Wearing Viking Clothing Today
If you’re a Viking enthusiast, you may already know that there are numerous Viking / Scandinavian related festivals throughout the US and around the world. Even more popular are Irish / Celtic festivals, Scottish Highland Games and Medieval / Renaissance fairs, all of which typically include a strong presence of Viking reenactors. Part of the fun of attending these festivals includes dressing up as a Viking, learning more about Viking history and shopping from vendors that offer Viking inspired merchandise. Subscribe to our email list for future updates about festivals coming to your area.
There are many different interpretations of what Vikings looked like. While some may be more verifiable than others, no single image matches the vast diversity of the Viking Age that spanned more than 250 years and inhabited more than a dozen geopolitical areas with a wide variety of different cultures and influences. While there have been substantial archaeological finds and active scholarship, much of that world is lost to time. It is a shame, then, that sometimes people let quarrels about what may or may not be “accurate” get in the way of their shared interests and appreciation.
The Vikings left such a mark on history that a thousand years later, their mention still conjures dramatic imagery. But how accurate are these images, fueled by movies, video games, and even cartoons? What did Vikings actually wear for clothing or armor, and why? Considering that leather, wood, and natural fibers quickly return to the earth and seldom make it into the archaeologists' hands, how would we even know about every detail, including various styles and colors? For example, a modern black t-shirt can begin to fade in a matter of months. George Washington’s uniform is still intact, but the original color of blue has now completely faded to a light yellow. So it is understandable that after a thousand years, Viking clothing remnants, especially their original colors, are often speculative at best. This article takes a brief look at what artifacts and written sources say about Viking clothing and armor and examines what sort of evidence there is to paint a more accurate picture.
Different Goals / Different Interpretations
Hollywood Costume Designers
It doesn't just depend on who you ask; it depends on the purpose for asking. For filmmakers, video game designers, or other storytellers, a sense of authenticity is a plus - but it is far from the most important thing. Cinematic costumes are primarily to draw the audience in and add to the emotive drama that is playing out on screen. If everyone on History Channel's Vikings or Netflix’s The Last Kingdom were wearing a spectacled helmet and a chain mail hauberk, how would the audience tell them apart? How could the audience connect with characters if they all looked almost the same? In all the performing arts – from the pottery mask of the Greek tragedies to the face paint of Japanese Kabuki – costume has to convey a sense of character. So, every character you see in any given Viking drama will be wearing distinctive clothing. That clothing is meant to "tell you something" about that character. These hundreds of costumes also must be affordable for the studio, because even Hollywood budgets are not boundless.
On the opposite side of this spectrum is the serious Viking Age reenactor. These men and women develop their clothing with love and care as they try to replicate their era of study as precisely as possible. Only real styles, authentic materials, and period-specific techniques of craftsmanship will do. The reenactor isn't trying to "look cool," they are trying to be historically accurate. For many reenactors, the only appropriate costume choices are ones that are proven through artifacts or ironclad scholarship. For some, speculative clothing (i.e., what a Viking "might have" worn) is just as bad as outright fantasy.
Speculative / LARP Clothing
In the middle of this spectrum you will find the largest population of casual Viking enthusiasts, often referred to as live-action role players (LARPers) or Cosplay, or simply families who want to dress up at a local festival. While these people respect what the hardcore reenactors are trying to do, they do not have the same sort of personal prohibitions or convictions against speculation or the ardent demands of only wearing clothes that are exact matches to what was found in a handful of archaeological discoveries. "What else might have Vikings worn during those days?" is a valid question for them. They would like to look like a Viking but don’t really mind if their Viking tunic looks like linen but is actually made out of cotton for comfort ...or if their Viking pants might include pockets for the sake of convenience.
Individual efforts fall on many points along this spectrum. The different goals of drama, fun, or strict realism create different results, but the enthusiasm is the same.
The Vikings’ Attitude towards Clothing and Appearance
Vikings were part of a strong Norse honor culture that valued individual worth and status. Because of this, Vikings took presentation seriously. The many combs and personal care items recovered from archaeological sites contradict the cinematic image of dirty barbarians. Clothing was a way that Vikings showed their status and set themselves apart.
This is aptly illustrated in the ancient verses of the Rigsthula, from the Poetic Edda. The poem tells the story of how the god, Heimdallr, gifted human society with ordered classes, and it goes on to describe how these classes live, work, eat, and dress differently. The skald says this of the karls (the free class that made up most Vikings):
His beard was trimmed, | o'er his brow a curl,
His clothes fitted close; | in the corner a chest.
The woman sat | and the distaff wielded,
At the weaving with arms | outstretched she worked;
On her head was a band, | on her breast a smock;
On her shoulders a kerchief | with clasps there was.
The jarls (the ruling class) are described in this way:
The lady sat, | at her arms she looked,
She smoothed the cloth, | and fitted the sleeves;
Gay was her cap, | on her breast were clasps,
Broad was her train, | of blue was her gown,
Already we can see the importance that the Vikings placed on clothing. Not only is the poet using clothing as imagery to instantly differentiate the wealthy from the humble, but the karl woman is also shown hard at work weaving. In the Viking Age, clothing was all made by hand – from shearing the sheep to making the cloth to the stitching and embroidery. Some clothes today may be expensive, but in the Viking Age, they were everyday treasures.
Almost every Norse farmstead made cloth. According to several sagas, when a young man came of age to go out on his own, he may ask his father for "the means to go abroad." This meant enough homespun and other goods to buy a share in a trading voyage. These trade ventures to Scandinavia or other Viking ports of call often led to lucrative raiding opportunities or service to royalty and could be the start of a promising career. In medieval Iceland and other parts of the Viking world, storing up enough cloth and other goods for one’s sons might have been a little like sending your kids off to college today.
In Defense of Speculative Clothing
When we talk about Vikings, we are talking about men and women from many different areas over almost three centuries. Naturally, there would be a fair amount of diversity. An 11th century Danish farmer living in Iceland probably looked different than a 9th century Swedish trader in Kiev or a 10th century Norwegian warrior settled in Dublin. It is also important to remember that there are not too many surviving examples of Viking clothing or armor (not even the metal kind!). What we have to go by are literary clues, artist renderings from around the time and place (give or take a century), and enough artifacts to make some inferences. None of these sources are 100% full-proof and even when balanced together, there is still a lot of room for debate.
As Ulla Mannering, an archaeologist at the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Textile Research at the National Museum, cautions,
“Most of the Vikings' clothes have rotted away and disappeared by the time archaeologists excavate their tombs. The picture we have is quite fragmented because it’s based on objects and textiles that are preserved in the tombs. In some cases it can be quite difficult to reconstruct the clothes. Besides, it’s not certain that the clothes they wore when they were buried were the same as they would wear any other day" (Peterson, 2012).
Vikings loved color, and well-dyed clothing showed wealth and sophistication. The vast majority of historic Viking reenactors agree with this. Dyes were expensive, and medieval dying methods produced varying results. New research shows dyes differ depending on even on what river the water came from.
Did Vikings Wear Black Clothing?
A popular answer is, "No." However, numerous mentions of black clothing within the sagas say likewise. Keep in mind that even today a 'true black' clothing item does not exist, and is typically just very dark colors to give the appearance of black. The sagas make numerous mentions of scarlet or black clothing, as well as a black saddle. Yet some historical re-creators argue as to whether these scarlets and blacks were the same as our scarlets and blacks.
The more intense the color, the higher the value. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue describes the kingly gifts Sygtrigg Silkenbeard bestowed on his poet:
"The king gave Gunnlaug his own new suit of scarlet clothes, an embroidered tunic, a cloak lined with exquisite furs, and a gold bracelet that weighed a mark."
A black cloak, some experts argue, is mentioned to denote dark deeds (such as an impending murder), but this is only sometimes the case. In Egil’s Saga, the hero uses his black cloak to make a powerful entrance and in Gisli Sursson’s Saga, the hero wears one to camouflage himself during a night attack. But in a later scene, though, Gisli is just wearing it because he likes it.
“As usual, Gisli was wearing his black cloak and was very well dressed.”
There are enough references to black clothing in the sagas to accept that black or very dark clothing was both available and used by the Vikings. Here are just a few more:
Some reenactment clubs ban black clothing – though for some, it is not that they do not think that Vikings could have worn an occasional black garment; just that black clothing seems to be very popular with new comers and prefer their membership to not look like a motorcycle club.
It was not just the color of the clothes that mattered, though, but also the cut and craftsmanship. Sagas mention such elements as form-fitting pants, leg-wraps (below the knees), or sleeves that had the cuffs linked with stitching each time they were put on. Some Vikings carried their love of color and elegant clothes to the point of being ostentatious, like the saga hero, Olaf Peacock.
Early writers emphasize some of these elements because they are the exception, not the norm. For most Vikings, clothing was probably earth-toned or undyed and had a practical function. Almost all the stories and artwork agree on the basic dress of a tunic, leather belt, trousers, and leather shoes for men. Women wore dresses, with or without belts, aprons, or smocks. Both genders wore hats, hoods, coats, cloaks, or other garments as the weather dictated. And yes, several sagas mention underwear.
What of the stories of Viking warrior women?
The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise mentions one shieldmaiden, Hervor, dressed in men’s clothing when she went raiding. When she came back, she wore dresses again. Saxo Grammaticus echoes this when it comes to Lagertha, but adds, "All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.”
The Birka Warrior, the best-documented grave of a DNA-verified woman buried exclusively with numerous weapons, horses, and trappings of a warrior, also contained fragments associated with male clothing.
Fabrics and Materials
Wool: The most important textile in Northern Europe in the Early Middle Ages was wool. The Norse economy was rooted in cattle and pastoral farming, and so wool was readily available. It was also durable, had excellent insulation properties (even when wet), took color well, and was versatile. It could be woven into relatively thin but tough cloth for northern summers or knit into thick coats, socks, cloaks, and mantles for the winter.
Linen: Made from flax, linen was used for finer, thinner fabrics that were cooler and more refined than the everyday work clothes. When layered, linen is surprisingly sturdy and has been used for protective clothing in the distant past. Whether Vikings took advantage of these properties and folded linen into armor is not definitively known.
Silk: Silk does not come from the north. However silk was indeed one of the trade goods Vikings were keen to bring back with them from their distant travels. The Heimskringla mentions King Harald Hard-Ruler wearing a tunic of blue silk. King Meal Morda of Ireland had a green silk tunic that his Viking-connected sister set on fire to spur him to war. More than 100 silk shirt fragments (10 with possible Arabic embroidery) have been found in Sweden.
Cotton? Cotton does not grow well in the cold, wet north, and was never an everyday material for Viking clothing. However, like silk, cotton was certainly cultivated and used for clothing during the Viking era down south in the Mediterranean area. So a few far-traveling Vikings could have possibly acquired a cotton garment or two during their time with the Varangian Guard or some other late-period adventure. Indeed, such valuables from much farther away have been found in Viking lands, and the northerners would have greatly appreciated a less-insulated tunic in the hot summer sun.
Did Vikings use Leather Armor?
Once again, the most common answer from the reenactor crowd is, "No." This is based on a lack of artifact evidence, however written sources (listed further below) imply that it is possible. This and the fact that animals skins were readily available as Vikings were well known for their meat eating diet, including reindeer, beef, mutton, goats and even horses. The speculative crowd argue, "Well of course they did, leather was light, affordable and better than nothing compared to the chainmail which may have not always been available or affordable."
The arguments for and against. First, there are indeed no surviving artifacts of Viking leather armor … and only a few surviving pieces of Viking metal armor. While mail hauberks or byrnies were the best armor available at that time, relatively few Vikings could afford them. They were expensive and difficult to make, and the kings of Christendom had prudently made laws against selling armor to Norsemen.
We do know however that surrounding cultures used leather armor before and during the Viking era. Here's a passage from the famous Tain Bo Cuailnge, an Irish epic set in the first century but written in the seventh - roughly one hundred years before the Viking Age began:
“Cú Chulainn, put on his battle-array of fighting and contest and strife. Of that battle-array which he put on were the twenty-seven shirts, waxed, board-like, compact … Outside these he put on his hero’s battle-girdle of hard leather, tough and tanned, made from the choicest part of seven yearling ox-hides which covered him from the thin part of his side to the thick part of his armpit. He wore it to repel spears and points and darts and lances and arrows, for they used to glance from it as if they had struck on stone or rock or horn.”
We also know the Vikings used leather for many other items: shoes, belts, bags, backpacks, hats and saddles. They raised cattle (though mainly for dairy) and also raided for cattle. The Rigsthula (verse 23) mentions a bride wearing a garment of fine goatskin leather. Which part of her outfit this was is unclear (and this may also have been a ceremonial tribute to Thor, who was especially important at weddings).
When it comes to the lack of 'leather armor' artifact evidence, it is understandable why many historic reenactors avoid it. From the latter days of the Western Roman Empire, as forces became more fluid and less "professional" there had been a movement away from armor due to lack of resources. Insanely dangerous as the Dark Age battlefield was, some Vikings may have faced it with no armor – just a shield and maybe a helmet. In fact, in the sagas, it became something of a motif for the king or hero to shed his armor and risk fate on her own terms. In the Saga of Grettir the Strong, the protagonist takes weapons but leaves the mail even when he is about to attack 12 berserkers.
Throughout history, a leather product known in Europe as cuir bouilli was used for a variety of applications. Cuir bouilli was leather hardened through boiling and/or through applying waxes. The technique is a tough but malleable product with descent shock absorption and cut resistance. A hundred years ago in America, fire helmets and the first football helmets were made from leather like this. Closer to the Viking’s world, a Bronze Age cuir bouilli leather shield was recovered from a bog in Ireland.
And then roughly 200 years after the Viking era, the famous medieval English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, specifically mentions cuir bouilli leather armor pieces. So, could the Vikings have used it? Could it be that the lack of metal armor remains is because much of their armor was leather and/or extra fur layers? Possibly.
Written sources mentioning Leather or Animal Skin as Armor
When the heroic poetry of the age mentions armor at all (which is far less frequent than it mentions weapons or shields), it is usually talking about mail. However, here are a few conspicuous exceptions from the literature that give hints to the Vikings’ approach to avoiding career-ending injury:
Finally, Ragnar Lothbrok’s armor making from Saxo Grammaticus’ Gestae Danorum:
“Ragnar, learning from men who traveled to and fro how the matter stood, asked his nurse for a woolen mantle, and for some thigh-pieces that were very hairy, with which he could repel the snake-bites. He thought that he ought to use a dress stuffed with hair to protect himself, and also took one that was not unwieldy, that he might move nimbly.”
And from Ragnar’s Saga:
"He had made for himself garments in a wondrous fashion: they were shaggy-breeches and a fur-coat, and when they were done, he had them boiled in pitch ....And when Ragnar had been there one night, he woke early in the morning, rose up and took the same armor which was mentioned before, put on the armor and took a great spear in his hand and went off the ship ..."
Did Vikings wear Fur Pelts?
There is also a segment of the historic Viking reenactor crowd that says, "Vikings would have never draped themselves with a dead animal". The sources mentioned both above and below should be enough to challenge this stance. However, the ubiquitous images from death metal to D&D depicting the hulking, fur-clad, double-bitted ax-wielding barbarian seem to be the embodiment that many historic reenactors find loathsome. But again, what do the written sources say?
In the Viking Age (especially the early Viking Age), the elite of the Norse forces were the berserkers ("bear shirts") and the úlfheðnar (“wolf skin"). While these two types of super-soldier seem to be named after the fur garments they might wear, it is possible that it is more complicated than that and beyond the scope of this article. We will defer this discussion for another time.
What is verifiable to the point of being beyond practical dispute is that the Vikings operated a thriving fur trade. This trade was so extensive that Arab traders from the Middle East wrote extensively about it, and the Slavic peoples of the Viking Rus lands paid their taxes and tribute in furs of sable and marten. And what better way to demonstrate the beauty of your animal furs than to wear them yourselves? Demand for fur and other luxury goods drove the colonization of Greenland and beyond.
Whether it offered any protection against slashing blades or served as the mantle for blood-thirsty warriors, Viking-traded furs were one of the hot commodities of the medieval world and traveled from the North Atlantic and up and down the Silk Roads. Fragments have been found in major Viking trading towns, like Dublin, and many more traces have made it into the literary record. This makes sense, because not only were these furs exotic, colorful, and opulent, but they offered warmth and comfort as Eurasia stood on the brink of what scientists call the “Little Ice Age.”
Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue had his fur-lined cloak, as was already mentioned, Grettir the Strong had a cloak entirely of bear fur (chapter 21) and elsewhere in his saga (p. 83) he used a different “shaggy fur cloak” to stay warm on a cold night. Consistent with the Arab accounts of Vikings' trading furs as luxury goods, this passage from the Hrafnsmol describes fur as king’s gifts to his warriors:
“Is seen from their raiment and their red-gold finger-rings that a kind king they have. Red fur-cloaks own they, most fairly bordered...” (v. 19).
The larger more popular ‘speculative clothing’ crowd should certainly appreciate, honor, respect and even thank the historic reenactor crowd for desiring to demonstrate clothing options that are strictly based on archaeological finds. It is not just clothing they care about but how Vikings lived (slept, cooked, etc). Also, reenactor groups are often a treasure source of Viking history knowledge. But likewise, we would encourage the committed reenactor crowd to be tolerant to the speculative crowd. It is one thing to say, "We have no artifact record of Vikings wearing leather armor" versus saying, "Out of the hundreds of thousands of Vikings spanning over 250 years who settled in a wide variety of countries ...we know for a fact that not one single one of them ever wore leather armor."
We also encourage the respected, reenactor crowd to consider being more considerate to people who are wearing something that does not meet their approval. It is one thing if someone wishes to join your group and therefore you need to share your rules, or if they bluntly ask you about the accuracy of their clothes. But otherwise, there is nothing worse than hearing an overzealous reenactor crush the spirit of an excited Viking enthusiast by comments such as, “You do know that your Viking dress is made from cotton, yes? ...REAL Viking dresses were made from wool or linen.”
Fortunately we have met a number of reenactor groups who actually don't mind Viking clothing made from cotton or "wool mix" materials, as long as the clothing design appears historically accurate from a few feet away. Not everyone has time to research and hand make their own Viking clothes or spend hundreds of dollars purchasing a hand made linen Viking dress, compared to the more affordable cotton versions that sell for $60-$70.
Archaeologists continue to make incredible discoveries, and academic scholarship is helping to improve our perception of this dynamic time … but there is much about the Vikings that only comes down to us as clues, and much that cannot be fully established. In these gaps, there may be room for imagination in some contexts and respectful skepticism in others. Both can lead to a better appreciation of the lives and legacies of those who came before us.
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