Greenland is the world’s largest island. For most of the year, it is blanketed by ice, but its coasts are inhabited by numerous communities who have thrived in this arctic environment for generations. Though it is a North American landmass, Greenland has been culturally and politically connected to Europe since the 10th century. Over the past thousand years, Greenland has been settled by different groups of Inuit and Nordic peoples. After centuries of Danish colonization, Greenland became an autonomous country in the Kingdom of Denmark in 2009. Traditional Greenlandic dress reflects this long and culturally complex history, and often displays a mixture of Inuit and European influences and materials.
Characterized by bright colors and elaborate embellishments, Greenlandic clothing can reveal a wealth of personal information about the wearer, including their gender, occupation, marital status, as well as which community they are from. Over the course of the 20th century, traditional Greenlandic clothing also became an important part of a larger discussion concerning national identity. As Greenlanders pushed for greater social and political autonomy, a colorful and recognizable national costume was gradually developed. Today, many Greenlanders wear their national dress during special occasions, to celebrate holidays and mark important rites of passage. A complete national costume, including several pairs of highly embellished boots, are currently on display in our latest exhibit Art and Innovation: Traditional ArcticFootwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection.
Many of the Greenlandic artifacts featured in our exhibit were obtained by University of Manitoba researchers Dr. Rick Riewe and Dr. Jill Oakes. In 1988 and 1989, they travelled to Greenland on behalf of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation not only to collect artifacts, but also to learn about traditional bootmaking techniques directly from those who made and wore these pieces. Their field trips along the northern and western coasts of Greenland yielded a wealth of information about hunting, skin preparation, sewing, as well as boot and clothing construction in these different communities.
One of the most interesting Greenlandic artifacts featured in this exhibit is a pair of tall white sealskin boots (right), or kamiit, which Rick and Jill collected while they were in Nuuk. Each boot is composed of two pieces; the short outer boot is made of bleached, dehaired sealskin, while the tall inner boot is adorned with red textile, silk-thread needlework, and a black sealskin cuff. The shaft of the inner boot features floral embroidery and lace decoration which shows European influence, while the horizontal band of seal-skin embroidery, known as avittat, reflects Inuit heritage. Sealskin is a material which has natural water-repellent abilities and it has been used innovatively in Greenlandic bootmaking for centuries. This particular pair of boots was made by Sakarine Steenholdt in the 1970s, which she wore as part of her national costume during special events and religious holidays.
Another highlight piece from the BSM’s Greenlandic collection is this pair of thigh-high red boots (left). They are made of de-haired sealskin which has been colored bright red using commercial paint. Each boot also features a sealskin inner boot topped with a black fur cuff. This pair was specially made by Laurie Jeremiassen in 1955 for her silver wedding anniversary, while she was living on Disco Island in West Greenland. Like the tall white boots, this pair is decorated with colorful lines of avittat. This embroidery is achieved with tiny, rectangular pieces of dyed sealskin which are painstakingly stitched one by one to create intricate designs. While conducting field research in Greenland, Rick and Jill learned how to create avittat embroidery, as well as other decorative techniques, from seamstresses such as Karen Nielsen (pictured below). As a result, they developed a greater appreciation of the creativity and skillfulness that seamstresses needed to create these types of boots.
Colorful and intricately embellished boots such as these examples were often reserved for special occasions, and could be worn as a part of the Greenlandic national costume. To make a pair is a huge undertaking as these boots require time, patience and dexterity to create. Traditional Greenlandic boots often display a resourceful mix of naturally-sourced materials such as sealskin and sinew, as well as commercially-available materials such as lace, cotton and silks. Through their choice of materials and decorative styles, seamstresses’ fashioned footwear which reflected a mix of European and Inuit influences in a way that was distinctly and uniquely Greenlandic.
These examples offer a brief glimpse into all of the wonderful footwear and clothing that we currently have on display in Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Clothing from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection.