Swedish historical musical highlights integration debate

Integration is one of the most important issues facing the world today. More than 60 million people have been displaced, fleeing war and persecution, and thousands come to Sweden. This autumn a famous musical aims to remind Swedes that they once had to leave their country, too.

Swedish historical musical highlights integration debate

The Swedish musical Kristina från Duvemåla (Kristina from Duvemåla), written by the famous men of Abba (Björn Ulveus and Benny Andersson), opened for a new season in Stockholm this weekend. But the show got kick-started last week with a special dress rehearsal including a discussion about integration and what can be done to help refugees.

“We've noticed a change in the public discourse,” says Ulrika Årehed Kågström, General Secretary of the Swedish Red Cross (Röda Korset).

“Recent events have led to the refugee crisis coming very close to home, and many people are touched and want to do something, but they don't always know what to do.”

The musical is based on a series of novels by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, which tells the tale of a Swedish family in the 1840s. The books (the Utvandrarna series) are some of the most famous in Swedish literature, and the musical has now also become the most famous in Sweden, seen by more than 1 million people.

The young couple in the story, Karl Oskar and Kristina, make the decision to travel to North America after one of their children dies and the rest of the family is starving, struggling to deal with failing harvests year after year.

Several of their friends also flee the country, due to religious persecution or simply seeking a better future where they do not have to slave away working for other people.

They board a ship and spend months at a sea, dealing with lice, violence, and shortage of food onboard, before finally reaching North America.

But they find that life in the US is not easy, and they are looked down upon by many people there as well. Life is a roller-coaster of failure and success, and as soon as they find a new home it is snatched away from them again.

Swedes gather onto tiny boats to cross the Atlantic to a better life. Photo: Mats Bäcker. Kristina från Duvemåla, GöteborgsOperan 2014

“We have seen how the musical can open up people's eyes about what it's like to be forced to leave home, and what it's like to be a new arrival in a country today,” says Björn Ulvaeus, who wrote the lyrics for the play. 

“It wakes empathy and engagement in people. So it feels only natural to work with the Red Cross, which has so many great integration initiatives, and have this meeting.”

Millions of Swedes fled the country at that time, with famine and persecution pushing them away. But less than 200 years later, the story is long forgotten by many. The collaboration of the Charlotta Theatre Company, the Red Cross, and the Blixten & Co media company hopes to change that.

“Many people are surprised and touched when they see the musical,” said Rita de Castro, project leader at the Red Cross.

“'Oh, have Swedes also had to leave home?' they wonder.”

Kristina and Karl Oskar lose a child to starvation and decide to leave Sweden.

She added that having a personal contact, having someone who views you as a complex human individual, is critical to help new refugees integrate into society.

“We are going to show how people can get engaged and how they can invite new families home for dinner, or how they can join a buddy system and become friends with a refugee,” she said.

One of the most famous songs in the musical, “You Have to Be There” (Du måste finnas), highlights the emotional turmoil Kristina goes through when she loses yet another child and begins to doubt the existence of God for the first time. 

“You tore me away from my homeland, God,” she sings at the beginning of the song. “I am a stranger and a refugee, and I accept that as my fate…but now you have taken my child.”

Listen to the song here, with English subtitles:

The musical will be performed at the Cirkus venue on Djurgården in Stockholm, and Cirkus was the meeting place last week for politicians, musicians, and newly-arrived asylum seekers in Sweden, who talked about their experiences and what can be done to help.

“Culture has an incredible ability to create feelings and stories that people can relate to,” Björn Ulvaeus said.

“If we can succeed with this initiative, by making a difference by changing the views of some and getting people to contribute to integration, then we will be happy.”

For members


‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT


Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden