View Full Version : Reconstructing Female Costume of the Viking Age

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005, 11:04 AM
An aspect of the Viking Age Costumes I have taken a certain interst in, is the resconstructions of the female costume, regarding both the fabrication (casting, forging, etc) of the brooches and other costume jewellery and the construction of the garments themselves. In archaeological finds, as well as in the depictions of humans from this time period, many different types of female costumes can be detected although, as I mentioned in last article, the finds and depictions are hard to interpret for many reasons.

The type that is most popularly reconstructed today is the kind of costume where the typically Nordic "twin brooches" were worn. In English these brooches are often refered to as "tortoise shell brooches". The term is quite adequate, as these brooches in many cases are extremly thin and shaped like a tortoise shell, but there were also brooches of other shapes used in the same way as the tortoise shell brooches. The shape of the brooches varied geographically, and the tortoise shell-shaped ones were used mainly on the Swedish mainland, and in Norway and Denmark. On Gotland, animal head-shaped brooches were most common, and in the north of Sweden, as in Finland, round brooches were used in pairs, I will hence forth refer to them as twin-brooches. The brooches are cast in bronze, and can be built up of two layers, gilded and decorated with silver plates, patterned in niello and twisted silver threads.

It is certain that the Viking Age twin-brooches were not used only as decotations, but served the purpose of holding a piece of clothing together. In graves, the brooches are found on the upper part of the body, and seem to have been worn just below the shoulders. Remains from the shoulder straps of the garment are in many cases preserved around the pins. The weight of the brooches, as well as their sturdy pins, indicate they were used to fasten a fairly large heavy garment. A popular myth about the twin-brooches, seen for example in comics and Wagner's operas, were used as a kind of metal bra. But a closer examination of the brooches, and the textile remains around them, soon reveals that such an arrangement is completly impossible.

Judging from bog finds, grave finds and depictions all throughout the Iron Age a tubular skirt reaching to the armpits and held together at the shoulders by pins or brooches, seems to have been worn. Through the centuries the brooches grew bigger and bigger, were largest during the Viking Age and thereafter went out of use.

Decorative chains, rows of glass beads and pendants were often worn between the brooches. Tools like knives, keys, needle-cases, tweezers and ear scoops could be attached by chains or band to the brooches. In the Gotlandic costume a seperate tool-brooch was used for fastening the tools to the garment. A complete set of brooches, tools and beads is, for ovious reasons, rather heavy. Sometimes a costume reconstruction, seen mainly in books, suggests a front and a back piece held together by brooches, flaring loosely without being joined together at the waist in any way, but this is a most unlikely construction. See picture below.

t is hard to determine exactly what the garment worn together with the twin-brooches looked like. In my opinion, the brooches were used to fasten together the shoulder straps of a tubular skirt closed and widened at the sides by inserted gussets, or with open slits from the hips, and in most completly covering the lower part of the garment worn underneath.

It is likely that a tubular garment held together at the shoulders was worn with a belt both for warmth and comfort. A peculiar detail is that metal, bone or antler fittings from belts are rarely, if ever, found in female graves from this period. This probably means that a woven band or sash was worn and, personally, I am convinced that an apron tied at the waist in many cases was a part of the female costume. Pictures which seem to indicate the presence of an apron, most likely tied at the waist, can be seen both on the Gotlandic picture stones and silver jewellery from Tuna in Alsike, Grödinge in Sörmland and Aska in Östergötland. It is not possible from these depictions to judge whether the apron extended up above the waist or not.

Not that the narrow piece of clothing adorned with horizontal stripes covers only the front of the costume. The pleated (?) garment seen behind, is to my opinion the lower part of the skirt with braces. The garment worn underneath the skirt is in this case not visible at all, except at the shoulders and sleeves. The skirt could well, as mentioned above, have had open slits in the sides, but the skirts seen on the picture stones and silver jewellery all seem to have been closed at the sides.

Interpreting the female costume that was used with the twin- brooches is complicated by the fact that the upper part of the costume is hardly ever visible in the various depections from this time. Women, as well as men, usually tend to wear a cloak over their shoulders, which completly hides the upper part of the costume.

However, far from all female graves are equipped with twin- brooches. This is often the case with otherwise richly equipped graves. The costume worn but the strata of the society, with extensive international contacts, most likely resembled the costume of continental Europe.

A set of twin-brooches, several rows of glass beads and pendants, tool chains or bands with tools hanging down from the shoulders to the waist, makes for a rather limited freedom of movement. This kind of costume was therefore most likely not worn in the daily farm- and household work.

There are also several depictions of women wearing a two-part costume with the skirt fastened at the waist, and on a woodcarving from the Norwegian Oseberg ship burial, the skirt appears to be knee-length, a skirt length not usually seen in today's reconstructions of the Viking-Age costume.

This article is based upon studies of grave finds and other finds of textiles and metal costume accessories, as well as depictions, but these sources do not represent the ordinary everyday wear of the Viking-Age women. Depictions are strongly stylised and hard to interpret, and it is also hard to judge if the costumes and brooches were arranged int he same way int he graves, as they were in life. The costumes found in graves must, however, have been worn on more than one occasion in life, as the metal brooches show signs of wear and repair.

The scenario often seen at re-enactment events, where all women walk around wearing oval-shaped twin-brooches, does not present a true picture of what it really looked like in the Viking Age. Instead we must allow for many different kinds of cosutmes and ways of wearing them, according to local customs, seasons, personal taste and social rank. Sadly, textile findings from this period are rather scarce as are simpler every day costumes and costumes fastened together by means other than metal brooches, so they will probably remain unknown to us.

Source (http://www.frojel.com/Documents/Document05.html)