The Saami of the northern regions of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and western Russia are largely reindeer herders and have depended upon the animals for clothing materials and food for centuries. Although contact with Europeans and Russians influenced Saami clothing traditions at least as early as the 16th century, the Saami retained their traditional skin garments. Indeed, contemporary Saami people still prefer reindeer skin clothing for winter activities.
As in other northern regions, men's winter clothing consisted of two reindeer skin coats, the outer with the hair to the outside. Saami outer coats were wide with gores in the back, small openings for the head, and tall upright collars. They were worn with leather belts. The inner coat had the hair facing inside and was of the same general cut. Their ankle-length trousers were either cloth or tanned skin. Reindeer skin shoes had distinctively turned-up toes and were lined with grass and/or skin stockings. Summer clothing was a similar design but of cloth with colorful bands of trimming. Women's clothing was much the same as men's but with some differences in the cut; after the 1700s, women's coats did not have the high collar, for example.
Tassels of red cloth triangles decorated Saami women's coats and boots in Russia. They wore braided belts and their head dresses were of beaver or reindeer fur decorated with beadwork and cloth tassels. Men's hats were made of reindeer skin and covered with black, blue, or green cloth, decorated with beads, and edged with fox fur. For hunting, men carried their gunpowder, steel and tinder, and other firearm supplies on beaded belts that hung around their necks. Leather belts at their waists held knives and bear claw amulets.
Contemporary Saami wear traditional clothing for festivals and for winter herding and hunting. For people who do not work outside, traditional garments are a symbol of ethnic identity and are not viewed as practical dress. Women continue to make Saami garments: sewing cloth garments using fabric and ornaments procured from commercial sources and constructing skin garments from reindeer skins from the family's own herd. The Saami, as with indigenous peoples in many northern nations, were once ostracized from mainstream national populations. This prejudice is lessening in the face of increasing aboriginal self-determination. Saami are reclaiming their rights and identity through political and social action. The wearing of traditional dress is one means of expressing this identity.
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