A Striking Viking: Miss Universe’s national costume contest and nationhood.

This year’s Miss Universe competition is being held at Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. The highlight, at least for me, was certainly yesterday’s national costume show, a tradition at this competition dating back to 1962, where girls wear costumes which represent their country of origin. The first winner, Kim Carlton (England), simply sporting bare legs and a stylized beefeater coat. This year certainly did not disappoint. At the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, one competitor after the other came out on stage, sporting various glamorous costumes, many of which are based on traditional elements, such as a traditional garments, iconic buildings, famous historical figures and nature elements. When its time for the Icelandic competitor, Arna Ýr Jónsdóttir, it is clear what aspect was chosen as inspiration. The Viking myth. In the words of the presenters: “Iceland. Channeling the spirit of strong Viking women, Iceland is wearing a national costume comprising of black feathers, faux fish skin and a battery powered axe that lights up. This Viking sure is striking. Iceland.” They did not mention the large animal skull at the front of her feathery headdress, clearly the crown jewel of the entire outfit.

Arna Ýr, glæsileg að vanda.
Image from Visir.is

First of all, the display of powerful female warriors is not novel in Miss Universe, the credit for popularizing this type of costume goes to Kuara Chibana, the Miss Japan contestant of 2006. She wore a fierce looking red samurai costume high heels and a sword. Unsurprisingly, she won the national costume competition that year. Secondly, infusing ideology of feminine strength and fierceness, is not a surprising element in a contested beauty contest such as Miss Universe. A whole body of academic research has been dedicated to analyzing beauty contests, researching their role in national identity, body images, beauty norms, feminist and anti-feminist perspectives of the competition.

I will not go into that theory any further here, but encourage interested parties to simply look some of those books and articles up. What I am more focused on is body display in relation to nationhood. In a competition where each competitor represents the ideal female form (both from their own country of origin and on a global scale), how is the national costume reflective of those national ideals? This year, the Icelandic costume (and the body wearing it) presented unmistakable ideology, connected with local traditional views on women from the Viking age (or Saga age), the national spirit and tourism related marketing.

I would like to start by commenting on the linking of Las Vegas, beauty contest glitter and glamour and traditionally reserved looking national costumes. It puts me in the mind of Stickell’s and Sully’s ‘Haunting the Boneyard’ article, reflections on the significance of various kitschy signage for Las Vegas’s cultural heritage. The signs, having their primary function removed, are taken to the boneyard, sitting there as trash (as ‘trashy’ trash’ perhaps?), until rediscovered as a tourist site, resurrected as a place of memory, a marker of the shifting value of cultural heritage.

Just to clarify, the link I make between the boneyard and the chosen Icelandic outfit for the national costume contest are not dismissed as being trash, and therefore without value. Rather, that both are aspects of the same modern, global phenomena; kitsch culture. Trash culture. Popular culture as a style of consumption, mass produced, voyeuristic insight into trash production, including film, visual art, museum exhibits and literature. Furthermore, it is an aesthetic resource, dominant in popular culture (Pye 2010). In this context, the national costume, Arna Ýr wore is a powerful symbol of the development of Icelandic national myths in a global marketplace.

It is a known phenomenon of tourism marketing that local myths are mixed with international stereotypes and popular conceptions of the past in a way which makes for a profitable, easily marketable product (Gudrun D. Whitehead, forthcoming). In Iceland, this is particularly true for the Sagas and the Viking aspects of that literary past. The settlement age and the times immediately following, are widely romanticised as the Golden Age of Icelandic culture and heritage, not in the least in museums, such as the Saga Museum, Grandi. It is also a central theme in tourist related shops, selling cheap knick-knacks, featuring puffins, polar bears and mostly prominently, Vikings. Almost all stores now sell shot glasses of a puffing wearing a horned helmet shouting ‘húh’. Something which most readers should be instantly familiar with.

Viking Puffin celebrates football

The Pride of Iceland store, located centrally in Iceland, sells a translation of Njál’s Saga, with an image of a bearded, horned helmet wearing man on the front cover.

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Njáls Saga featuring Njáll with a horned helmet

The last example is the perfect representation of my thoughts on the Miss Universe national costume, worn by this year’s Icelandic competitor. A traditional element, the Icelandic sagas, being used to tell a modern, ‘kitsch culture’ story, one which is globally understood. On one hand, appearing as a drawing of a pop culture Viking, on the other hand a woman with a feathery skull headdress and an illuminating axe. She is the woman of the Sagas, the powerful women, who controlled and manipulated the men around them from behind the curtains. The ‘warrior Viking’ who stood equal to men, who had rights and status.

Certainly this is an interesting aspect of the Saga myths, having been written about by various academics, including Helga Kress (1993), Coleman & Løkka (2014), Quinn (2007), Jesch (1996) and Jochens (1998). The popular notion that all women in the Viking age had extensive rights and equality have been debated among academics. Yet this discussion rarely finds its way into general conversations on this matter. Why? Simply, because one version is more compelling than the other. It is therefore fitting, that in a competition where global beauty standards are being celebrated, in no less a glamorous place than Las Vegas, that the Icelandic National costume reflects that reality. Arna Ýr certainly stands out, reflecting popular understanding of history rather than an academically scrutinized one. A proud warrior, demonstrating the strength of one judged purely on her body and her glamour.

2 thoughts on “A Striking Viking: Miss Universe’s national costume contest and nationhood.

  1. Pingback: Polar bears, puffins and vikings, oh my: On authenticity – Gudrun D Whitehead

  2. Pingback: Gudrun D Whitehead

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