Embark on a journey through time as we explore the intriguing world of Viking clothing. The Vikings, known for their extensive travels and encounters with new cultures, were skilled craftsmen who fashioned their garments from natural materials such as wool, linen, and leather. They also took great care of their grooming and clothing, using them as an expression of wealth and social status. Although our knowledge of Viking-era clothing is fragmentary and primarily derived from archaeological excavations, we can still piece together a fascinating picture of what Viking attire looked like. Join us as we delve into the world of Norse garments, from men's and women's clothing to headgear and footwear, and discover the practical and stylish aspects of Viking fashion.
Viking Clothing: What We Know So Far
The Vikings took great care of their grooming and clothing.
They were seafaring people who traveled extensively across the seas, trading in foreign lands. As they traveled, they encountered new cultures that might have influenced and developed the Norse culture. The Vikings were also skilled craftsmen who made their clothing from natural materials such as wool, linen, and leather. Hemp and silk (rare and expensive) were also used, possibly nettles as well.
Their clothing is often used to display wealth and social status. The more elaborate and decorated the clothing, the higher the social status of the wearer. Materials like silk and colors like blue show wealth, as these were expensive to produce.
It's rare to find clothes in archaeological excavations, it is often small fragments of the clothes found. Despite the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of Viking-era clothing, we can still piece together a picture of what Viking attire looked like.
World of Norse Garments
When it comes to Viking Age clothing, it's important to remember that our knowledge of this topic is fragmentary, as the Viking people left few images and little in the way of written descriptions of their garments. As mentioned, clothing played other roles in Norse society beyond its obvious utilitarian functions. Clothing could be also desirable booty in a Viking raid, along with precious metals.
Interestingly, the complexity of Viking clothing patterns is surprising, with many pieces that needed to be cut out of the fabric and sewn back together to create the kyrtill or over-tunic. However, when all the pieces were laid out, very little fabric went to waste, resulting in a garment that didn't bind or restrict movement. With all this in mind, it's fascinating to consider the amount of labor required to produce Viking-era clothing. Wool, for instance, was a common material, first raising and shearing the sheep to spinning the thread, weaving the fabric, and finally cutting and sewing the garments, all of which was done by hand.
The practical considerations of Viking Age clothing are important to keep in mind. In the winter, you'll want to wear long and flowing garments that will help keep you warm. If you're working around animals or fire burning on the floor, make sure that your clothes don't get caught in any way.
As you can see, Viking Age clothing was practical and often made from materials that were available in the area. It could also be a love token for your husband or wife.
However, there are limitations with available evidence; most of what we know comes from archaeological excavations at various sites across Scandinavia. This means that we don't always have enough information to make accurate conclusions about how people dressed during this period in history.
A Look at Viking Men's Clothing
What we know today is that Viking men wore a tunic that was tight-fitting across the chest with a broad skirt and reached down just above the knees. Undergarments, closest to the body, are made out of linen, and overcoats out of wool. Along with trousers that could be either loose-fitting or tight. Trousers could be full-length or knee-length combined with leg wraps.
Depending on weather conditions, an additional outer garment out of wool or leather is worn on top, unclear how they were sewn but there are theories about kaftan-like outer garments.
As we reflect on Viking Age clothing for men, it's clear that even with limited information, there is much to be learned and appreciated about the clothing choices of this fascinating culture.
Women's Clothing in the Viking Age
In the Viking Age, women wore tunics and skirts, undergarments made of linen, and clothes made out of wool on top. The length of the tunic is a bit unclear but one might think that it varies depending on whether it was worn for work or a feast. It could be knee-length or down to the ankles, the neckline could be embroidered with geometric patterns. Same with the skirt and suspender skirt, the length varied. An outer garment made out of wool or leather was worn if necessary.
Clothing for Viking children
Just like their parents, Viking children dressed in simple and practical clothing that reflected their social status. Young girls wore skirts made of linen and wool, which were similar to their mothers' dresses. Skirts were comfortable and easy to wear, making them ideal for everyday activities like playing and helping out with chores. Meanwhile, young boys wore tunics and trousers, which were similar to their fathers' clothing. These garments were also made of linen and wool and were designed to keep children warm and protected during the colder months. It's interesting to note that the type and fineness of the clothes worn by Viking children reflected those of their parents.
While Viking children's clothing may seem simple compared to modern-day clothing, it was practical and well-suited to their daily lives.
In the Footsteps of Vikings: Footwear Craftsmanship and Techniques
It’s possible they made shoes out of birch bark and even fabric (wool with leather soles e.g.), even though there is no evidence of this. However, these are cheap materials and easy to use so why not? But what we do know is that they made shoes out of leather, and from relatively thin leather. The shoe could be made out of a single piece of leather or so-called “turn shoes” made from multiple pieces sewn together. Shoes made out of multiple pieces were sewn with the inside turned out at first, and once they were finished they were turned inside out, so the correct side and the seam ended up on the inside. That is why shoes made with this technique are called turn shoes. They were designed to be functional, light, flexible, and easy to repair. This made them perfect for long journeys. They made the shaft of their shoes in general quite low. The shaft ended at the ankle or right above.
Even though the shoes were "simple", they took an effort to make and one didn't want to waste material so it is likely that people walked barefoot and just wore shoes when needed. During the cold time of the year, they wore socks that were needle bound with yarn made out of wool.
An interesting note about the cobbler, I once read a calculation that goes like this: A person used about 6 pairs of shoes per year. A skilled cobbler could finish 2 pairs of shoes per day, which means they could make 600 shoes per year if they were diligent. So one cobbler was needed for every hundred people. So in a town like Birka with 700 hundred people it would take 7 cobblers to keep all the people with shoes. If we would use the same shoes today it would take around 10 000-20 000 cobblers just to make shoes for the people of Stockholm (1 million people). These are of course theoretical numbers but it still gives a hint and an interesting thought.
Cloaks: Both practical and a symbol of prestige in Norse Society
Cloaks, like other types of clothing, served a practical purpose in providing weather protection, but they also functioned as a display of one's status. The higher the quality of the cloak, the more prestigious it was considered to be. The Vikings used fine quality wool, sometimes lined with fur and decorated with ribbons and embroidery for their boasting mantles. For more casual wear, coarser wool was used, often with woven tufts of wool and animal hair to create a surface that repels rain.
It is believed that most cloaks were rectangular, although circular mantles are also depicted in some Viking art. Cloaks were usually fastened together on one shoulder with a brooch, or pin, or tied in the center front with decorated ribbons. The images suggest that the cloaks were not full-length, but it is difficult to tell the length for sure as no complete Viking Age cloak has been preserved.
Peaked Caps and Silk Headdresses: Viking Headgear
In depictions of men from the Viking Age, it is common to see them wearing peaked caps. These caps were likely wedge caps, which were sewn from multiple triangular pieces and may have been decorated with ribbons at the bottom. Some findings suggest they also wore a different style of cap, resembling a Santa hat. Caps were sometimes sewn from silk or decorated with ribbons and trimmings. A cap ornament was often worn on the hanging cap.
When it comes to depictions of women from the Viking Age, they are typically shown as bareheaded with their hair tied in a knot. However, another interpretation suggests women may have worn a cloth wrapped around their heads and tied at the neck.
Although bands have been found sewn onto silk scraps from headdresses, it is unclear what these headdresses looked like or if they were simply hair bands. Tablet-woven bands have also been discovered, which were likely used to edge a veil or cover the head. Silk caps have been found and attributed to women, but since they are loose finds, it is possible they were male headdresses.
It is believed that both religion and the environment may have influenced the use of headgear.
Belts: A Practical and Stylish Accessory
The Viking men wore belts made out of leather, it is unknown if the women wore belts. Some finds suggest they wore a belt made out of fabric (tablet-woven belts e.g.) but there are no finds that indicate they had leather belts. However, the leather belts were often decorated with bronze belt fittings riveted along the belt. These fittings served as extra ornamentation.
Belts were more than just a fashion statement - they were practical and served as a storage solution for carrying essential items such as a purse or small bag, as well as a knife or other tool. This allowed Vikings to keep their hands free, while still having easy access to their belongings.
Throughout our exploration of Viking clothing, it's evident that these seafaring people crafted garments that were both stylish and functional, reflecting their social status and the materials available to them. Despite the limitations of our knowledge due to the scarcity of surviving garments, we have managed to paint a vivid picture of Norse attire, showcasing the creativity and skill of Viking craftsmen. As we reflect on the clothing choices of this fascinating culture, we can appreciate the ingenuity and adaptability of the Vikings, as well as the lasting impact of their style on modern fashion. As you continue to learn and explore the world of Viking clothing, keep in mind the importance of practicality, craftsmanship, and the cultural influences that shaped their unique and captivating attire.