Contrary to popular belief and the general stereotype, Vikings were people who took their appearance and public representation very seriously. How you dressed in those days told everyone about your status and your level of self-respect. Though movies would have us believe that this tribe had no idea what grooming was about, archeological findings on the Vikings informs us that they indeed had combs and other forms of items of personal care. We take a look into how they expressed themselves by their attire.
What did the Vikings wear?
They loved the color and an article of clothing that was well-died denoted opulence and class. This is because dyes were expensive and their methods at that time, complex. Interestingly, it was found that dyes depend even on the type of river the water you use came from. It wasn’t all about the choice of color through the attention to detail and a unique design was severely criticized as well. These were only highlights of the special Nordic nights.
Overtunic was the garment that covered a man’s upper body and was made of wool with some very interesting and complex patterns. Pieces of the fabric had to be cut off multiple times before being sewn on back together. This was to minimize fabric waste. The length of the tunic was another factor to consider as the wealthier you were, the more fabric you would use to show off your abundance. On hot summer days, this tunic could be wrapped and tucked into the belt to allow the wearer to cool off a bit. The sleeves were made longer than present-days with lengths going well past the wrists.
Tunics usually did not have fasteners but those that did had a variety of designs in fasteners. The most common was the threaded loop and a button. Tunics for the men had high necklines as opposed to the feminine ones. Viking men wore tunics, form-fitting trousers, a leather belt and a pair of leather shoes.
Unless you were poor, Viking garments were adorned with braid on the neckline and cuff. If you had more money, you added the braided line to the hem of your garments. The braid was made of bright colored wool which made it truly stand out.
The undertunic was worn under the overtunic and was made to be longer at the sleeves and in length. This was no accident and had the intention to show people that you were wealthy enough to afford a linen tunic. Linen was more expensive than wool because it had a great feeling against the skin.
Men’s trousers were also interesting and featured simple and complex designs altogether. Some had more space around the crotch, some had built-in socks, some had belt loops around the waist and others as plain as possible. They had no pockets or zip and so men had to carry their daily requirements on their brooches or hanging around their neck.
Cloaks were simple and rectangular-shaped large garments of wool that protected against the cold, wind and rain. Cloaks were worn off the shoulder with one arm, the right, left free to handle tasks. They could be overlaid with a contrasting color of wool, be embroidered or trimmed with a woven braid. They were held wrapped across the chest and held secure with a brooch.
Women wore a long linen shift dress underneath an apron skirt which was shorter than the dress and had suspended straps held in place by brooches. They rarely wore belts as opposed to men and they carried their daily items in pouches suspended on their brooches. Women also wore headdresses from simple everyday pieces to elaborate big feast types of head coverings. Some of these headdresses symbolized a woman married or single status.
Both men and women wore cloaks, hoods, hats, and other unisex items as their weather required.
Special instances recount the wardrobe change of women warriors such as the shieldmaiden known as Hervor who would go out to war dressed in the male garb and when back home, she’d slip into her Viking dress.
Significance of clothing
Cloth was such a huge investment in the Viking Age that string it for your kids is today’s equivalent of sending them off to college. Sons, who have come of age, often approached their fathers and asked for their “means to go abroad” which was a parable to mean enough resources to invest in a trading shipment. Through these ventures, many opportunities opened up as full-time raiders or in service of the King and royal family.
Clothing remnants were also used for many purposes in the Nordic time. They could be coated with pitch and used to seal cracks in their ships or be used as a torch.
What was it made of?
Viking clothes were made linen, wool, and animal skins. As skillful weavers, the Viking tailored their clothes by hand. Every step from sheep shearing to cloth-making to stitching and finally to embroidery, these people had their own little home-made clothing factories. With the children’s help, women made the wool into yarn and used natural dyes from plants to give it color.
One of the most versatile, readily available and profitable textiles of the Middle Ages was wool. This fabric was tough and strong, cool yet warm all depending on how you chose to knit and weave it. It also took in color.
This material is made from flax and in the Viking Age was made to create fabrics that were more sophisticated and luxurious than their woolen fabrics.
Not naturally occurring in Scandinavia, silk was a trade good acquired by the Norse people that was used to make tunics of any color for those who could afford it. Mainly a reserve for kings.
Another trade acquire fabric that the Vikings tried to make their own especially for its well-insulated fabric in the hot summer months.
Because of decomposition, we may never know the true color or texture of the Viking attire but we are free to speculate based on what we know about them and their culture.
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