Viking Clothes – Looking Good was Important! by Rob Shackleford
For more on Vikings, check out the links of previous Viking Blogs below:
Viking Fashion – anything as long as it’s black?
When it comes to Viking fashion, we really know very little on account of the limited archaeological evidence that is available. Materials and fabrics do not preserve well. When fragments are recovered, they are usually very small and damaged.
However, we can also draw from written evidence such as the Norse sagas. Together with archaeological evidence, we can piece together a somewhat accurate picture of Viking clothing.
Both men and women wore clothes made out of wool and linen, items women washed in nearby streams and lakes. Alongside concern for cleanliness and grooming, historical sources indicate Vikings were equally aware of their clothes and overall presentation of self.
John of Wallingford wrote that the desire to look ‘put-together’ drove Vikings to “change their clothes frequently to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims.”
So Vikings would dress in order to show their standing within the community. The higher their social status, the higher the quality the garment and better presented one might be.
Secondly, Vikings would dress in order to appeal to the opposite sex.
Yes, when it came to making an impact, the Norse liked to dress to impress. As well as being clean, garments were often brightly coloured and adorned with the most costly array of jewellery one could afford. Cloak pins and arm rings all showed off status, impressing the object of your desire not only with your appearance but your wealth and prospects in life.
So, in addition to black and (off) white, Vikings also had blue, red, yellow, and various other colours to choose from. But some colours will have been harder to come by than others and, compared to modern artificial dies, would have been muted, natural dies.
Perhaps one of the most important colours in terms of its significance was the colour red. This was a valuable colour for prestige and in terms of monetary value too. It was one of the more expensive colours derived from the madder plant root, a Mediterranean native not grown in Scandinavia. So the Vikings had to trade and barter for it from other European tribes, which pushed up its value.
So clothes and appearance were important. The Anglo-English king Cnut the Great, A Viking, is portrayed as an erect, well-groomed and elegantly dressed man with pointy shoes, socks with ribbons, trousers and a knee-length tunic and a cloak slung over one shoulder.
Did Vikings Wear Black Clothing?
Numerous mentions of black clothing within the Icelandic sagas suggest yes, but it wasn’t common. Keep in mind that even today a ‘true black’ clothing item does not exist and is typically just very dark colours. The sagas make numerous mentions of scarlet and black clothing, as well as the mentioning of a black saddle.
A black cloak, some argue, is 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, Gisli just wears it because he likes it.
“As usual, Gisli was wearing his black cloak and was very well dressed.”
The Vikings also knew about luxuries such as silk and sewn-on ribbons with silver and golden threads. But only a few members of the elite have been able to wear these exclusive fabrics, which were imported from around the world.
Analysis of dyes in textiles worn by Vikings in Denmark, Norway, London, York and Dublin have shown that while people in Dublin preferred purple fabrics, the majority worn in England were red. In Scandinavia the Vikings preferred blue.
Viking-traded furs were one of the hottest commodities of the medieval world and were traded 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 thick furs exotic, colourful, and opulent, but they offered warmth and comfort as Eurasia stood on the brink of what scientists call the “Little Ice Age.”
In literature, Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue had his fur-lined cloak and Grettir the Strong had a cloak entirely of bear fur and elsewhere in his saga 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).
So Vikings were often very well-dressed, though some suggest not quite as fancifully dressed as shown in the “Vikings” series. But what were the main differences between men’s clothing and women’s clothing?
Not surprisingly, there has been a resurgence of interest in Viking clothes even today. here are a few links:
More Viking Research references:
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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