Female Viking Dress
This article is intended to clear up some confusion about the dress of female Vikings in our society. At the same time new evidence and research will be presented that will enable a more accurate portrayal of feminine clothing. There will be little requirement to modify existing costume, and in some cases manufacturing costs will actually be saved. Also articles like these tend to upset the wombat gods (such as Pete Carrs) as there are only two references to swords, and one of those was in this opening paragraph!
The confusion started with the excavation of the 1100 or so graves at Birka between 1873 and 1895 by Hjalmar Stolpe. These graves were thought to be composed of the remains of "typical Vikings, investigation however has shown that the people were either "High Born" individuals; that is of the aristocratic class or that they were buried wearing the costume of the High Born!
Secondly, it is now thought that the culture was influenced by more eastern peoples; Slavs, Wends and Rus. There is no dispute that there was some inherent Viking culture, but the degree of outside influence is not known for sure.
At the time of the excavation, archaeologists were perhaps more interested in unearthing the grave 'goodies'; swords and brooches and so forth; rather than the more 'ordinary' finds such as textiles. Finds of clothing fragments were thus often disregarded or jumbled in bags where they were stored in museum vaults for around fifty years or so.
Agnes Geijer was the first academic to take an interest in the Birka textiles. By the time that she excavated them from the museum store, all hope of accurately reconstructing the clothing had long since vanished. However, textile layers had tenaciously clung to the back of the tortoise and other brooches, so she new how many layers of clothing were worn, but not what the individual garment looked like! However, her work was not published till 1938!
Geijer reconstructed an under dress overlain by a pinafore arrangement that was suspended from straps and fastened by tortoise brooches. The pinafore was thought to be open down one side only. However, by photographic reversal the pinafore gained a spilt down the other side as well! Many eminent scholars such as M. Hald (1950) and Inga Hägg (1974) continued the work of Geijer and reconstructions of Viking female costume based on their ideas went into print.
Two notable illustrators perpetuated the side split apron myth; Åke Gustavsson in 'The Viking'(1966) and David Mallot in 'Vikings in England'(1981). It is upon all their researches and reconstructions that female costume guidelines of the NFPS was based.
Recently however the findings of Geijer have been reassessed. Flemming Bau, has re-addressed the clothing issue by comparing textile layering information with clothing arrangements as portrayed on the so called Valkyrie Figurines, that is small female figures thought to be Valkyries (welcoming the high class warrior to Valhalla) represented as pendants, gaming pieces and illustrations on grave stones and tapestries. As these purport to be High born women they are ideal for evidence interpretation.
Flemming Bau further compared her findings with folk costume as was able to build a comprehensive of female costume. To determine whether there was any significant Slavic influence, her findings were compared to the available evidence from other Viking sites (such as Norway, Sweden and Scotland) No contradictions to her conclusions were discovered. Here I will present a brief summary of that evidence; though it is worth remembering that a century after the Birka excavations, 90% of the textiles remained unpublished!
THE GARMENTS OF THE HIGH BORN
Theses were simple affairs predominantly plain in the C9th. but chiefly pleated in the C10th. The garment was ankle length and fastened (in the C10th.) at the throat by a simple round brooch. Pleated fragments have also been recovered as far away as Viking York.
Pleated underdresses were not unlike modern pleated skirts but no complete pattern survives. It is thought that these were body length pleated tubes of linen closed at the neck, to which two smaller tubes pleated concertina like, were added for the arms;
These 'pleated tubes' are closed around the neck by a draw string. It is difficult therefore to see how a brooch would be employed to close the neck. Unless the brooch was purely for show, perhaps it closed the over garment, or perhaps the earlier unpleated dress? Many of these small round brooches have a ring fixed to the back, and in some graves this ring is fixed by a chain to the tortoise brooches chain arrangement. Such a chain to the underdress would be awkward unless the overdress was not worn or if the brooch attached to the over dress.
The pleated arm tubes have been reconstructed both with pleats lengthwise down the arms (as depicted by Judith Jesch, Gustavsson, Mallot and others) or laterally around the arms (as depicted by Flemming Bau). The latter is reminiscent of Saxon male and female dress with rolled sleeves and of the Mammen grave find with its double rolled cuffs. Inga Hägg has shown by examining the material corroded to the back of the brooches, that the pleats must have run laterally around the arms. See figure 1.
Further evidence for under dresses also emerged at Haithabu, (Heddeby) the great ancient trading centre for the Danes (but now in Germany). These again, were pleated or simpler affairs with added gussets. See figure 2. One dress example was very long, lined with down and buttoned ankle to toe. As such this garment may be an under garment variant, perhaps local to Denmark, see figure 3.
From Birka, these were thought to be knee length and re-enforced down the sides with bands of tablet braid. These were thought to be made of silk with expensive braid at the cuffs. The picture here is not clear however. Not every woman was buried with every garment, not every garment was made of the same material and not every material has survived or is recognisable in every grave.
In some instances the over dress (if worn) could have been either wool of lozenge twill or of silk. The same must apply to the material of the aprons, although in some cases the apron loops were made of linen. The same degree of uncertainty must be shown to the garments length. With so little material surviving we are heavily dependant on braided hems to fix the length of the dress.
Not every garment had a braided hem however, and those that did may have suffered from the jumbling of strata as the corpse gradually decayed. Are we looking at hems from dresses or from caftans, coats, or cloaks? And finally how much evidence for the siting of braided hems is there? Well, in drawings of the 1100 graves at Birka, Stolpe marked the position of only FIVE of the 4000 odd textile fragments! Hardly enough evidence to provide conclusive evidence for the number and length of the clothing garments!!
The female overdress has thus been envisaged as a rather short affair with expensive braid down the sides as well as on the cuffs, see figure 4. Three questions present themselves with this arrangement.
One, Why have an expensively decorated overdress (and we are talking braids of silver wire and silk here) if it will only be covered up by the aprons. Why have such a short dress when the rest of the garments are built up in layers, each successive garment shorter than the one under it in order to reveal something of the other garments wealth?
Two, Why reposition the braid at the side of the dress, when braid is usually found down the front. In the mens graves very similar braid was found, but it lay down the front and outer most garment? see figure 5. In figure 6 we can see the fragment that has given rise to the various reconstructions, remember that it is only the size of a beer mat! The angled piece of braid at the side of the fragment is thought to lie under the armpit cut out. It could have just as easily lain under the neck cut out! see fig. 7-i. An alternative position for the braid is shown in figure 7-ii.
Three, Why allocate this braid to a garment that is worn under aprons, coat and mantle at all? Could not the pieces have either slipped with corpse decay, or else be a peculiarity of burial custom? A viable alternative is that the braid decorates a coat, not unlike the male coat and that in some of the graves finds were jumbled or buried in a clothing combination that wasn't used when they were alive.
The finds from Haithabu (Heddeby) give us a different story regarding the over dress. The Danish over dress is a much longer affair than the reconstructed Birka example. Almost as long as the under dress in fact, see figure 8. Certainly this garment is closer in length to the later Medieval examples from Moselund (Danish C1250) and Herjolfsnes (Greenlandish C1300). See Kyrtle Guide.
On top of the over dress was worn a pinafore arrangement. By examining the number of loops hooked into the tortoise brooches, Flemming Bau was able to deduce that at least four different arrangements were worn. By comparing with the Valkyrie figurines the following has been suggested.
A wrap round pinafore open at the front, the top two corners being looped into the tortoise brooches. The back is suspended by two further straps which are fastened to the middle of the top edge, one over each shoulder and again fastened to the brooches.
A second variant utilised the wrap round pinafore and added to the front an apron (like a long bib) which fastened to the brooches, figure 10. An excellent illustration of this arrangement (figure 10) can be seen on the Danish gold Hnafatafl piece from Tuse, figure 11.
A third arrangement utilised the wrap around pinafore and bib that we have seen before and adding to the back (again with loops to the tortoise brooches) a floor length pleated train, figure 12 .An excellent illustration of this arrangement can be seen on a Swedish silver Valkyrie figure from Tuna, figure 13.
The last arrangement uses the wrap round pinafore and pleated train but omits the front bib. See figure 14.
The length of the bib can vary, on the Danish piece from Tuse the bib is almost ankle length but on the Swedish pieces from Tuna and Grödinge (figure 15) the bib is about knee length.
Other arrangements may have existed, and any that are devised by other researchers are permissable providing that the final effect does not contradict the Valkyrie figurines (therefore no side split aprons) and that the number of and arrangement of garment loops on the tortoise brooches are not contradicted. These are the loops that supported a combination of apron, bib and or train, as follows:
one loop at the top, one at the bottom, fig 9a.
one loop at the top, two at the bottom, fig 10a.
two loops at the top, two at the bottom, fig 12a.
two loops at the top, one at the bottom, fig 14a.
(all pairs of brooches had the same arrangement of loops).
The aprons appear to have been made from wool or silk, sometimes decorated with braids or embroidery of silk or wool. Information on the train is not given but since wool is reluctant to hold a pleat these must have been of silk or linen. Loops to suspend the apron garments (i.e.. apron, train and bib) were made from linen or possibly silk.
The Birka Women were not buried with belts, this is an aristocratic trait because it implied that the individual had servants to do the household chores, (In the sense that the loose apron and flailing chains would hinder most manual work). Further, this can be interpreted as a burial custom as it would imply that the individual was of high status; just as the menfolk were buried with swords (implying that they were warriors, and only warriors could enter the rich Viking after life in Valhalla), so the women were buried with trappings of wealth. The lack of a belt implied wealth because you must have had slaves to do the daily chores for you.
Whether women actually wore a belt is of course a matter for conjecture. The woman buried at Kildonan, Isle of Eigg in Scotland certainly wore an expensively fitted leather belt, but by the same token research has shown that it was greatly influenced (and probably made) by Cymric crafts men. For practicality it is probably better to continue the tradition of wearing tablet braided belts. Indeed, silver tasselled silken belt end have been found in some Birka graves. They may have been of silk tablet woven braid, and some might have been worn by women.
Over some of the apron arrangement another garment, not necessarily a mantle, seems to have been worn. This had sleeves, but unlike the coat of the male graves; the item was not buttoned. Instead it was fastened with a single brooch, either a 'trefoil', 'large disc' or else a 'caterpillar' brooch. It was probably made of silk or woollen tweed, see figure 16-i.
Given the decoration encountered elsewhere in the womans wardrobe, this item too was probably much decorated with braids. In fact it rather seems that this item has been confused along the archaeological way with the Over Garment, see figures 7-ii & 16-ii.
The basic costume is completed with the addition of a shoulder length mantle, this again can clearly be seen on the silver miniatures, (figures 11 & 17) although in the last example, from Kinsta in Sweden, the lower edge of the mantle has been interpreted as a belt.
Mantles or capes, appear to have been made of wool or silk sometimes edged with fur. They were fastened just below the throat with a variety of brooches. They must have fairly open at the front as some of the Valkyrie figures show the brooches exposed, even when the cape is worn, see figures 13 and 18 (the latter is from the Norwegian Oseberg tapestry) and figure 22.
Head coverings have imported their own brand of confusion and misinformation. All the sagas tell that married women covered their heads. None of the figurines however, show head coverings. Perhaps head coverings like belts were subjected to Cymric influence? Certainly many were found in Dublin and a fine tasselled hood was found in the Orkney isles. However, other caps, some in expensive silk have been found in Lincoln and in York, see figure 19.
However, the Scottish example was recently carbon dated to the Bronze age! The sagas are by and large late, composed around the C13th. By this time Britain and Scandinavia were ostensibly Christian, so the head covering probably denoted adherents to this faith. However, some Pagan sites suggest the women covered their heads (perhaps out of practicality?) On the Oseberg tapestry (thought to be C8th, see fig 18) the Pagan women have their heads covered, whilst in other Christian graveyards head coverings are absent (unmarried women?). We can only conclude that Viking women can chose to wear head coverings or not as they please, but that Christian Married women should.
JEWELLERY and ADORNMENTS
Many female graves contained rich adornments to carry them into the afterlife. Many of these were every day items, some however may have been only for show. The list is long but includes: Keys, Comb, Needle case & needles, Small Seax or Knife & Whetstone. All these were pierced and hung on chains or braids from the brooches. Some were hung in their own peculiar way, the Seax and Needle case often hung horizontal. Many of these articles were richly decorated.
The chains were unlike modern chain links, a decorative woven wire effect was often used. As well as securing personal adornments to the body, sometimes the small round under dress brooch tethered by a chain running to one of the tortoise brooches. The tortoise brooches themselves were sometimes chained together, this particularly makes sense in the apron arrangement that excludes the bib as without the bib or chains to the brooches the body apron will tend to drift apart.
Instead of chains sometimes the brooches suspended necklaces of beads of glass amber or jet. Incidentally, ALL amber and jet beads were carved or polished, so rough chipped fragments must be avoided, see figure 20.
Typical shoes, well made from the period were worn. Socks of wool do not survive too well in the archaeological record, but they are known from York. They were stitched by the naalbinding technique (Viking crochet), see figure 21.
The clothing of Children was not simply a scaled down affair of their mothers. High Born children in Finland still wore expensive clothing and valuable jewellery, but the brooches and apron arrangement are absent. If similar practices were adopted by the Viking, we wouldn't expect to see young women wearing the brooches and aprons. These were a mark of class, wealth and marital status. A Viking girl could be married as early as 12 or 13 years old! however the trappings would result partially as heirlooms and partly as booty plundered by her husband.
MIDDLE and LOWER CLASS WOMEN
None aristocratic women would not wear the apron and brooch arrangements of their peers. The garments would have been of the typical Kyrtle types, figures 2, 7 & 8. Belts would have been worn (to stop garments snagging or trailing across fires) and I suspect a simple pinafore (of the type of apron still in use today) would have been used for house hold chores.
We certainly would not have come across a lady in high born dress, with aprons and brooches gutting fish! Ostensibly a Viking woman of the middle or landed classes would have been dressed similar to their Saxon counterparts, minus the rolled sleeves. Head and foot coverings would come under the discussions above.
SUMMARY OF CLOTHING, AND PERMISSABLE CLOTHING COMBINATIONS
UNDER DRESS This may be pleated (drawstring closed), or plain closed with a small round brooch. The dress must be ankle length and made of linen like material, figs 1, 2 & 3.
OVER DRESS If worn this may be decorated as fig 4 or 7 or left plain. The short pattern fig 4 or longer pattern fig 8 may be used. The over garment may be made from wool or silk.
APRON AND BROOCHES For a High Class Lady, an arrangement of aprons must be worn. These must be fastened with large ornamental brooches. By far the most popular were the Tortoise brooches, although Box brooches, Boar Head brooches, Strap end brooches, Disc brooches and long Dragon headed pins are also known. But there again, YOU DON'T HAVE TO HAVE ARISTOCRATIC COSTUME. Middle class womens costume will get you through the Drengr test on an equal footing, yet will be FAR CHEAPER! See fig 20.
BELT If worn at all, could be a braided length of wool or silk.
COAT If worn can be of silk or wool. Decorations were probably those given for the over dress in fig 7. See also figure 16.
MANTLE This essential garment would have been owned by all high born women. It is a short cloak fastened with a variety of brooches. It can be made of wool or silk, possibly lined with wool and trimmed with fur. See figure 22.
CAP Most commonly made of silk, all Christian women must wear a cap or perhaps scarf. Pagan women have the choice whether to, or not, see figure 19.
JEWELLERY Some jewellery must be worn to portray the high born woman. In addition to all the brooches mentioned above, a string of beads suspended between the apron brooches must be worn. Some adornments are mandatory, such as a bunch of keys or Seax. These like any other adornments can be suspended by braid or chain from one of the apron brooches, see figure 20.
FOOTWEAR Typical shoes of the period are to be worn. Socks are expensive, if worn and visible they should be properly made, stitched of naalbinding, fig 21.
HIGH BORN CHILDREN These would not have worn the apron arrangement of their peers. Clothing can be well made and braid decorated, brooches can be expensive. A typical costume would include Under dress and possibly an over dress; a cloak and shoes.
LOWER CLASSES These would have looked very much like their Saxon counterparts. For the middle classes, a linen under dress is required, worn under a dress of wool. Head covering is optional, but shoes and at least some jewellery must be worn. In addition some craft tools such as rubbing board and glass, distaff and spindle whorl, Seax & strike alight and flint should be owned.
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Geijer, A 1938 BIRKA III: Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. Stockholm. Uppsala.
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Thanks for help and advice to Jane Bensted, Jenny Bray and Caroline Buckley . All illustrations Drawn (or Re-Drawn) by Russell Scott except figure 6 which is after Hägg.
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