What kind of clothes did the Vikings wear?
Clothing in the Viking Age
- Materials and colours
- The processes
- Women's clothing
- The shirt or underdress
- The dress
- The apron dress or hanging dress (Smokkr)
- The shawl
- The accessories
- Men's clothing
- The body shirt
- The blouse or tunic
- The panties
- The cape and the coat
- The accessories
- The shoes
- The amulets
- The fibulas
- The pearls
What did the Vikings wear?
It is rare to find clothing from the Viking period. Only small pieces of cloth preserved in the tombs of Vikings, most often belonging to the upper layers of society, were discovered. The reconstruction of their clothing is therefore completed by other sources such as fibulas, historical Gotland stelae, tapestries (Oseberg, Bayeux...), statuettes and literary works.
Like today's men and women, dress varied according to gender, age, social status and probably location. Ordinary clothing, trousers and tunics for men, dresses and aprons for women, were made from local materials available, such as wool and linen, woven and sometimes dyed. The making of clothes was then the prerogative of women.
Silk pieces discovered in the burial of a man in Mammen. Photo of the National Museum of DenmarkHowever, some textiles were imported as shown by pieces of cloth found in the graves of rich people. The upper classes displayed their wealth by adorning themselves with silk and gold threads from distant lands such as Constantinople.
While clothing is characterized above all by comfort and practicality, all historical evidence shows that the Vikings placed great importance on their appearance. The clothes could be ironed with flat stones heated according to archaeological findings. And they ostentatiously complemented their outfit with jewellery.
Materials and colours:
- Linen represents about 40% of the fabric discoveries of the Viking Age. It should therefore not only be a flagship product of the trade but also be the subject of an important culture for the design of clothing. Several sites in Denmark prove that flax was produced on an almost industrial scale during this period. Research has shown that more than 20kg of flax plants are needed to produce enough material to make a single tunic. In addition, from the time the flax was sown until the tunic was sewn - no less than 400 hours of work were required.
=> Hemp and nettle are the other vegetable fibres commonly used for textile manufacturing in Scandinavia.
- Wool, carded, spun and woven into a fabric called vaðmál, was used undyed, in all its natural colours, ranging from brown to black and grey, for everyday clothing, work and travel clothing. This frequency of undyed clothing seems to have been higher in Iceland than in Scandinavia. However, white wool, on the other hand, seems to have rarely been left undyed.
- Silk could be part of the spoils of the Viking raids, but it was also widely imported through their trade links, particularly with Persia and Constantinople, as evidenced by the discoveries in Norway at Ness in the municipality of Hamarøy (Nordland County), in Gokstad (Vestfold County), Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district, Nedre Haugen (Østfold County), Birka near Stockholm, or the hundred or so small silk fragments found in Oseberg's grave. The latter are decorated with motifs related to religious symbols from Central Asia, including a Shahrokh, a bird that, in Persian mythology, represents a royal blessing. Some of the imported silk is woven using a technique called samite, a sophisticated oriental weaving method. Many pieces of silk have been cut into thin strips and used to decorate clothes and accessories such as hats.
- Leather was used to make shoes, belts, but also "waterproof" clothing from skins treated with beeswax or fish oil.
- Furs (bears, reindeer, sables, martens, squirrels) were used to decorate men's capes, women's shawls and headwear while fighting the cold.
Colouring was obtained by boiling the raw materials with various plants, wool was easier to dye than linen, the colours being even more vivid.
These are the colours most commonly used according to archaeological findings:
- the yellow was probably from the onion, grown by the Scandinavians.
- The blue came either from suede, a local plant, or indigo, an imported dye. Blue was only found in the graves of wealthy people, suggesting that it was probably a precious, sacred colour.
- Violet was derived from purple lichen and was mainly prized in Ireland and Greenland.
- The green came from a mixture of suede and onion. The green colour was only found in Scandinavia.
- The red came from the Garance used in France and England, and from the fragrant bedstraw, present in Scandinavia. Red was a popular colour for Vikings in England and a marker of good fortune.
The processes from
The shirt or underdress
The Viking woman sometimes wore, as an undergarment, a long linen shirt that ostentatiously protruded under the dress and whose collar was closed with a ribbon tied at the base of the neck. According to the researchers, the Danish women's issue was simple, while in Sweden it was wrinkled.
The dress, made of linen or most often wool, goes down to the ankles. The split collar to better pass the head could be closed with a fibula. She had long or short sleeves depending on the season. It could be simple, pleated for high-ranking women, or built with additional triangular side panels to add depth to the base.
The apron dress or hanging dress (Smokkr)
Usually made of wool, it was tubular in shape, or split on the sides, or made up of additional fabric sections from the waist up (to match the shape of a dress itself amplified by this process). A dress apron found in Hedeby and dated from the 10th century shows several sophisticated sewing techniques.
Shorter than the dress it partially covered, it was held by straps stapled under the shoulders with fibulae whose shape could vary according to the regions and the period (see jewelry below). Often dyed, it could be embroidered or/and braided.
Another hypothesis is that it consisted of 2 fabric rectangles (front/back), seamless, with straps fixed in the same way. However, this type of manufacture, which has never been confirmed by archaeological discoveries, would ultimately prove impractical for carrying out daily tasks.
Made of wool to protect from the cold, the shawl, either rectangular or semi-circular, was closed on the chest by a metal loop. Its borders could be decorated with a braid or fur.
In Christianized geographical areas such as Dublin and Jorvik, Viking women seemed to have a wide variety of headdresses.
- The headband was a band of fabric worn around the head, a bit like a crown. It could be worn alone, or with a scarf or veil pinned to the headband. The richly decorated headband was often made of brocade, a silk fabric enhanced with designs embroidered with gold and silver (especially in Sweden), or even woven with bronze spirals (Finland). This type of headband was worn by women from the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Alamans, Bavarians, Lombards and Spanish Visigoths.
- The scarf was tied at the back of the neck and could descend into the back in a long point, but this accessory is not attested as a generality. Purple-dyed scarves with fringes have been documented by archaeological discoveries.
- The cap was made from a rectangle of fabric with a rounded shape that fell on the back. It covered the head and neck, with fasteners to attach it under the chin. Examples of this type have been found in Jorvik, York, especially in silk with linen fasteners. A similar one in Dublin was made of wool, more rectangular, and with a stitch on the back of the head.
One hypothesis is that the Viking woman, like the men, wore a leather belt from which she hung the keys of the chests of the house that contained the valuables, and a leather purse that could contain small utensils for everyday life. This has not been proven by archaeological findings, while it has been shown that scissors, knives, keys, earwigs or even small bone needle boxes can be suspended by fibula chains, making them quickly accessible in everyday tasks.
Reconstituted outfit of a Viking man in Haithabu by Ø. Engedal
The body shirt
The body shirt was generally simple and made of linen.
The blouse or tunic
The blouse was straight and half-long, up to half thighs, but there was another type, wider and worn with a belt. These two types of workmanship are attested by the iconographic representations. They could be decorated with braids woven in checkerboard with gold or silver threads for the rich, or embroidered with motifs. The collar of the shirt, like women's dresses, was split to better pass the head and closed with a fibula.
The panties, made of linen or wool, were sometimes long and narrow, sometimes wide and puffy. She could be tied by a tie below the knees.
The wide panties were part of a formal outfit. Those discovered at Hedeby were even wrinkled. She demanded the wearing of stockings held by staples or strips of fabric, the remains of which have been found in graves.
The cape and the coat
- The cape was attached to the right shoulder or under the arm with a fibula, most often penanular. It could be decorated with braids and lined with fabrics or furs. In order to provide better protection against the cold, wind and water, it was sometimes lined with a wool fabric, or even quilted with down.
- The mantle, also known as the "caftan" or "Rus horseback riding mantle," may have been a specifically oriental phenomenon, according to the 9th and 10th century discoveries made at Birka. Closed from neck to waist by wooden or bone buttons, and decorated with specific and complex metallic trimmings, this garment was borrowed or adapted from the Byzantine skaramangion, which was a standardized garment at the Emperor's court.
Various headgear was in use, wool hats but also hats with rounded shapes, or with a point, both sometimes adorned with fur and/or richly decorated with silk, silver trimmings or gold passsements and ribbons.
The belt, made of leather, was used to attach to the waist, a leather purse containing everything useful in everyday life, from coins to game coins, as well as a knife. It could be simple, or decorated with a buckle, a bite and small elaborate inserts.
Viking shoes at the Lofotr Museum, Lofoten, Norway, United States, they were made of leather, sometimes in one piece held and closed by a leather shoelace, sometimes made of 2 pieces of leather to which a sole was sewn.
Some thinner shoes may have been decorated with various motifs, as suggested by late 12th century shoes discovered in the Bryggen district of Bergen (Norway), decorated with embroidered runes along the opening to the tip of the foot, or others decorated with incised volutes.
The Vikings also used boots of different sizes.
The vikings jewelry
Men and women from all walks of life wore jewellery, in the form of arm rings, necklaces and brooches. According to archaeological findings, the Vikings did not wear earrings.
Jewellery could be made from a variety of materials such as wood, glass, amber, iron, bronze, silver and gold. The jewellery was often decorated with geometric patterns, interlacing, animal heads and aggregational beasts.
Scandinavian silversmiths mastered a wide range of manufacturing and decorative techniques, including casting, drawing and braiding, engraving, watermarking and granulation, engraving, nielding, plating, veneering, glassware and gem inlay. The only technique that has been absent from their repertoire is enamel.
The viking jewelry had different functions:
- element of ornament,
- marker of social or economic status
- attachment system for closing clothes or attaching accessories
- symbol of protection or beliefs
- means of payment for trade exchanges.
A throne-shaped amulet with crows discovered in Lolland, Denmark
Amulets and various good luck charms were worn in saltire.
The most common amulet of the Viking era is the Thor hammer, called Mjöllnir. It was mainly made of iron or silver, but there are also bronze and amber. There were some of all sizes. There are those without any decoration, those with repelled decoration and those decorated with a watermark, on one side only or both.
Among the other amulets, we find:
- the rifle-shaped pendants that would symbolize the purifying fire and source of life,
- the round pendants covered with circular motifs that would symbolize the sun,
- pendants in the form of miniature tools, symbols of activity and fertility,
- the stick-shaped pendants that can be interpreted as magic sticks, symbols of the sovereign power attributed to the god Odin,
- the pendants in the shape of a cubic seat representing the thrones of the main gods, Thor and Odin,
- ring-shaped pendants that are generally interpreted as symbols of sovereignty,
- the pendants in the shape of women would represent valkyries, especially when they hold a horn in their hands,
- the cross-shaped pendants and necklaces (reliquary-shaped pendants sometimes imported directly from Constantinople) that appeared with the evangelization of the Vikings.
Fibules and glass beads per Ø. EngedalOval fibulas, known as "turtles" were the most common in Scandinavia but they could also be round (Finland), animal-headed (Gotland), round box-shaped (Gotland) or three-lobed (Denmark).
The fibulas were made of bronze, silver or gold. They were not only adornment elements, since, worn in pairs by women, they made it possible to staple the straps to the apron dress, as well as to attach pearl necklaces or to hang small utensils of daily life (scissors, knife, keys, earpick, needle boxes, etc.).
Penanular fibulas were used by men to staple their cape. Iron for the most modest, Irish-style ones were made of silver, richly decorated with gold niello and filigree and were imported into Scandinavia via Norway before being manufactured in Sweden and Russia.
Glass beads found in Coppergate, York, England - photo by Jorvik Viking Centre Nearly 300 glass beads have been found in Coppergate, (near York, England), and the overwhelming majority of them being of a single color. Others are worked with stitches and patterns of different colours. The most popular colours were blue, green and yellow.
Amber, bone, antler, deer, shell and stone beads have also been discovered.
Viking Women's Garb in Art and Archaeology, www.awanderingelf.weebly.com
An Archaeological Guide to Viking Men's Clothing
Clothing in the Viking Age,
The wealthiest Vikings wore linen underwear
Norway - Persian silk in Viking burials,
Scotland - First images of the discovered Viking treasure
Les Vikings, les Scandinaves et l'Europe 800-1200, exhibition catalogue, ed. du Grand Palais, p.192 and 193
The Vikings, History, Myths, Dictionary, by Régis Boyer, ee. Robert Laffont, pp. 510- 513