Sigurður málari's concept for an Icelandic national costume (1850s) and photograph of Queen Alexandrine of Denmark (1921)

Inspired by the Icelandic landscape and drawing on traditional elements, the Icelandic national costume was designed by Sigurður Guðmundsson (1833-1874), known as Sigurður málari (Sigurður 'the Painter'), an Icelandic artist and one of the founders of what would become the National Museum of Iceland. The museum that is Sigurður's legacy today holds his many drawings of saga landscapes, historical scenes, and designs for a new Icelandic national costume, together with his notes and drafts.

Sigurður málari's drawing

Sigurður málari’s drawing of a woman in a constume resembling the Icelandic national costume. The National Museum of Iceland.

In his historical drawings, Sigurður draws women in clothing reminiscent of his design for the national costume, complete with a tall curved faldur (traditional Icelandic headdress), deep neckline, and long belt around the waist. Sigurður envisioned his costume as a means of presenting a national identity that is at once distinctively Icelandic, and deeply rooted in the island's medieval past. As the number of foreign tourists visiting Iceland climbed in the nineteenth century, Sigurður felt strongly that Icelanders should be able to convey their ancient and noble heritage, even in the absence of any medieval stone monuments or ancient buildings. 

To be able to show them, with our housing, costumes and customs that [...] we are descendants of the ancient Nordic chieftains, and we preserve their customs, speak their language, and wear their costumes.

Sigurður Guðmundsson, 'Um kvennabúnínga á Íslandi', p. 3. 

Sigurður designed a festive version of the Icelandic national costume known as skautbúningur between 1858 and 1860. The earliest attested use of the skautbúningur dates to 1860, when Sigurlaug Gunnarsdóttir – wife of Ólafur Sigurðsson, who was cousin to Sigurður – wore it at a wedding feast. There is more on skautbúningur, in Icelandic, here and here.

Queen Alexandrine wearing the Icelandic national costume (1921)

Photograph of Queen Alexandrine (1879-1952) wearing Icelandic national costume. The Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

As few as fifty years after its design, the Skautbúningur became widely recognised as Iceland's national costume, so much so that when the Danish royal couple King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine visited Iceland on their tour of the northern dependencies - stopping also at the Faroe Islands and Greenland - the women of Iceland presented it to the Queen. Queen Alexandrine, as seen in this photograph from the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, wore the costume during the reception at Iðnaðarmannahúsið (commonly called Iðnó) in the centre of Reykjavík. 

Did you know that the royal couple arrived in Iceland on board the royal navy cruiser Valkyrien (The Valkyrie)? In Norse myth, Valkyries are female figures who choose warriors who die in battle before taking them on to Valhalla. Sigurður intended his design of the Icelandic national costume to evoke associations with these mythological figures.