By Viking Zon on Jan 06, 2022
Many of us have dreamt about having a golden cup of wine while walking through a Roman forum, wearing nothing but sandals and a woolen toga. Most of us would gladly spend their days in a Pharaonic Palace, dressed in only bead-net dresses, bracelets, and collars, eating grapes, drinking beer, and enjoying the Egyptian Sun.
However, all of us would trade that glory for just one day in Valhalla. To help you dress appropriately for that day and give you a better understanding of our ancestors' clothing habits, we have decided to make your wishes finally come true. We have decided to take a walk through a history of Viking Clothing.
But what do we do when our lifestyles don't match our wishes? Oh yes, we compromise. In that manner, we can proudly say that our fashion problems were no different than those of our Viking ancestors'. Whether we liked it or not, unless we worked at a Tiki Bar, a Hawaiian Hula skirt would never make an appropriate work outfit.
Similarly, as much as a Viking may dream of walking around in just a Roman toga, he would be very much aware that seconds after making that risky choice, this light piece of cloth would be stolen by no more than a harsh wind, leaving this poor Viking in a state of nature.
Unfortunately, we can conclude that just like ours, Viking's clothing styles were determined by various factors, such as socio-economic status, age, gender, occupation, place of living, personal preferences, but mostly environmental factors.
As you can assume, not much physical evidence of Viking clothes remains whole, for the simple fact that it was mostly found inside of graveyards, buried with their owners. But sometimes, even the tiniest thread can lead us to the bigger story. Only one thread is enough to tell us of the fabric, color, texture, and purpose of a piece of cloth. One thread to help us understand that our ancestors cared more about the practicality of what they wore than their fashion.
Luckily, not all Viking clothes decayed with them. Some were used in, well, rather unconventional purposes. For example, in desperate need of a rope that wasn't always within reach, boat builders often used clothes covered with resin to fill in cracks. Little did they know they were killing two birds with one stone. Resin conserved the fabric and left it rather untouched for us to find. Other pieces were meant to become parts of torches, but if the flame was never lit, it left us more evidence to research.
Sagas, oh sagas, what would we do without you? (Possibly spend the rest of our lives in the dark, not knowing half the history of our descent).
Thanks to the diligent scribes of Flijótsdaela, Grágás, and Gisli; we don't have to play detective all the time; some things are simply known as facts.
And let us not forget of the last pieces of our vast Viking puzzle. Of the objects that needed barely any conserving and explanation. Objects that were indispensable parts of any Viking outfit regardless of gender or social status. Objects that self-sustained during the centuries waiting to complete our stories – Viking jewelry.
While it may be true that the Norsemen's fashion was predominantly conditioned by harsh polar climate, no one can deny the fact that it wasn't the only determinant they were willing to follow in order to be satisfied with their overall looks.
And what should one do to make a convenient outfit more compelling? Of course, add a pop of color! Despite popular belief, Vikings did not only wear dull colors, color was also, in fact, an extremely important part of Viking clothing.
Colors were there to make special events even more special, to emphasize feelings connected to it, and to shape the collective spirit of the group attending a particular event. For example, black and white were desirable choices for funerals, as the general sentiment of mourning. Yet, the thrill for the transition to the other world could only be expressed properly through the contrast of those two colors.
Certain colors could even be worn to pay tribute to certain callings or everyday activities. As the browns and neutrals are the colors of the Earth, wearing them could be associated with soil and hard physical work. Therefore, these colors were predominantly worn by farmers and those who were off to war.
The same parallel could be drawn with sailors and boat builders and variations of blue.
As in Christianity and many other cultures, the color red was perhaps the most crucial part of any Viking palette. The reasons for that were of material rather than religious reasons. See, Vikings made most of their clothes from plants they grew on their own, such as flax or woad, which could give them browns, yellows, greens, and even blues.
But red was a little different.
At the time, the only known way to make the red color was through the madder plant root, and since you can't really grow madder in a polar climate, it had to be bought (or stolen, whichever way you prefer). Its price and non-availability made red the preferable color of the fabric in Viking society, associating those who possessed it with wealth, high status, and power.
And if colors are not enough for your refined Viking tastes in clothing, well, add some pattern in there, just like our forefathers liked to do, and make the Fashion Frey Fest – begin!
If there is one thing we could be sure about men and their everyday fashion choices all through history, it is that they managed to remain simple yet effective.
While the effectiveness in this day and age could be related to making an impression on the crowd, it sure couldn't back in 900s. The only thing Viking men really cared about when it came to their clothing was its fundamental purpose - protection.
Standard Viking attire included trousers, linen shirt, and a kyrtill. Trousers could be either tight or baggy, made out of linen or wool, came in all colors, with all possible patterns (at least a Viking man wasn't judging).
So-called kyrtill or an over-tunic was a woolen, knee-length garment with a prominent neckline worn on top of the shirt, and was long or short-sleeved depending on the season. Kyrtill was the most noticeable part of the male attire, around which typically came a leather or bronze belt.
And a linen shirt? Well, it's kind of self-explanatory.
On top of all that, some Vikings even wore a cloak in order to provide more warmth during the winter. Cloaks were usually of lighter colors, secured with a brooch around the chest area, making the arms free.
And under all that? Some of you may wonder. Can't a decent Viking have some privacy? Well, I guess he can't. Viking underclothes consisted of a plain shirt and a pair of trousers, no colors, no patterns - simple as that.
A warrior without a shield = a horn without mead.
While it may be true that a mead-less horn was kind of a no-no for a Viking, could it be the same as a hornless helmet?
Well, of course not.
It is a common misconception in current interpretations of Viking culture that metal horns were a consistent part of Viking war attire. While it may look good for a costume ball or a Halloween party, freeing you from having to explain your costume to everyone in the room, it is important to remember that the horns have nothing to do with real Vikings.
In fact, helmets weren't even considered a necessary part of war clothes, making those who possessed it indeed lucky. War clothes in the Viking era were nothing but an addition to their everyday clothes. Kyrtills and cloaks were only made out of thicker materials in order to remain more impermeable.
Sheepskin, for example, was an excellent choice for those who were off to a long voyage or combat, protecting the one who wore it both from heat and a fight. Apart from shields, helmets, and weapons they carried, Vikings typically avoided having heavily protected bodies, for it made them less mobile and consequently less deadly to the opposite party. Unlike in most other Western land forces, Viking armors were made out of leather, not metal.
Like in the Viking aspect of life, there a strong message here: it is our abilities we should rely on, not our looks.
Unlike today, women's clothes in Viking age didn't differ too much from their other halves'.Gísla saga says that a typical female attire consisted of only two parts – hangerock and an undershirt.
Hangerock or an over-dress was of thicker material and by its design was reminiscent of an apron. It had two straps connected with metal clasps.
When it came to female clothing, we could see an element of fashion, for Viking women in different areas preferred different prints for their undershirts, necklines, or brooches. A shorter woolen cloak was an addition they wore during colder days.
As we have seen so far, no Viking item existed only for the purposes of looking pretty. And Viking Jewelry is no exception.
Although wearing it had nothing to do with age or gender, details of its making had a lot to do with social status. Besides their aesthetics, necklaces, arm rings, brooches and amulets played a huge part in trading. This could also be a double-edged sword, for Vikings who were a bit showier with it would make an excellent target for crooks and thieves.
Spending most of your days and especially nights in surroundings as cold as our medieval predecessors, you would probably realize that printed tunics aren't necessarily the most important part of your everyday wardrobe.
Your boots are.
Believe it or not, Vikings paid the most attention to this seemingly trivial piece of clothing for obvious reasons. By remains found so far, archeologists could conclude that most of Vikings' boots were of a similar look. They were mostly made of goat or calf leather with stitching on the inside, protecting the ankles but rarely going far above them.
To give you a better insight, we could easily compare Viking footwear to their late 20th-century heritor - dress boots.
And just when you thought that somewhat universal shoes could give you a judgment-free society, at least based on your social status, you were wrong. Just a tiny detail, like moss sticking out of your shoe instead of a fine needle-binding, could completely tell on you.
Just a simple heel, on the other hand, was an obvious indicator of wealth, since not many people could afford such an add-on. Unfortunately, as you can see, one millennium has passed and not much has changed in our perception.
The 21st century made it extremely hard for us to stay distinctive, for there aren't many things that could be called totally new and unseen before, leaving those who like to stand out from the crowd something of a hard task.
So, what do we do when we can't really invent the unseen?
Oh yes, we dig out from the archives and find pieces that have been merely forgotten and not seen for quite some time.
If you own one of these unique essentials, don't let them rot in the back of your closet. And in case you don't, find them, make them yours, make a statement and wear them proudly, for they represent much more than a styling choice. They are the symbols of strength and everlasting Viking spirit.
Remind society of the true meaning of Viking clothing and its origins. Our origins. With these words of encouragement, we leave you. And we, by all means, hope to see you soon, with an arm ring or a Mjolnir, whichever your Viking soul chooses. Skål!