In Solvang, they’re found in bakeries and side street breakfast joints as waitresses whiz by balancing piles of plates. They grace the covers of tourism brochures, are purchased by adoring grandparents for little ones, and are what visitors have come to expect when they travel to California’s “Little Denmark.”
At Elna’s Dress Shop, they adorn the coveted front window display, the same place they’ve hung since the Copenhagen Drive shop opened in 1942, four years after Solvang’s first Danish Days celebration.
The Danish folk dress has become synonymous with Solvang culture, and during Danish Days they fly off the racks.
Nina Powers knows. The 80-year-old seamstress has been taking needle to thread for 23 years, stitching together thousands of the costumes in hues of pink, blue and red.
At Elna’s Dress Shop, the only Solvang business making the dresses locally, Powers is the senior seamstress. Just as much a staple as the dresses she crafts, longtime shop employees joke that Powers came with the purchase of the building.
“She’s a house of fire. She’s her own assembly line,” longtime employee Karen Stillwagon said. “It’s really hard to find a seamstress.”
“And one that takes pride in what they do,” said Sue Manning, Elna’s Dress Shop’s owner.
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At Powers’ Buellton home, she shuffles down a dimly lit hallway into a spare bedroom set aside for her work.
“Sewing rooms are like kitchens,” she warns. “They’re messy.”
Inside is organized chaos. Colorful spools of thread line the wall like an art piece that Powers pulls from to weave intricate designs. Sewing books line another wall from floor to ceiling. Center stage is Powers’ 25-year old sewing machine and table, filling the majority of the cramped quarters.
A stack of fabric resting beside Powers will in a few hours become the crowning piece of a proper Danish folk dress. Today, Powers is making hats.
She eases her black loafer onto an electric peddle as the machine comes to life.
Click clack. Click clack. Click clack.
It’s a sound Powers has been familiar with since she made her first garment at 3 years old. She’s hesitant to call it clothing. It had a button, and a hole. Aside from that, “it doesn’t look like anything,” Powers said.
Her mother saved it, but Powers has since lost track of it.
“It’s someplace,” she said.
It’s the same story for all the clothing Powers made for herself while growing up in Ohio. At age 10, she began crafting her own school clothes. She even made the wedding dress she wore while walking down the aisle in 1956.
It’s a silk ballerina-length dress with a Kremlin, fitted bodice, collar that plunged down the neckline and accompanying long sleeve jacket.
“I got married in Ohio in April and there was still snow on the ground,” Powers said.
Just like the others, Powers has lost track of it amid piles of books and cutouts for Danish dresses.
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While Powers has watched various fashion trends change over the course of a lifetime, just one has remained constant -- the Danish folk dress.
With bold colors, lace-up jumper and apron, it falls somewhere between a novelty piece and traditional garb. Nowhere near as intricate as the dresses Solvang’s Danish Maids typically have custom-tailored, they are priced to target tourists unafraid of impulsively dropping almost $100 for a slice of the Solvang experience. Others see them as all-purpose Bavarian outfits to don during Oktoberfest, or on Halloween.
One correspondent for Travel Channel China reporting on Danish Days was so taken by the costumes that she wore one throughout the entirety of her broadcast in 2012.
When Disney’s "Frozen" hit theaters, little girls stopped at the window and gawked at the blue dresses, Manning said.
“Lots of little girls think these are Disney dresses, which is very sweet,” Stillwagon said.
But the outfits aren’t traditional Danish. They're a generic offshoot, an Americanization of Austrian dirndls made for children's dancing troupes, said Rick Marzullo, a local artist and historian specializing in Danish folk dresses.
“We get a lot of Danes coming into the shop and we know before they say a thing, because they laugh at our outfits. They’re not traditional Danish outfits,” Stillwagon said. “We know. We tell them, ‘You’re not in Denmark. This is about Solvang.’”
When Elna Larsen began crafting the costumes in the back of her shop in 1942, she had one goal in mind: create something reminiscent of home that turns a profit. That meant ditching traditional wool for a lighter fabric.
“She always used to say that she invented them,” Stillwagon said.
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When Powers began working at Elna’s Dress Shop in 1992, the shop’s sole seamstress, hampered with work, commissioned her as an apron maker.
“I’d never made one before,” Powers said. She’s not Danish, has never worn one of the costumes, and visited Denmark just once, years ago, before she ever knew of a place named Solvang. She wasn’t hesitant to make her own adjustments to some of the seams, however, rounding them in the back to make them stronger.
Since then she has had her hand in everything made at the store, but recently she has stepped back. Now she spends her days at the sewing table, exclusively churning out Danish Maid costumes.
It keeps her busy year-round. The store sells about 300 annually, and the production increases during Danish Days.
“Everyone in the United States by now must have a Danish costume,” Powers said. “Because I have no idea how many we’ve made.”