How do we know which clothes the Vikings wore and from where do we have this knowledge from? That is the question that I intend to answer today. Fashion is not a new thing, people have for thousands of years dressed themselves in the best clothes they could afford.
This was of course also true in the Viking society, where they wore the most beautiful clothes, with the highest quality they could scrape enough silver coins together for. In the Viking Age clothes did not just have a practical purpose, but many of them also dressed with the intent to show their social status and to appeal to the other sex. Just like the German phrase” Kleider Machen Leute” which means clothes make people.
Unfortunately, Viking clothes are rarely being found, and when the archeologists do find some clothes from the Viking age they are often just very small pieces of different kind of materials, like wool and linen which easily decays, so it can be difficult to see the patterns and figures on the clothes after so many years in the ground.
That is why we do not just look at the pieces of clothes, but we also look at the written sources. But small figures can also help us understand the Viking fashion, for instance, the Valkyrie that was found in 2012 at Hårby in Denmark or the figure of Freya found in 2014.
Tapestries, such as the Bayeux Tapestry in France, also gives us an insight into how the Vikings dressed. So as you can see, we use as many relevant sources as possible, to help us create a broader image of what kind clothes they wore.
Viking clothes were colorful
There has for a long time been an image of the Viking clothes as being gray and boring, But that is not the case, they had lots of colors to choose from when they made their clothes.
One of the most expensive colors in the Viking age was red, and it came from the plant madder root. But because the plant did not grow in Scandinavia, it was necessary to trade for it in places like Francia or Saxony. Some of the other colors the Vikings had available were black, yellow, blue, purple, white, reddish brown, brown, red and many others, so it was indeed a colorful time to be alive.
Viking clothing patterns
The Vikings loved to have patterns on the clothes, and we do have some bits of pieces with patterns from the Viking age. But many of the patterns that are made on reconstructed Viking clothes today, are inspired by the Viking art, such as on weapons, jewelry, and runestones and other sources, which are not necessarily clothes.
Male clothing in the Viking age
The people in the Viking age wore their clothes in layers to keep themselves warm, and most of them wore similar clothes, with some variation depending on where they lived and what they could afford. Most Viking men wore a tunic as the outer garment on his upper body, most likely with long sleeves in the winter and short sleeves in the summer.
The tunics were very long and went down to their knees, it had no buttons, so they had to pull it over their head to wear it. The tunics were colored in one of the many colors they had available in the Viking age, and some were decorated with patterns and symbols.
Male Viking trousers
The men wore trousers made from either linen or wool, the trousers had no pockets or elastic, but they might have had a simple drawstring in the waistband. We do know that they used a leather belt because there has been found many Viking belt buckles from excavations. The poor people or the slaves just used a string fastened around their waist, to hold up their trousers. There was of course variations on how the trousers looked, some were tight others were baggy, and some of the trousers had many details and others did not.
Male Viking underwear
The Viking men also wore a tunic and a pair of trousers as underwear that had no colors or patterns since no one would see them anyway. Both the tunic and the trousers were most commonly made from linen, it was not the cheapest option, but it was a more comfortable option to use linen as underwear. Underwear trousers made from wool would have been a cheaper option for the lower classes in the Viking society.
Viking leg wrappings
Are you starting to get warm and comfortable? Well, we are not done yet, because the men also wore leg wrappings around their legs on top of their trousers. These leg wrappings were two long narrow strips of cloth, which were typically made from wool. They were wrapped around the leg, from the knee and down to under the foot. The leg wrappings were not commonly used everywhere in northern Europe, for instance, in Iceland, it was not a common practice.
Sometimes the Vikings also wore a simple cloak, it was not something that was very hard to make, it was simply just a large rectangular piece of linen or wool. Some of them chose to color their cloak, maybe to show their status, or just have a pretty cloak in their favorite color.
A Viking cloak was very practical in many ways, and they could also use it to hide their weapons beneath it, but people could always tell if he was right or left handed by looking at them. However, the main purpose of the cloak was probably to help them stay warm.
There might have been variations in how the cloak was made, some could have been better insulated which made them warm and gave them more shelter from the cold wind. Other cloaks might have been more light version, so they could be used during the spring and in the summer, were the cloaks were still practical not just for warm in the evenings but also to give them a little cover from the rain. The cloak was attached to the clothes with a penannular brooch, which there has been found many of with various designs, made from different metals.
Women’s clothing in the Viking age
If we take a look at the women’s clothing in the Viking age, we can see that the materials to make their clothes were the same as we’re used to making the men’s clothing. The most common outfit for a Viking woman was an ankle-length linen under-dress and a strap dress also called an apron dress over it, and just like the men, there were no pockets in the women’s clothing.
The strap dress was shorter in length and made from wool, the shoulder straps were fastened to the under-dress with two brooches, which were either made from, iron or bronze, and in very rare instances they were made from gold. Between the two brooches, women had either beads, amber, or other jewelry as decorations, but women would also hang useful items there, such as keys, needles, scissors, or a whetstone.
It was not the same style of fashion in every Viking community, for example, the Danish Viking women preferred plain undergarments, whilst the Swedish Viking women wore pleated ones.
Viking Age head-coverings
Some women would also wear a knotted kerchief as head-covering, but it is uncertain if this was an everyday thing or just something for special occasions. It could have been used for practical purposes such as in preventing their hair from getting into the food because we have to remember it was mostly women who prepared the meals.
Viking women’s Fashion
When the weather was a bit chilly, the women had an ankle-length outer garment, which she wore over her dress. But the women also used cloaks, which was probably more common and a cheaper option.
The front of the outer garment did not have any buttons, but they used a tri-lobed brooch to close it. This tri-lobed brooch was not originally a women’s accessory, but it was used by the men, or more accurate it was used by the fighters.
The fighters used the tri-lobed brooch as a leather strap divider with the leather straps wrapped around one of the shoulders and then attached to a belt, so the fighters could have a weapon in their belt. But what started as an accessory for the men and a fighter symbol, changed with time into women’s fashion during the Viking age.
Silk clothes in the Viking age
Silk was also available for the Vikings, but it was very expensive and most likely only something the rich could afford to buy. Clothes made from silk was seen as a status symbol because it was imported from as far away as Constantine in the Byzantine empire.
Viking clothes in the winter
You might think that the Vikings sat around the fire at night and knitted a pair of socks for their loved ones so they could keep their feet warm. But while they might have made socks for their loved ones the Vikings did not knit their socks, they used an ancient technique called needle-binding (Nálbinding), where you use a large needle to tie the yarn or in another word knot the yarn together. This might sound like a slow way to do it, but it actually made the socks nearly indestructible, and they would last for many years.
When it was snowing outside the people would keep themselves warm by putting on a hood that covered their head and shoulders or a cap, scarf, and mittens. The hoods were typically made from pieces of fabric, and the caps, scarfs, and mittens were typically made from wool and by using the needle-binding method. However, the mittens were also made with animal skin such as sheepskin, and they could even have been made from fur if they had the silver coins for it.
Some people did, however, struggle to keep warm, and not everyone could afford a cap or mittens or even a good pair of socks. The poor people and slaves in the Viking society would use hay or moss to keep their feet warm.
In Scandinavia, it does get very cold, and these things are of course not enough, as anyone that has lived in these parts of the world would tell you. The Vikings had also coats and jackets made from wool, they have however mostly been found in the eastern part of the Norse lands, so we can not say for certain that it was widespread throughout all the Nordic countries.
The Vikings loved to walk around in a good pair of shoes, and some of their shoes were quite unique compared to how we make them today. There have been found many shoes from the Viking Age, and the reason for this is because, the shoes did not last that long and got thrown into the trash, some the Vikings might even have been purchasing shoes a couple of times a year. But not all of the Viking shoes are the same and they were definitely not all made in the same style and fashion, however, all of them were made from leather.
Viking Shoes from York
If we take a look at how the shoes were made by the Viking settlers in York, England, you will see how different the styles could be. Many people from the Viking age were hard workers, so it was more important to have shoes that were practical, instead of shoes that were just made to look pretty.
Most of the shoes that have been found from excavations in York are shoes that were closed with stitching on the inside of the shoe, which sounds strange to us today. But it must have been more practical and more comfortable to work in shoes like that.
I wonder if you could tell the social status of a person just by looking at their shoes in the Viking age. I don’t own a pair of shoes like that myself, but it could be fun to try and walk around in shoes like this and test its pros and cons.
Viking shoes had laces or buttons
The shoes the Vikings had either buttons or laces, and when the shoes had laces they went around the foot and below the ankle on the foot, to avoid putting on to much pressure on the sensitive parts of the foot. The laces were typically attached to the shoe with strips of leather, and for those who wonder, yes, the people also had the joy of laces snapping from time to time.
The people also wore boots in the Viking Age, and some of them had heels, however, it is unlikely that boots with heels were work boots and was probably mostly worn by either merchants or the upper class. The boots were usually ankled heigh, and it was rare to see them any higher, and just like the shoes, the boots had either buttons or laces.
Both men and women wore handbags in the Viking age, a handbag would hang in their belt, and some people might have had two handbags in the belt. So they could divide their belongings into what their uses were.
Some handbags might have had small tools in them, others could have had silver coins. It was probably most likely that they only had one handbag in their belt, and might have used a pouch for coins or for other bits and pieces.
Not only did handbags hang in their belt, but also their ax, a knife, and other useful items that were handy to have within reach. The belts in the Viking age were not as wide as the ones we use today, they were considerably narrower, and was typically around 2 cm wide (0.78 inches).
There have been found many belt buckles, which has given us an insight into how the design on their buckles was. The number of details on them can only mean, that they really cared a great deal about their appearance. There are patterns and decorations on both the leather belt and the two buckle pieces.
The belt was in fact, one of the most important parts of their outfit, not only did it keep their trousers from falling down, but they also had all their bits and pieces attached to the belt. The belt was one of their vulnerable parts in a fight because if the opponent could strike the belt with their ax, the belt would snap and they would have a hard time fighting while trying to pull up their trousers from the ground.
Children clothing in the Viking age
The clothes that the children in the Viking age wore were pretty much the same as the adults. Both the clothes from the boys and the girls would reflect their parents’ style, in both quality and fashion.
The Vikings had waterproof clothes
Today most of us are familiar with clothes that are waterproof, and it might come as a surprise to you, but that is not a modern thing. The Vikings did actually also know how to make their clothes waterproof, of course, it was not on the same level as nanotechnology, but it still worked fine. The Vikings used skins from animals treated with beeswax, which made them soft, and then applied fish oil on them so they became waterproof.
Jewelry in the Viking Age
There is no doubt that the Vikings knew how to make beautiful jewelry, just look at some of the jewelry that has been found from the excavations, the details on many of them are absolutely stunning. Men and women across all the classes in society wore jewelry, and they were not necessarily religious objects. Some were just ornamentals, for instance, rings, arm rings, necklaces, and brooches, and depending on what kind of materials they were made of, they could indicate the wealth of the person.
The people in the Viking society did not wear earrings, it was something they were familiar with, and they probably encountered it on their many expeditions when they traveled around in eastern Europe and came in contact with the Slavic peoples.
Some of the jewelry also had a practical function, for example, the brooches that I mentioned earlier were used to fasten the cloaks on their clothes. Some pieces of the jewelry had, of course, a symbolic value, such as Thor’s hammer, which was made as a pendant for a necklace.