March 6, 2015. My niece, McKenna, is coming to visit us soon for her college spring break and asked me about fashion here in Norway. For her first trip to Europe, she of course doesn’t want to stand out like an American tourist. I totally understand this, as I have obsessed over my wardrobe the last couple of years when Matthew and I have traveled to Paris and Provence for summer vacations. The idea of appearing in some French commentator’s column with a black box over my face and a label proclaiming the equivalent of “Fashion Don’t” or “Typical American Slob” is frankly kind of intimidating. So although I’m no fashion blogger, here are my observations about Oslo style ….
The city may not come to mind as a fashion capital, but don’t be fooled. With all the oil wealth, folks have lots of disposable income to put towards designer names. I’ve been told, although it may be an urban myth spread by envious expats, that people even get tax breaks for buying luxury items — electric cars, sailboats, second homes, etc. I don’t know if handbags are included in this category, but I will say that the number of women parading down the street with Céline, Chloé, and Vuitton purses far surpasses what I’ve seen in Chicago and New York. Even 12-year-olds tote “low end” brands like Michael Kors and Tory Burch.
But the luxury labels don’t stop there. Women totter through the snow in Louboutin and Jimmy Choo heels. Gucci, Versace, Prada and other famous names can be spotted on coats, gloves, and sunglasses. Fur in any form seems to be part of everyone’s wardrobe, but real sealskin is a favorite. You’ll often find it trimming cuffs, collars, boots, purses, and hats, if not swathing the wearer from head to toe. My favorite oddities are the sealskin boots, which retain a native Sami influence with their elaborately braided trim and curled toes. (Yes, seal hunting is legal in Norway. Folks can take family seal-hunting vacations, and seal meat is featured at high-end restaurants, along with Minke whale meat.)
Beyond the label consciousness, Norwegian women dress trendily but conservatively. Despite Marimekko’s fame, I’ve seen few people sporting wild, bright colors. Most wear monochromatics in black, grey, tan, cream, blush pink or pale blue. I’d say the national uniform seems to be leather leggings or dark skinny jeans worn with some of the most gorgeous oversized Scandinavian sweaters and long cardigans I’ve ever seen. (My favorite brands are Malene Birger, Acne, Holtzweiler, and Arnie Says). The wools here have incredibly lush textures that scream, “Buy me; I may cost a month’s salary, but you’ll never be warmer.” Conformity seems to be pretty key, though, and you won’t find a lot of folks stepping way outside the box to make a fashion statement, unless you’re in the artsy district of Grünerløkka.
Leather motorcycle boots, Doc Martins, stylized cowboys, or platform booties are the most common winter footwear for women. While leather moto jackets or wool ponchos are popular on warmer days, winter coats tend to be of the nubby cocoon variety or the “bathrobe” style tied with a long scarf tucked beneath the belt. And speaking of scarves, they’re an absolute must with every outfit; a whole glossary of nicknames describe the many ways they can be tied around the neck in intricate patterns beyond anything I’ve seen stateside. As far as additional accessories, jewelry is extremely modern with clean lines and simple designs. The gaudy “bib” necklaces that grace the pages of J. Crew and other trendy retailers back home are fairly rare here.
For the boys, the preppie hipster look is clearly “in,” and like most European men, Norwegians are pretty doggone comfortable with their feminine side. Elaborately tied and patterned scarves complete most men’s outfits. Salmon pink ranks as one of the most popular colors for pants, along with creamsicle orange and bright brick red. (I love ’em, but my colleagues were aghast that I was considering buying a pair for Matthew.) Gingham or flowered shirts get a yin-yang balance by topping them with V-necked or “military epaulet” sweaters. Suits with waistcoats — in windowpane, stripes, or bright cornflower blue — are quite common, and are cut in the trim European manner rather than the big, boxy American fashion.
In general, you’ll rarely find a sloppily dressed Norwegian in my neighborhood. If someone is sporting exercise attire, it’s because they’re actually in the process of exercising, not just too lazy to put together an ensemble. Outfits are clearly planned in detail, not tossed on as an afterthought. And yet somehow Norwegians manage to achieve the insouciance that I associate with the French, as if they’ve effortlessly thrown together a complete look right out of the pages of Vogue without overthinking it. I’ve enjoyed many a morning watching the fashion parade go by while I wait for the Trikk (streetcar). And I must confess, I’m a little intimidated; I rarely leave the house without being manicured, made-up, and dressed to the nines.
Another thing — people’s clothes actually fit them, and most folks themselves are quite fit and trim. Few have bulges to disguise beneath billowy tent dresses or sweat pants. Neither does the raggedy, baggy “thug rapper style” make an appearance, except maybe in the city center, where you’ll see more foreign tourists. Formality is the order of the day in Oslo.
One trend I’ve been warned about but haven’t personally witnessed is the “farmer style,” “frat-boy” and “western wear” motif favored by small-town Norway. Apparently American reality TV has ushered in an era of John Deere caps, sloppy Frat Boy plaid flannels, “Ed Hardy”-era T-shirts, Daisy Duke shorts — and chewing tobacco.
This last habit has made its way into the big city of Oslo, and I can’t tell you how odd it is to see a well-dressed person (especially an elegant mom pushing a baby carriage) stop to stuff a pillow of Snus beneath the upper lip (which makes their lips look unflatteringly ape-like) or spit tobacco juice on the ground. I confess I’m fighting my own cultural stereotyping, because across most of the U.S. — and even in my southern hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, where we raised cigarette tobacco on our family farm for years — “chaw” is typically associated with “white-trash rednecks.” It just seems like such an incongruous habit for the usually classy Norwegians to adopt. Stained or missing teeth, funky gums, and mouth/tongue cancer aren’t great accessories, either, so I wonder how long this fashion statement will continue.
Reality TV trends also make an appearance in the makeup and skincare department, which seems a bit dominated by “Jersey Shore” and “Kardashian” fads. Women here worship the sun. They often spend hours at tanning salons under the lamps. (I’ve heard that few people partake in spray tans because they’re considered too fake.) The sad result is that much of the female population, though quite beautiful, becomes leathered and lined at a very young age, often looking far older than their years. Not surprisingly, skin cancer is a big problem. Which is kind of sad, considering the country has so few daylight hours for much of the year. Extremely heavy foundation is also quite common to hide freckles and other tell-tale sunspots, but the end result is a lot of young women with oddly mask-like, mannequin faces.
I’d say 1950’s Barbie is another American export that has also wreaked some havoc in the maquillage department. Bright pink lipstick and blush often ornament browned faces. While eye shadow is uncommon, cat-eye liner and super thick, improbably long, false eyelashes seem to be a must. I know this look is popular in the States, too, but some girls just overdo it to the point where the breeze from their blinking fringed lids feels like being hit with the backwash from a jet. Seriously, if you end up resembling Jennifer Lopez on Grammy Night, it’s just too much — you’re not on stage, people! Surprisingly, eyelash extension studios populate every block in my neighborhood, and falsies are not a cheap date — I’ve been told they cost around $300 a pop, last only about a month, and tend to rip out your real lashes. Highly sculpted, super-dark-n-thick brows that are clearly painted on (also a big trend in the U.S.), usually complete the picture of artificiality and contrast heavily with bleached blonde hair.
There’s a commercial that runs as a preview in Oslo’s movie theaters for a haircare product. At first you see a Norwegian woman going to Milan for a makeover, Italian-style. A flamboyant male stylist teases her hair into a stiff, bouffant up-do, dresses her from head-to-toe in loud, bright Gucci-esque clothes, paints her face gaudily, and criticizes her Norwegian proportions, saying, “your feet are so big.” Next, the Norwegian goes to L.A., where a valley-girl stylist complains in nasal tones, “you’re so organic,” then applies false lashes and hair extensions and squeezes the subject into the requisite Hervé Léger dress so that she looks like all the other Hollywood cookie cutters.
Finally you see the young woman back at home, where her regular stylist uses the advertised product, and the girl walks out, blonde hair waving unfettered and free, implying Norwegians are super au naturel. Matthew and I always laugh, because we wonder if the commercial ends right before she stops at the tanning salon, then swings by the fake nail and lash studio, where she also gets a coat of spackling compound applied to her face, along with a set of Frida Kahlo eyebrows and some lip injections (yep, futon lips are crazy popular here, too). And of course, the commercial doesn’t show the three hours spent in the chair to bring the girl’s hair to the requisite platinum color.
Yep, I hate to disappoint you, but the Scandinavian blonde is frequently fake, or at least, “heavily upgraded.” I’ve had three different Norwegian stylists tell me that, while Swedes are naturally blonde, most Norwegian women have very thin brown hair, which they bleach to add volume. It can often be done well by streaking various shades so that overall color looks quite natural. But it seems there’s now a trend for such an over-processed look that some women’s hair has that plastic sheen, just like Malibu Barbie. Long hair is also the favored fashion. You’ll see topknots, beautifully elaborate braids, and high ponytails, but few short haircuts. My stylist says it’s just not considered sexy or feminine to have short hair. If so few women cut their hair, it makes me wonder how in the heck Norway supports more hairstylists per capita than any other European country (true statistic) — there’s literally a salon on every corner. Maybe ladies just go for a root touch-up frequently.
Another thing; haircuts are crazy money. In between stylings at home (we fly back to Chicago every two months for meetings), I get my hair cut at a stylists’ training school in downtown Oslo, where it costs $300 – $400 dollars for a cut and color — which I’ve been told is a steep discount from the $700 – $900 at a regular salon in my Frogner neighborhood. Maybe the price explains why long hair is so fashionable here. Even for men, you’ll see lots of undercuts with long hair on top, sculpted into Elvis pompadours or “man buns” in the typical hipster fashion. Hipster beards are big, too — the full, chiseled kind frequently seen on the backs of ancient Greek coins, though some guys go for the wild-n-crazy Viking look, complete with braided bits.
As I hinted at earlier, along with the false eyelashes and fake tans, dagger-length acrylic nails are common. Apparently, Norwegian women are known for having really huge, rough, man-hands. I was introduced to this characteristic by a Norwegian friend of mine, who simply won’t go out in public without getting her nails done to disguise what she describes as her “ethnic inheritance.” Several women I’ve met since then have complained about the size of their hands and feet. And in truth, I’m often surprised when I go to shake a woman’s hand and mine gets enveloped in what feels like a giant baseball glove. When I’ve looked down, sure enough, the mitt is frequently equipped with Rihanna nails, sometimes blinged out with a plethora of decals and charms. The art of the distractingly dazzling.
Elaborate fake nails can’t be cheap, either. In preparation for our vacation, I had a manicure and pedicure — foolishly without checking on the price. Turns out, a manicure for someone with real nails (not acrylic) and an application of one polish color, no fancy stuff, is $100. A pedicure with polish is $120. Neither mani nor pedi come with luxuries or typical perks like massages, paraffin dips, or exfoliation scrubs. Just a straight filing of the nails and a serious sanding of any calluses, using what looks like a Dremel equipped with a tiny circular sander. Effective, but pretty bare bones. My nail stylist explained that Norway requires pedicurists and manicurists to have training as medical aestheticians licensed to care for diabetic issues, hence the cost without the luxury details.
One last note: I’m always impressed by how differently older people dress here. In the U.S., middle-aged and elderly folks often look like they’re stuck in a time warp or have dived into a rag bin. But in Oslo, I’ve yet to see anyone wearing clothing that fits poorly, is in a ragged, worn condition, or looks like it belongs to the last decade if not the last century. No frumpy, stretchy flowered tops, elastic waistbands, ugly orthopedic shoes, etc. Folks in their latter years still boast up-to-the-minute fashion, but without looking age inappropriate. Just classical, elegant, and confident — a look that I wish would get exported to America.
Well, that’s about it for my fashion coverage so far — but I’m sure I’ll have more to report when spring comes and warm-weather wardrobes begin to make their appearance ….