FEMALE VIKING COSTUME
by Russell Scott
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
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;
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.
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!!
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
APRON AND BROOCHES
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.
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.
Bau, F 1981 SELER OG SLAEB I VIKINGETID in Kuml. MoesgÅrd.
Geijer, A 1938 BIRKA III: Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. Stockholm. Uppsala.
Elsner, H 1984 SCHAUFENSTER EINER FRÜHEN STADT. Wikinger Museum Haithabu.
Hald, M 1950 OLDDANSKE TEKSTILER. Copenhagen. [=Nordiske Fortidsminder, 5.]
Hägg, I 1978 VIKING WOMEN'S DRESS AT BIRKA. [=Pasold studies in Textile History, 2.]
Heckett, E 1987 SOME HIBERNO-NORSE HEADCOVERINGS FROM FISHAMBLE STREET & ST. JOHNS LANE, DUBLIN. [=Textile History 18(2), 159-74.]
Henshall, A 1952 'Early textiles found in Scotland: part I', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities in Scotland, 86 (1951-2), 1-29.
Scott, R 1991 EQUIPMENT GUIDE: No. 1 Basic Costume. The Vikings: N.F.P.S.
Welander, R. Batey, C & Cowie, T. G 1978 'A Viking Burial from
Kneep, Uig, Isle of Lewis. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities
in Scotland, 117 (1987), 149-174.
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