From Iceland — National Formality-Deficiency?

National Formality-Deficiency?

Published August 29, 2013

National Formality-Deficiency?

I am by absolutely no means proper. In fact, the concept of formality scares me. Just typing out the word gives me chills and fills me with an inexplicable need to write this piece like a job application. Formality. It terrifies me. Formal conversations are not the main issue here, as I am lucky enough to have learnt English systematically and as a second language, which means I can usually pull off a good bluff when it comes to formal speech. Besides, if I find myself out of my depth I can always feign ignorance and play the “I didn’t know better, it’s my second language”-card. It works either way.

On the other hand, formal events are considerably trickier to fake. First of all, my whole body stiffens up and loses control over its joints as soon as I see a suit, let alone when I have to wear one. I look more uncomfortable in a suit than Don Draper in a clown costume. Furthermore my formal self is undeniably dull. A suit makes me lose the ability to talk in whole sentences or say anything of interest to anyone.

A suit makes me a boring stuttering halfwit. My only escape is the nearest bar, which usually yields exactly the same results. Because of this admittedly irrational fear I have managed to go through life without the slightest understanding of suits. My mum bought me one when I graduated from college and since then it’s only served as a reminder of younger, leaner and more carefree times.

I hate the thing.

Outstanding vs. Conforming
As goes for most character flaws of mine, I, rightly or wrongly, attribute this formal handicap to my nationality. I believe that compared to the English we Icelanders are terrible at formality. The English thrive best in suits. They’re one of the very few nations in Europe that still insists on school uniforms, and that seems to teach people formality from a very young age. I can count on one hand the instances I’ve had to wear a tie whilst English people wore one every day of the school lives.

This insistence on uniformity, coupled with their history of class and aristocracy makes the English the world champions in formality. By comparison, Icelanders, men in particular, are cavemen. Icelandic women can pride themselves on an elegant and graceful traditional outfit but us men have no history of formal wear. In fact, our national Hátíðarbúningur (English: “Ceremonial costume”) was designed in 1994. It’s younger than me! It was designed as a pragmatic, modernised and formal alternative to the traditional costume it replaced.

It seems to be the consensus that we sorely needed something formal. A notion that is easily understood when you actually see what it replaced. The traditional male costume is about as ceremonial as our national drink Brennivín, and as graceful as our national sport Glíma. It is most certainly beautiful, colourful and fun—especially the silly woollen hat that comes with it—but it was deemed way too informal to ever be worn outside The National Museum or in period plays.

Scampering Scots vs. Us
Having recently attended a Scottish wedding I got a real firsthand experience of what effect a good national outfit can have on people. I fell in love with the outfit and the pride attached to it. Scots are a proud bunch, but even prouder when sporting the Highland Wear. Perhaps as a Pavlovian response to the emasculating nature of wearing a skirt, the kilt wearing Scot seems to spend the majority of his time bragging about Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland’s continuing superiority over the English.

Another brilliant skirt wearing reflex is the Sgian-dubh, which is a small—most of the time fake—knife tucked into the sock and gives the outfit another confusing but an entertaining dimension. Unfortunately, I don’t think the same applies to our Hátíðarbúningur. Whilst I do find it elegant and smart, its formality still frightens me. Besides, it doesn’t fulfil its purpose of instating pride in its wearer. It’s black and conforming and neither feels important nor exclusive enough to justify its status as a national outfit.

Thankfully though, we still have the old quintessentially Icelandic costume somewhere in the basement of The National Theatre. My suggestion is we dig it up and embrace our formality-deficiency. It’s bound to spark new life into our confirmations, weddings or Christmas parties. Instead of meagrely talking about the weather we can spend our time wrestling, boasting about our Viking roots and moaning about the Danish.

Let’s be more like the Scots. It certainly sounds like fun to me.

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