10th Century Anglo-Saxon Women’s Dress

The internet can be pretty messy when it comes to historical costume and fashion research. When I started working on my 10th century Anglo-Saxon paper doll for one of my drawing winners, Gwendolyn, I found myself flummoxed. Additional AS 49598 depicting 960-970The 10th century is a transitional period in Anglo-Saxon dress and not one extensively covered in most sources. I hope to have my Anglo-Saxon paper doll up tomorrow.

A full bibliography is at the bottom of the post, each plate is credited underneath it. Since I can’t seem to get my footnotes plugin to work, I’m going to use inline citations (which I hate, by the way, but what can you do?). There is only one book I was able to find that covers the 10th century with the sort of detail I wanted and that was Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. You’re going to see me mostly citing her. (Funny story, I found another book which covered the period briefly and the person they cited was… drum roll please… Owen-Crocker.)

So… Let’s do this thing!

What was Going on Around the Clothes?

The Anglo-Saxon period is generally defined as being from 450 until the Norman invasion in 1066. For my purposes, and since we’re dealing with the 10th century (or the 900s) specifically, it’s important to know that by this late Anglo-Saxon period the country we think of as England was beginning to form and the dominating religion was Christianity.

Christianity is important to scholars of dress, because the conversion of the population from pagan beliefs to Christianity largely ended the practice of burials with gave goods and replaced these with shroud burials (Owen-Crocker 28). Pieces of garments found on bodies and extensive hordes of grave goods, therefore, do not occur in this period, so we turn to art. Fortunately, the period between 966 and 1066 is considered by many to be the golden age of Anglo-Saxon art (Backhouse Introduction).

What Anglo-Saxon Women Wore in the 10th Century

Anglo-Saxon women’s dress, as depicted in manuscript and ivories, consists of several layers of clothing. There is usually cloak, an overdress, an under-dress and then a head-covering. I’ve avoided using Old English names, because, as far as I can tell, there is a fair bit of scholarly debate about which word was used for which garment item.

Additional AS 49598 depicting 960-970British Library MS Cotton Galba A XVIII 120


In Plate 1, the Virgin wears a cloak which is draped over her head and fastened at the neck with a circular broach. Circular broaches are the general rule in the 10th century, though these examples are inferior in quality to the work of the ninth century (Wilson 124-128). Coin broaches appear to be quite common and shaped broaches quite uncommon (Owen-Crocker 207). There’s a picture of a 10th century disc broach at the top of this post. Want to see something amazing? Check out this one from the 7th century.

During my research, I discovered that much of what I have always thought of as Anglo-Saxon jewelry is, in fact, Viking in origin and not Anglo-Saxon… My bad. :)

Veils and Fillets (Headbands)

So, let’s talk a little abut veils which are usually shown, unlike Plate 1, separate from the cloak as in Plate 2. (Also note in Plate 2 the decorated hem of her dress. We’ll come back to that later.)

Every women seems to wear a veil all the time. It is important to note that while James Laver stated that young women wore their heads uncovered at home kept down by headbands (James Laver’s Costume, pg 26), there is no illustrations which substantiate these claims and he doesn’t cite his source, so… Sorry Laver- I love you, but I think you’re wrong on this one.

When women are depicted with their hair exposed, such as one depiction of Lot’s daughters committing incest, it is nearly always an indication of vice or sin (Owen-Crocker 219). Fillets (or headbands) did exist and usually went with veils. A wealthy women named Wynflaed bequeathed her “best holy veil and fillet” together as one item (Owen-Crocker 222).

Stowe MS 944 f.6rbiliotheque municipal in Rouen MS 7Y


So, if you look carefully at plate 5, you can see the women is wearing some sort of sleeveless poncho like cloak, a pale under-sleeved garment and a red dress. The sleeveless “poncho” is largely a mystery. Since women’s shoulders are always shown covered, it is impossible to know what the neckline looked like or if it wrapped around the body somehow. Owen-Crocker describes her observations of it on pages 213 and 214 of her book. It is possible that this “poncho” covers jewelry which was commonly worn.

The Main Dress

Underneath this the women wear a dress which appears to be tailored, unlike the “poncho”. The dresses sleeves do not appear as elaborate in the 10th century as they do in the 11th century (Owen-Crocker 215). The sleeves are often shown as exposing the under-dress, but it should be noted that most women are depicted with their arms up, so this may be a quirk of the artistic style. I have yet to see a depiction of a women without exposing the under-dress sleeve (Plate 2 doesn’t… but I’m not sure that’s not a coloring error as there is a sleeve shown peaking out from the “poncho”).

The length of the over-dress is largely unknown and sometimes is appears to almost be rolled up or perhaps trimmed in fur (Plate 4 and 5). It is also depicted with a border design (Plate 2) or very long with feet poking out (Plate 1). Basically, I have no idea what’s going on with the bottom of this garment, but fortunately, neither does anyone else it seems. The sitting Virgin (Plate 6) seems to suggest that there is a shorter over dress and a longer under dress. That’s the only place I’ve seen that depicted, but this style seems popular in the reenactment community, so maybe they know something I don’t.

The British Library Cotton MS f 66VAn ivory plaque dating between 1000-1020 depicting the Virgin and Child

The Under-Dress

The under-dress is nearly always depicted in light colors, suggesting it was made of linen (Owen-Crocker 218). It is always shown as having gathers or wrinkles in the sleeve and a cuff (Plate 3, 4, 5 and 6). Since none of these have survived, it’s hard to know if the sleeves were long and pushed up or if they were intentionally pleated as has been seen in some viking burials in Sweden (Owen-Crocker 218). They are never shown as not having some kind of wrinkles in them. Interestingly, in all my searches of reenactment garments, I only saw one with wrinkled sleeves (and it made me freakishly happy.)

Tomorrow when I post the paper doll, I’ll talk a little bit more about shoes, necklines and what choices I made when I didn’t know enough to know what was accurate.

Sources for 10th Century Anglo-Saxon Dress

Clicking on the plates will take you to their sources, either the museum or the document, depending on how the museum site was set up.

    Backhouse, Janet, D. H. Turner, and Leslie Webster. The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art: 966-1066. London: British Museum, 1984. (Pictures. Pictures. Pretty Pictures.)

    Goubitz, Olaf, Carol Van. Driel-Murray, and Willy Groenman-Van Waateringe. Stepping through Time: Archaeological Footwear from Prehistoric times until 1800. Zwolle: Stichting Promotie Archeologie, 2001. (This book is slightly oddly organized by shoe style rather than by date, but it’s a fantastic book.)

    Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004. (If you’re only going to buy one book on Anglo-Saxon dress, for the love of all things holy, buy this one. It’s what everyone else cites.)

    Wilson, David M. Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork, 700-1100, in the British Museum. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1964. (Fantastic, though not full color, catalog of metalwork.)

    Budny, Mildred, and Dominic Tweedle. “The Maaseik Embroderies.” In Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Pater Clemores, 65-97. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Internet Sources

Questions? Thoughts? Sources I didn’t find that are great for this period? Let me know in a comment… Honestly, I’d LOVE to find more sources for the 10th century. It’s a tough period.

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3 Responses to 10th Century Anglo-Saxon Women’s Dress

  1. Ailsa Ek says:

    This was fascinating, thank you.

  2. Jazz13 says:

    I didn’t even learn that much from my history books! Thank you! :D

  3. Meg Hyland says:

    This is fantastic! Thanks for these two great articles. Another resource you might like is a book called Medieval Dress and Fashion by Margaret Scott. I would love to get my hands on that Owen-Crocker book. I’ll have to look into it. :)

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