show again now, I am mesmerized not only by the hilarious characters and arch, yet touching plot-lines and clever dialogue, but of course, the awesome 90s styles: the lumberjack shirts, floral tops, skirts and dresses, the woolly hats, the native designs, puffy coats, Ed's amazing leather jacket. Heck, Shelly even has a pair of darling nerd glasses.

Needless to say, that style-inspiration ensues. Furthermore, it turns out to my delight that, the show was filmed in Roslyn WA, quite close to where I'll be living in a few months (and quite close to North Bend where the exterior locations of Twin Peaks were), so a road trip is definitely in order.

I am also hoping to finally visit the real-live Alaska, maybe for our belated honeymoon, one of these days. It seems appropriate since hubby's family lived for a generation on Kodiak Island. In fact, his grandpa was a bushpilot there...and a hairdresser too. Judging from the tales the family has to tell, I will not find the real Alaska any less magical, quirky or breath- taking, than the fictional.

I'm off to read my stepdad's 90s Alaska Magazines. The ads rule.

Reading: The Blue Bear
Listening To: Portugal. The Man
Major crush: Ed Chigliak

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hippie Girls Do It Better

In my humble opinion, that is. If you, on the other hand, still need some convincing, here goes:

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
-Mary Oliver-