Wearing Viking Clothing Today
If you’re a Viking enthusiast, you may already know that there are numerous Viking 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 presence of Viking reenactors. Part of the fun of attending these festivals includes dressing up in a Viking outfit, 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 (most of the ones we see on TV are wrong). Some Viking clothing outfits 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? So it is understandable that after a thousand years, Viking clothing remnants, especially their original colors, are often speculative. 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
For historic reenactors, a majority of the clothing choices on television series such as Vikings or The Last Kingdom are extremely inaccurate and down right offensive to their historic knowledge of what real Viking clothing looked like. However, 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. 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. 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 historical Viking clothing outfits with love and care as they try to replicate their era of study as precisely as possible. Only accurate 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. And for some (in the reeanctor crowd), wearing 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 a large population of casual Viking enthusiasts, often referred to as live-action role players (LARPers) or Cosplay, or families who are simply wanting to dress up at a local Viking festival. While these people respect what the hardcore reenactors are trying to do, they do not have the same sort of convictions or personal prohibitions against speculation or ardent demands of only wearing clothes that are exact matches to what was found in a handful of archaeological discoveries.
"What might have I had worn if I was a Viking during those days?" is a valid question for the casual enthusiast. They would like to look like a Viking but don’t really mind if their tunic is made out of cotton vs wool ...or if their Viking pants might include hidden pockets.
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.
Is there only one Viking look?
No. Consider how dramatic some of the clothing styles have changed from the 1970's to today. And now consider that with the Vikings, we are talking about men and women influenced by visiting a dozen or more countries, spanning over an era that lasted nearly 300 years. Naturally, there would be some diversity. An 11th century Norwegian fisherman living in Iceland probably dressed a lot differently than a Swedish trader in Kiev or a 10th century Danish warrior fighting at the battle of Clontarf 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 often partial fragments of clothing and literary clues, artist renderings from around the time and place (give or take a few centuries), and enough artifacts to make some inferences.
None of these sources are 100% full-proof and even when balanced together, there is typically still a lot of room for debate. Add to this that a majority of the clothing artifacts we have found are from Viking burial sites. Is it possible that funeral clothing was different than what they normally wore on an average day? ...much like someone may wear blue jeans most of their life but then their family puts them in a suit for the sake of the funeral.
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).
We do know from many of the Norse related writen sources that 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?
Popular answers from reenactors are "No" or "Kind of, but more like a faded, brownish black and only on rare occasions." Numerous mentions of black (or scarlet) clothing do actually appear within the Icelandic sagas.
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.”
We do know that numerous Viking re-enactors have successfully created black-like clothing dyes using strictly ingredients that were available to the Norse. And there are certainly enough references to black clothing in the sagas to accept that black or very dark clothing was both available and used by the Vikings.
“For everyday pursuits he wore a dark brown tunic and a carried a light pole axe, while if he were preparing for a fight he had a black tunic and a broad-bladed axe, with which he appeared more than a little intimidating.” (Bolli Bollason’s Tale, p. 433)
“On a mare’s back there was a man playing for high stakes. Wearing a black cowl (hooded cloak): Halli, speed on your way!” (The Saga of Grettir the Strong p. 105).
“Narfi had a black hooded cape made for himself. He always had a walrus-skin rope around his waist.” (The Saga of Ref the Sly, p. 619).
Some reenactment groups completely ban black clothing. Though for some, it is not that they do not think that Vikings could have occasionally worn a "blackish" garment; just more so that black clothing seems to be very popular with new comers (who are basing their clothing choices on tv shows) and prefer their reenactment group 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, apron dresses, or smocks. Both genders wore hats, hoods, coats, cloaks, or other garments as the weather dictated. And yes, several sagas mention various forms of underwear or undergarments.
Fabrics and Materials
Wool: The most important (and common) 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. Linen was typically used for undergarments as a comfortable layer between skin and wool, as well as outer wear during the summer.
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 stitchwork) have been found in Sweden.
Cotton? Historically ...no. 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 certainly some of the Vikings could have possibly acquired a cotton garment or two during their numerous raids within this region 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. However, historically so far there have been zero findings of Vikings wearing cotton clothing.
Did Vikings use Leather Armor?
Once again, the most common answer is, "No." This is based on a legitimate lack of physical artifact evidence. Leather "bracers" (as seen on the forearms in this image) were used by some of the surrounding cultures, but again zero evidence that Vikings used them.
We would point out however that there are numerous written (Icelandic) sources listed below that mention stories of how Vikings used reindeer skin and other forms of animal skins as a form of armor. Animals skins were readily available as Vikings were well known for their meat eating diet, including beef, reindeer, mutton, goats and even horses.
Thus people (in the speculative crowd) argue, "Well of course they did, leather was light, readily available and better than nothing compared to expensive chainmail which may have not always been available or affordable ...and if I lived during those times and was about to go into battle, an extra layer or two of lightweight 'skin' would definitely be a consideration."
The arguments for and against leather
First, other than the written accounts mentioned below (sagas written many years later by the descendants of Vikings), there are indeed no surviving artifacts of Viking leather armor … and only a few surviving pieces of Viking metal armor. A fair point would be that we have found numerous leather artifacts such numerous Viking shoes. However, we should also keep in mind that leather is basically skin from an animal and just like the human remains we find in graves, skeletons, wood, stone and metal items are typically the only things that survive, skin (and even clothing in many cases) do no survive after a thousand years.
While hauberks or byrnies (chainmail tunics) were the best armor available at that time, it is likely that not all 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.
Below is 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 that Vikings used leather for many other items: shoes, belts, bags, backpacks, saddles, hats and more. It would make sense that the concept of using some animal skins (to add an extra layer of protection on the battlefield) might have been a consideration.
They certainly raised cattle and also raided for cattle. The Eddic poem Rigsthula (verse 23) mentions a bride wearing a garment of fine goatskin leather.
Throughout history, a leather process 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 using a very similar process. 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? (items that understandably decay and dissolve away after a thousand years?) Possibly.
Written sources that mention animal furs or leather 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 chainmail. However, here are a few conspicuous exceptions from the Icelandic literature that give hints to the Vikings’ approach to using leather as an effort to avoid a career-ending injury. One of the strongest mentions is this one:
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 ..."
However, unless you are LARPing with a group who doesn't really care, it might be best to avoid the controversy. At the very least it should be respected that most reenactment groups prefer to only wear what has been proven by physical artifact findings (and not written sources such as the Sagas and Eddas). 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 behind the chainmail even when he is about to attack 12 berserkers.
Did Vikings wear Fur?
There is a new movement amongst the Viking reenactor Facebook groups that say, "Vikings would have never draped themselves with a dead animal!" Our personal belief is that this may be coming from the modern day animal rights movement. It only takes one blog post making this claim and this false narrative spreads like wild fire. The next thing you know we see comments such as "ditch the fur" or "Vikings never wore fur!" whenever someone dares to post a picture of their reenactment outfit including fur.
The reality is that history (through both artifacts and written) strongly say otherwise. We have already seen that there is archaeological evidence that Vikings wore reindeer skins on their heads as hats, so this notion that Vikings would never drape a warm fur over their shoulders is silly. There are also numerous written sources (mentioned both above and below) which specifically describe Vikings wearing fur.
There is also the side issue of how some of the elite Norse forces were known as 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. In fact, the Viking fur trade was so extensive that Arab traders from the Middle East wrote extensively about it, and the Slavic peoples of the Rus lands paid their taxes and tribute in furs of sable and marten. And what better way to demonstrate the beauty, comfort and 'warming' capabilities of your animal furs than to wear them yourselves? Demand for fur and other luxury goods drove the colonization of Greenland and beyond.
Viking-traded furs were one of the hottest 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. Some have argued that this refers to the technique of making wool look like shaggy fur. However, as we have seen above there are plenty of other written mentions of Vikings wearing fur.
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 casual ‘speculative clothing’ crowd should 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, hunted, sailed, etc). For most of them, their clothing choices will be a very accurate portrayal of what we do know for a fact Vikings actually wore. Also, reenactor groups are often a treasure source of Viking history knowledge.
But likewise, we would encourage those in the committed reenactor community to be more patient and less judgmental toward the speculative crowd. It is one thing to say, "We have no physical artifact records 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 Viking EVER used leather as an extra layer of protection on the battle field."
We also encourage the respected, reenactor crowd to consider being more considerate to new enthusiasts, 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 the clothes they are wearing.
As a vendor who has attended many festivals, we (Sons of Vikings) have witnessed first hand a few overzealous "historians" who were quick to criticize the inaccurate clothing of an innocent new Viking enthusiast.
Look we get it. When customers come up to our vendor tent wearing a plastic helmet with horns on the sides, we too cringe inside. But while historic critiques and corrections may be accurate, they are not always welcoming to the newcomers within the Viking community. Fortunately MOST reenactors we have met are patient and kind people who warmly welcome the opportunity to share their love for Viking history.
So my outfit has to be 100% perfect to join a reenactment group?
It depends. We have talked to quite a few reenactor groups who make it clear that they really don't mind newcomers starting off with "beginner" Viking clothing (made from cotton or "wool mix" materials) as long as the general design itself appears historically accurate from 5-10 feet away. The reality is that not everyone has time to research and hand make their own linen tunic, or spend hundreds of dollars paying someone to hand sew a linen dress and a wool apron.
On the flip side the more you begin participating in your local Viking reenactment group, the more you will be expected to eventually step up your game. As well you will eventually find yourself WANTING to be as historically accurate as possible.
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.
- Saxo Grammaticus. The Danish History, Book Nine. Circa 12th Century. Retrieved January 4, 2018, from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1150/1150-h/1150-h.htm
- The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons (Ragnar Saga Lodbrok). Waggoner, B. (translator). Troth. 2009
- The Lay of Harold (Hranfnsmol). Hornklofi, T. (translator). Sacred Texts. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/onp/onp11.htm
- Rigsthula from The Poetic Edda (Belows, H.A. translator). 1936. Retrieved from https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe.pdf
- Saga Heidrecks Konungs Ins Vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise). Tolkien, C. (translator). Thomas Nelson Ltd. London, 1960. Available http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/The%20Saga%20Of%20King%20Heidrek%20The%20Wise.pdf
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- The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Scudder, B. (translator). Penguin. London. 2005.
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- The Russian Primary Chronicle by Nestor the Chronicler (1113). The Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/TheRussianPrimaryChronicle
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- Levin, S.J. Experiments in Cuir Bouilli: Practical Trials of Medieval Leathercraft. Weslyan University Honors College. 2014. https://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2301&context=etd_hon_theses