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This document was originally published in the December 1991 Arts and Sciences Supplement of Pikestaff, the newsletter of the East Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. It has been updated for publication here. This article could never have been written without the voluminous translations graciously provided by Mistress Marieke van de Dal.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

"But That's How They Look in the Book!": Viking Women's Garb in Art and Archaeology

© 1991, 1999 Carolyn Priest-Dorman

A good deal of SCA Viking garb inspiration comes from drawings in large format picture books. However, one of the really good Viking picture books was published during the 1960s, before much of the careful archaeological work on the reconstruction of Viking women's garb had even been begun. Another influential work, Elisabeth Munksgaard's Oldtidsdragter, was published in 1974; it offered some useful information based on early work with the Birka and Gotland finds but is hard to find in North America. Many of the subsequent works were published around 1980, the time of the big Viking exhibition that toured Europe. But during the 1980s a number of technical works were published that brought our knowledge of clothing during the Viking Age into much clearer focus. That generation's worth of Viking garb scholarship currently goes largely unrepresented in English works.

As an example of this problem, this article contains a brief critique of some of the garb information represented in one of the most comprehensive Viking picture books in English, The Viking, by Bertil Almgren et al. (sometimes listed as by Tre Tryckare). This book, although more carefully documented than most others of its kind when it comes to women's garb, still presents a good deal of misinformation. Let's start with the undergarment and work our way outward.

Most of the women drawn in this book are wearing pleated underdresses; indeed, the authors say on page 199 that "the Viking Age petticoat was rather smart: it was pleated." Yet this style of smock has only been discovered in one century and one location: tenth-century Birka (Sweden). The smock layer actually differed in cut from one site to another and from one period to another; the ninth-century Norwegian unpleated smock could be cut with wide oval or "boat" neckline in the T-tunic fashion (Ingstad 1982, 92). In addition, the tenth-century unpleated smocks from Hedeby (Denmark) included such refinements as set-in sleeves, shoulder seams, and gores (Hägg 1984, 171). These finds alone are sufficient to disprove the assertion on page 200 that "tailoring in the modern sense was unknown in the making of women's clothes." Still, the use of gores, darts, and pieced construction can be demonstrated at several Viking Age sites, in various different women's garments.

Even at Birka, the pleated smocks were not "drawn close at the neck with a ribbon or draw-string" (page 199); the keyhole neckline was often closed at the base of the throat with a one-inch round brooch (Hägg 1983, 344). Further, pleated smocks were not generally worn directly under the apron-dress, as in these pictures. At Birka, in the same period as the pleated smock, smooth smocks of wool or linen were the type more likely to be worn directly under the apron-dress.

The long-sleeved, pleated smocks worn by some women at Birka in the tenth century were made of lightweight undyed linen and most often covered by another full-length gown over which the apron-dress (see below) was pinned (Hägg 1986, 71; see Abb. 8:9 for a chart linking the different elements of women's dress at Birka). This tunic-like gown was full-length, with long sleeves. Much care was lavished on the ornamentation of the sleeves and torso of this layer of clothing in the form of embroidery, appliqué, silk trimming, and tablet-woven bands.

Over the smock or gown was worn the so-called "Viking apron." This garment was not a typical apron, but a complete overgarment, so "apron-dress" is a more descriptive name for such a garment. The Viking apron-dress was worn suspended over the shoulders by paired brooches hooked through narrow looped straps. The description of apron-dresses as "rectangular sheets" (page 200) is misleading, as it only represents one of the styles worn during the Viking Age. Recent archaeological evidence (see, for example, the discussion in Hägg 1984, 168-69) suggests that the shape of the apron-dress may have evolved over the course of several centuries, from the peplos phase in the late Iron Age through a tube-shaped phase and then a wrapped flat sheet phase to a tenth-century garment cut and pieced together. The apron-dresses found at Hedeby and dated to the tenth century demonstrated several sophisticated tailoring techniques--including tucks, darts, and pieced construction (Hägg 1984, 169-70). The popular interpretation of a "Viking apron"--one towel-shaped panel in front, one in back, connected by straps--is not only wildly impractical for women in an active outdoorsy culture, but it is also never included in discussions of the archaeological evidence for the overdress layer. Not even the book under consideration here, for all its faults, attempts to perpetuate this myth.

Page 201 refers to "the shawl--in later times a garment for the poor--[which] seems to have been very fashionable." Yet most evidence for the shawl or mantle comes from the seventh and eighth centuries (Hägg 1983, 334). In the ninth century women at some locations such as Birka and Hedeby wore a long-sleeved long coat or caftan (Hägg 1986, 65f); this is the garment which was actually held together by the "shawl" brooches mentioned in The Viking. The caftan does not appear in the same graves as the later gown layer; it appears to have been abandoned by many in the tenth century in favor of the pleated smock and the gown. Many caftans were lined with linen or silk and/or trimmed with fur, silk bands, metal knotwork, or brocaded tablet weaving.

Another overstatement is the final sentence of page 201, "in those days a married woman had to cover her hair." There is no evidence of the legal force implied behind that statement in burial customs. Many of the ninth and tenth century women's burials at Birka reveal no headcoverings at all, let alone graves in some other locations, although finds of headwear are more common in Christianized areas like Dublin and Jorvík. Sufficient evidence exists of a plurality of headwear styles--from none at all through brocaded bands worn fillet-style to coif-like caps--that no generalization can be made about Viking women's headwear. The kerchief as understood and worn in the SCA is conspicuous by its absence from the archaeological debate about Viking women's headwear. Certainly the "knotted head scarf" mentioned on page 201 and depicted in most of the drawings is not backed up by enough archaeological evidence to justify its ubiquity or even its authenticity.

Even with the best of intentions, it is possible to come away from Almgren's book with an incomplete and sometimes downright incorrect notion of what a Viking woman wore. Less thorough books convey even less correct information than The Viking. Consequently, caution should be used when consulting large-format picture books; consultation of more recent scholarship, firmly grounded in actual period artifacts, yields a far different story.

A couple of recent large format books have some line drawings that are fairly reliable.


Almgren, Bertil, et al. The Viking. Gothenburg, Sweden: Tre Tryckare, Cagner & Co., 1966.

Elsner, Hildegard. Wikinger Museum Haithabu: Schaufenster einer frühen Stadt. Neumünster: Wachholtz, 1989.

Geijer, Agnes. Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Birka: Untersuchungen und Studien, Vol. III. Uppsala: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akadamien, 1938.

Geijer, Agnes. "The Textile Finds from Birka." Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe, ed. N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting, pp. 80-99. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Graham-Campbell, James, ed. A Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Hägg, Inga. Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bericht 20. Neumünster: Karl Wachholz Verlag, 1984.

Hägg, Inga. "Die Tracht." Birka II:2, Systematische Analysen der Graberfunde, ed. by Greta Arwidsson, pp. 51-72. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1986.

Hägg, Inga. "Einige Beobachtungen über die Birkatracht." Textilsymposium Neumünster: Archäologische Textilfunde, 6.5. - 8.5.1981., ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Klaus Tidow, pp. 249-265. Neumünster: Textilmuseum Neumünster, 1982.

Hägg, Inga. Kvinnodrakten i Birka: Livplaggens Rekonstruktion pa Grundval av det Arkaeologiska Materialet. Uppsala: Archaeological Institute, 1974.

Hägg, Inga. "Some Notes on the Origin of the Peplos-Type Dress in Scandinavia." Tor, I (1968), pp. 81-127.

Hägg, Inga. "Viking Women's Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archaeological Methods." Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe, ed. N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting, pp. 316-350. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Hald, Margrethe. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials, trans. Jean Olsen. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1980.

Hall, Richard A. The Viking Dig: The Excavations at York. London: The Bodley Head, 1984.

Heckett, Elizabeth. "Some Hiberno-Norse Headcoverings from Fishamble Street and St. John's Lane, Dublin." Textile History, XVIII, no. 2 (1987), pp. 159-174.

Ingstad, Anne Stine. "The Functional Textiles from the Oseberg Ship." Textilsymposium Neumünster: Archäologische Textilfunde, 6.5. - 8.5.1981., ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Klaus Tidow, pp. 85-96. Neumünster: Textilmuseum Neumünster, 1982.

Ingstad, Anne Stine. "Textiles from Oseberg, Gokstad and Kaupang." Archaeological Textiles: Report from the Second NESAT Symposium, 1-4 May 1984., ed. Lise Bender Jorgensen, Bente Magnus, and Elisabeth Munksgaard, pp. 133-149. Arkaeologiske Skrifter, 2. Kobnhavn: Arkaeologisk Institut, Kobnhavns Universitet, 1988.

Munksgaard, Elisabeth. Oldtidsdragter. Købnhavn: Nationalmuseet, 1974.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Wolfeboro, NH: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Pritchard, Frances. "Silk Braids and Textiles of the Viking Age from Dublin." Archaeological Textiles: Report from the Second NESAT Symposium, 1-4 May 1984., ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen, Bente Magnus, and Elisabeth Munksgaard, pp. 149-61. Arkaeologiske Skrifter, 2. Købnhavn: Arkaeologisk Institut, Købnhavns Universitet, 1988.

Roesdahl, Else, and Wilson, David M., eds. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992.

Walton, Penelope. Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York, Vol XVII, Fascicule 5, Dorchester: Council for British Archaeology and Dorset Press, 1989.

This page was created on 12 May 1999 and last updated on 17 May 1999.

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