Viking Women’s Clothing in the 9th and 10th Century

An actual Viking oval brooch from the 10th Century- The Met- Accession Number: 1982.323.1

An actual Viking oval brooch from the 10th Century- The Met- Accession Number: 1982.323.1

Today, we’re going talk about Viking women’s clothing, because I was working on a Viking paper doll. As always happens with me, I did a lot of research. This post could have been many more paragraphs, but what I wanted to do today was write a quick overview. The truth is that we actually don’t know what Viking women wore. Rather, scholars have examined various pieces of archaeological evidence and have come up with theories which, at times, completely contradict each other. In the this post, I tried to summarize the major scholars on the topic and explain what I learned while researching my Viking paper doll.

I maybe many things, but I am not a scholar on Viking dress.

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings were a Germanic Norse seafaring culture which existed from about 700 ACE until about 1000 ACE. The main strongholds of Viking culture were Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but there where were Viking settlements in England, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland.  The Vikings also made contact as far as the Middle East, Russia, and China. Seriously, these dudes got around.  Their travels and expansion heavily influenced European medieval cultures.

Basic Overview

It is generally agreed that Viking women wore clothing; however, theories differ on what this clothing looked like.  Most agree that women wore a shirt of some kind underneath a dress suspended from two oval brooches. This dress is often called an apron-dress or smokkr. If you need to modern version, imagine a jumper. The apron-dress was held up by oval brooches, sometimes called dwarf brooches. Over top of the apron-dress women may have worn an apron in front, a pleated train in back, a caftan coat, a cloak or a shawl. That’s one of the areas  scholars disagree on. The exact meaning of the apron-dress and who was entitled to wear it is also a topic of debate. I’m not going to get into that discussion here. It should, however, be noted that this apron-dress does not appear to have been universally worn by women of all social statuses and ages.

Textiles and Their Survival In Dirt

Before we get into the part of Viking dress, let me pause a moment to say something I didn’t know until I started doing this research. What we know about Viking dress, we know mostly from grave finds. Textiles don’t usually survive in dirt. Sure, this makes sense if you think about it- what survives after a thousand years buried in the Earth? Not a lot, actually, but I never had thought about it as much as I did when I was reading about Viking dress. Often textiles only remain where decaying metal objects have coated them in protective metal salts. So, archaeologists discover textiles beneath metal brooches and next to metal objects . It is rare to find a large piece of cloth and rarer to be able to place a cloth on the skeleton accurately. This is why tablet-woven bands are so critical- they were often made with metal threads and metal survives where fibers do not. I mention this, because a lot of the supposition about Viking dress based on tiny fragments of textile remains preserved behind brooches or next to buckles.

Summaries of Major Scholars on Viking Dress

There are four major scholars who have written extensively on Viking women’s dress. They are, in chronological order Agnes Geijer, Inga Hagg, Fleming Bau and Thor Ewing.

Agnes Geijer's proposed arrangement of the apron-dress with two rectangles of cloth wrapped around the body.

Agnes Geijer’s proposed arrangement of the apron-dress with two rectangles of cloth wrapped around the body.

Agnes Geijer’s work on the graves at the Swedish site of Birka was first published in 1938. In it, she argues that Viking women’s dress consisted of rectangular garment wrapping around the body and open on one side suspended from oval brooches (Ewing 26). She suggested that these garments came in matching pairs that over-lapped each other. Geijer also identifies a fine linen shirt worn under the brooches (Geijer 98). She also observed that the burials at Birka had no evidence of any sort of belt (Geijer 98). Geijer’s primary focuses were the importing and creation of textile goods, not what clothing Vikings wore.

Ina Hägg’s work followed Geijer’s. By studying the stratification of the tombs, Hägg attempted to discover the number and order of the garments worn by the deceased (Hägg 324). For example, if the same textile materials appeared above and below the human remains than they were part of the same garment. She concluded that the apron dress was not two parts as Geijer has proposed, but a single closed garment. Hägg also observed that the linen shirt worn under the apron-dress was often pleated and developed pattern for the positioning of the pleats (Hagg 348). One of her proposals was the existence of a caftan like garment worn over the apron-dress, though later scholars have questioned her conclusions. Her primary arguments for the caftan is based on the positioning of tablet-woven bands and the presence of tailored textile fragments in some graves (Hägg 334-335).

Fleming Bau's open fronted apron-dress. An apron suspended from the oval brooches would have covered the gap in the fabric in his model.

Fleming Bau’s open fronted apron-dress. An apron suspended from the oval brooches would have covered the gap in the fabric in his model.

Fleming Bau further revised Hägg’s work in 1986. Bau proposed an open fronted dress with an apron suspended from between the brooches or a back train hanging down. However, Bau never fully explained how the apron-dress was worn without an apron to cover the open front (Ewing 32). Of these four scholars, only Bau has never published work in English. My understanding of Bau’s work comes from Thor Ewing’s book Viking Clothing.

Thor Ewing published his work in 2006. Of all these scholars, Ewing is the only one whose entire book I was able to read. I am going to summarize fifty pages in five sentences. Ewing agrees with Hägg that the apron-dress had a closed front. He supports the presence of Bau’s apron and backcloth. He argues that rather than a caftan, the tablet woven braids could indicate a shorter apron-dress worn over a longer apron dress. He also proposes the existence of a pleated cloak type garment worn off the back. Lastly, Ewing is the only of these scholars who proposes another style of dress for women which would have consisted of a blouse, skirt, and belt.

Tablet-Woven Bands

Tablet weaving, sometimes called “card weaving” in the USA, is a traditional weaving process where cards with holes create the shed through which the shuttle passes. The tablets are then rotated to shift the warp to creat patterns. If all this sounds confusing, watch my favorite video of Tablet Weaving which both short, has no annoying music, and will show you the basic process.

When Geijer documented the textile finds from Birka in 1938, she recorded that of 170 graves with textiles, approximately 60 graves had pieces of tablet-woven bands (Geijer 93). The tablet woven bands were usually made of silk and were often made with metal threads. These bands are central to the discussions of Viking dress. Hägg uses the positions of these woven bands, particularly those with metal threads, to argue for the existence of a “caftan” like garment worn over the apron-dress(Hägg 334-335). Ewing uses the positioning of these bands to argue against a caftan like garment (Ewing 50). One way or another when reading about Viking dress, the phrase “tablet woven bands” or just “woven bands” shows up a lot.

Oval Brooches or Dwarf Brooches

The back of an oval brooch. The pin goes through the loops, protecting them from damage.

The back of an oval brooch. The pin goes through the loops, protecting them from damage.

If there is one piece which is defining of Viking women’s dress, it is the pair of oval brooches worn at the clavicle. These brooches always come in pairs and are slightly domed. The front of these are often decorated while the back is hollow and has a pin in it. Rather than piercing through fabric, the pin slid through the loops on the apron dress, not damaging the fabric. While there are regional variations to the brooches, they are integral to Viking women’s dress. On the island of Gotland, for example, the oval brooch seems to have been replaced by an animal headed version, often found in sets of three rather than two, but this variation is not seen elsewhere (Ewing 59-60).

From the oval brooches, it was not uncommon for women to hang tools- knives, keys, needle cases or scissors (Ewing 67). Between the brooches, women would sometimes string beads. Beads were, in fact, very popular and were sometimes sewn on garments or worn around the neck as well (Ewing 67).

Apron-Dress or Smoker

Photograph by Ingrid G. Aune Nilsen of Hilde Thunem in her reconstruction of Køstrup (grave ACQ). The white outline indicates the outline of the fabric piece found in the grave. The rest of the garment is a reconstruction. Published with permission.

Photograph by Ingrid G. Aune Nilsen of Hilde Thunem in her reconstruction of Køstrup (grave ACQ). The white outline indicates the outline of the fabric piece found in the grave. The rest of the garment is a reconstruction. Published with permission.

Oval brooches and the apron-dress seem to be linked, but exactly which came first is impossible to say. The apron dress, perhaps called a smokkr in Viking times (Ewing 37), is a garment, worn over another dress or shirt, suspended from a pair of oval broaches. Sometimes the loops holding up the dress were not made from the same textile as the dress’s body. For example, a wool apron dress could have linen loops.

The apron-dress was likely a closed garment which may have been pleated at the front (or sides), may have not had pleating and may have had darts or seams for shaping. The length was either floor length, ankle length or shorter according to period illustrations (Ewing 37). It seems equally possible that sometime more than one smokkr was worn, a shorter over a longer version. This explains the placement of some lavish braided fragments in some burial sites and is supported by grave finds in which there are clearly two dresses worn on top of one another (Ewing 34).

Hilde Thunem, in her article on the reconstruction of the apron-dress from Køstrup (grave ACQ) notes the presence of seams in the smokkr and these seams suggest a shaped garment. Thunem proposes at that seams would have run down the entire length of the garment while noting the small size of the fragment makes it difficult to know the exact length. These seams suggest that the apron-dress was not a simple tube, but rather a shaped garment. The Køstrup (grave ACQ) apron-dress has a pleated section in front. It was dyed blue and was my inspiration for one of the outfits for tomorrow’s paper doll.

Shirt or Serk

The linen shirt is more of a mystery. In seven of the 140 women’s tombs identified at Birka there were textile remains identified as parts of a shirt. Five of these shirts were pleated (Hägg343). After removing the corrosion that had protected the linen from decay, Hägg came to believe that the pleating fell over the shoulders and down the front of the body (Hägg 344).

Hägg's proposed pleating pattern with the brooch at the neck of the shirt. My quick doodle from Hägg's own far more detailed drawings.

Hägg’s proposed pleating pattern with the brooch at the neck of the shirt. My quick doodle from Hägg’s own far more detailed drawings.

Furthermore, she noted at there were smaller brooches found in tombs at Birka suggesting that these brooches had been used to fasten the neck of a pleated linen shirt. These smaller brooches appear only in 10th century graves. The pleated shirt rarely appears in graves dating from the 9th century, further connecting these small brooches and the pleated shirt (Hägg 344). Pleating seems to have over taken plain shirts by the 10th century (Ewing 56).

Hägg’s proposed pleating pattern moves from the shoulders inward across the body. While no pleated sleeve fragments have been found, there is a literary reference in the poem Rigspula to pleated sleeves (Ewing 56). The pleats were set using starch which would have washed out when the garment was washed. Geijer suggests that the “unpleated” shirts might be shirts which, after washing, had their pleating fall loose (Geijer 88).

Fore-Cloths and Back-Cloths

When Bau examined the number of straps on the back of a brooches, he noted that there were four arrangements of straps on the back of brooches present in the graves at Birka. There are either two straps at top and bottom, one strap at top and bottom, two at top and one at bottom, or one at top and two at bottom. This suggested to Bau that aprons were worn in front or back of apron dresses suspended from the brooches (Ewing 32).

Ewing suggests that these back-cloths might have been pleated trains as seen in some artistic renderings or that there may have been a mantle like garment hung from the broaches and draped down the back. Since my paper dolls are only visible from the front, I won’t get into all of Ewing’s observations, but you can read them on pages 50 through 52 of his book.

The “Caftan”

I almost didn’t talk about this garment, because I haven’t been fully convinced that it existed. I might be biased towards Ewing at this point (since his is the only complete book I could read), but there doesn’t appear to be much artistic support or literature support for the existence of a women’s caftan. Men’s caftans have been well documented.

Hägg proposed that over the smokkr women wore a long sleeved caftan without buttons. According to her, this caftan closed in the front with a clasp or brooch. In many of the tombs at Bikra, there are fragments of silk which are not attached to woven bands. This suggests that there may have been a silken garment that women worn on top of the apron-dress (Hagg 334). Hagg argues that this garment was a “caftan” like coat. There are often “third” brooches in Birka graves which have silk loops attached to them through which a pin would go. Hägg argues these brooches held closed a “caftan” like garment rather than to fasten a mantle as previously believed (Hagg 334). Unlike the men’s caftans which buttoned, Hagg argues that women’s caftans used these “third” brooches and, since a skeleton has been found with silver woven bands around the wrist bone, the garment likely had long sleeves. The existence of metal bands on the hem of a garment in tomb Bj.905 suggests, to Hägg, the lenght of the caftan, though she confesses that the sex of that skeleton is unknown (Hagg 334). Further, she argues that the existence of some layers of wool higher up in the stratification of materials that would be normally expected and without decorative bands, suggests that these caftan like coats were not only for the very wealthy (Hagg 335).

Personally, I don’t find her evidence, as presented in the article “Viking Women’s Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archaeological Methods” very convincing, but I recommend anyone who has questions to view the evidence themselves. There maybe, of course, works published in languages I can’t read that further illuminate the issue.

Shoes & Stockings

Extant shoes have been found in excavations, so this might be the only part of Viking dress no heavily debated. Finds from York and other locations show that Viking’s wore turnshoes made from leather with laces or leather toggles. As for stockings, there is no reason to assume women wore stockings that were notably different from those worn in roman times or those worn by Anglo-Saxons or others (Ewing 58-59).

I’d like to close by going back to the photo above of Hilde Thunem in her beautifully reconstructed garment. While lovely, it is crucial to remember that only the white outlined section was found. Think for a moment about the amount of supposition it takes to transform one piece of fabric into an entire garment, or to develop a working theory about construction from straps of linen that have survived on the back of a brooch for over a thousand years. I ended my research in awe of the archaeologists who do this painstaking research, but also in doubt of anyone to states with certainty that they “know” what Vikings wore.

Works Cited:

A lot of what is written on Vikings is not written in English. These are all the English sources.

Ewing, Thor. Viking Clothing. Stroud: Tempus, 2006. Print.

Hägg, Igna. “Viking Women’s Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archaeological Methods.” Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson. Ed. E. M. Carus-Wilson, N. B. Harte, and Kenneth G. Ponting. London: Heinemann Educational, 1983. 316-50. Print.

Geijer, Agnes. “Textile Finds a Birka.” Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson. Ed. E. M. Carus-Wilson, N. B. Harte, and Kenneth G. Ponting. London: Heinemann Educational, 1983. 80-99. Print.

Thunem, Hilde. Recreating Viking Clothing. Web. Accessed: 18 Aug. 2015. (There are several excellent articles on this site.)

And for those of you wondering, “But where’s the Paper Doll?” She’ll be up on Friday. 🙂

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9 Responses to Viking Women’s Clothing in the 9th and 10th Century

  1. Melinda says:

    Rachel, if you are going to have a historical paper doll, I at least would love a history lesson with it.

    • RLC says:

      I try to keep my little essays to eras where I know there isn’t a lot of information. I read a lot of poorly cited articles about Viking clothing while I was doing this research. I don’t know if I’ll do essays like this for all my historical sets, but I think they are important when I am making decisions and I want people to know how I have made whatever choices I have made.

  2. Linda K says:

    Thanks for giving us such a wonderful report about the Viking womens’ clothing. Very interesting research you did here!!

  3. Julie says:

    These historical essays are great! I’d love to see you create a paper doll history of fashion — a doll with outfits, interspersed with essays like this. Very educational!

    • RLC says:

      That would be a cool project. Maybe someday… I can only think of all the work involved!

      Truth be told, I learned a lot as a kid from the essays in Tom Tierney’s books, so I always keep that in mind when I’m thinking about historical paper dolls.

  4. Susan Farmer says:

    Excellent summary article!! I play in the SCA in TN, and live on FB. I’m also writing a research paper on the same subject and wishing I could read Norwegian!!

  5. Jaye Sudar says:

    This was an interesting look at things. I’m in the SCA and have been working on Viking clothing. I’ve also looked at a lot of the history and clothing of the Rus, and see a lot of similarities between the apron dresses and what became the Serefina style dress.

    • RLC says:

      I will openly confess that I don’t know enough about early Russian costume to even begin to make suppositions about that topic. I did notice a lot of websites seem to make the link, but none of the academic works that I read suggested a connection and, as I recall, none of the websites seemed to provide much in the way of citation. If you know of a reputable source that makes that linkage, I would love to read it.

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