Norse Clothing during the Viking Age

in Aug 4, 2023

Despite the common depiction of the Norse peoples and Vikings in particular as rough, grimy, and violent, they were, in reality, a refined culture that placed great emphasis on personal hygiene and fashion. They donned fine clothing adorned with jewelry. Even Christian chroniclers who criticized them, acknowledged their attention to personal appearance.

 Harald Fairhair statue in Haugesund, Norway

The North has always been a cold and harsh place, which reflected on the Norse people’s needs. A typical Norse attire during the Viking Age unsurprisingly consisted of garments crafted from wool, linen and animal hides, with the wealthy even having some silk items. Footwear was made of animal hide, with no heels. Combs, made from antler, bone, ivory and wood, were carried by almost every Norsemen and women and stored in protective cases.

Jewelry was and still is an important part of showing one’s own identity. The upper class flaunted jewelry made of silver, gold, gemstones, and polished glass, while the lower class adorned themselves with materials such as tin, lead, iron, and possibly copper.

With the exception of slaves (thrals), the Norsemen and women took great pride in their personal appearance, and dedicated time each morning to a hygiene regimen. Saturdays were reserved for bathing and washing clothes, a practice that Anglo-Saxon chroniclers found peculiar and objectionable.

The grooming and well-dressed nature of the Norse peoples reflected the values of a larger culture. It has been suggested that the belief in Wyrd (fate) played a role in this. Death was recognized as an unpredictable, unavoidable and already determined moment in time, from which not even the Gods can escape. Norse poetry, particularly the Hávamál and Reginsmál, stressed the importance of starting each day "combed and washed," as one could never know where they might end up by evening or if they would still be alive.

According to Sagas and Eddas, the departed soul would arrive in the afterlife appearing as they did in life. For instance, the heroes of Valhalla would retain their armor and weaponry. Daily grooming and dressing ensured that one would not be ashamed in the presence of both Gods and ancestors.

 Dreams of Valhalla, Paul Spitzyn

Our understanding of Viking clothing, hygiene, and jewelry comes from archaeological evidence, artistic representations and accounts written by their enemies. Scholar Kirsten Wolf distinguishes two types of evidence: fragments of cloth preserved through contact with brooches, providing insights into fabric types and designs, and contemporary figurative art such as Gotlandic picture stones, figure pendants and tapestries from the Oseberg ship-burial.

 Oseberg ship, in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo

Grave goods have provided fascinating evidence of Viking fashion, with significant amounts of jewelry. Textiles preserved through contact with metals have offered clues about the clothing materials and styles. Female fashion is better attested than male fashion in grave goods, as many men were cremated.

The reputation of Vikings as well-groomed individuals stems from Christian accounts that condemned such behavior as vain, accusing Christians of emulating Pagan ways and angering God. After the Viking raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, scholar Alcuin wrote letters denouncing Christians who adopted “Viking-style grooming” and self-care practices, which he believed had incurred God's wrath. Alcuin claimed that Viking raids in Britain were a punishment from God for the people's sinful pursuit of personal care, evident in their emulation of the Vikings.

Christian writings consistently demonized Vikings but occasionally revealed Christian resentment toward the better-groomed and more pleasant-smelling Norse invaders. The 13th-century English chronicler John of Wallingford, for instance, justified the massacre of the Danes in 1002, stating that the Danes' elegant manners and personal care made them “too appealing to English women.”

They combed their hair daily, bathed every Saturday, and frequently changed their garments. Their grooming practices were seen as a threat to the virtue of married women and even persuaded daughters of nobles to become their concubines.

English resentment towards the Vikings was not solely due to their grooming and hygiene practices but also due to the tensions arising from the Norse customs, such as bathing and changing underwear, which gave them an advantage over their Anglo-Saxon rivals in courting local maidens. Viking hygiene was just one aspect of their attractiveness; their careful attention to clothing and accessories further added to their allure.

Regarding men's clothing, Vikings wore layered garments. It is assumed that both men and women wore undershirts and possibly under breeches, although there is no direct evidence of undergarments, which is not surprising as undergarments are rarely found in any dig-site due to the fact that they decompose quickly. The next layer consisted of a knee-length tunic and trousers, with loose-fitting and form-fitting options. A belt worn around the waist held personal items such as a knife, purse, and charms. The tunic was bloused above the belt and reached mid-thigh.

 

Pictures from the Stockholm Viking Museum

 

Scandinavian society was divided into three classes: Jarls (aristocracy), Karls (free men), and Thralls (slaves). The aforementioned outfit served as the basic daily wear for jarls and karls. Jarls would complement their attire with a cloak, which could be fur-lined or bordered with silk. Coats, jackets, and cloaks were occasionally embroidered with gold or silver thread. Karls might wear a woolen jacket over their outer shirt, and both classes would accessorize with jewelry such as necklaces, armbands, and headpieces to keep their hair in place. Thralls, on the other hand, only wore a woolen knee-length tunic clasped at the waist with a belt or rope.

Viking footwear included two types: soled and hide shoes. Soled shoes involved stitching a specific type of animal hide to a rougher sole, while hide shoes were made from a single piece stitched together. Hide shoes were akin to thick socks that could be slipped on and tied above the ankle with lacing. Boots, usually made of cowhide and deerskin, were essentially soled shoes. Footwear for women included both soled and hide shoes, often decorated.

 

shoes made by the Viking settlers in York,

 

Women's clothing, also involved layering. It began with an undergarment of wool or linen, followed by a linen chemise worn by upper-class women. This chemise, whether sleeved or sleeveless, was covered by a dress suspended by shoulder straps. The dress could be loose or form-fitting, depending on its arrangement and clasping. It was wrapped around the woman and held in place by brooches, determining the draping on the figure. From one of the brooches, implements like scissors, tweezers, an awl, or a needle case might hang, and festoons of beads, sometimes with amber or silver pendants, could be suspended between the brooches. A belt worn around the waist held a knife, purse, and keys, particularly for housekeepers. Married women might wear a tall headdress or scarf around their hair.

Both men and women favored headwear, including peaked hats, close-fitting wool caps, and metal fillets (headbands). Upper-class individuals often donned hooded cloaks, sleeved cloaks, and shawls secured with ornate brooches. Women's headgear appears to have been more elaborate, but due to the preservation of more female jewelry in grave goods, there is less surviving male headgears for comparison.

Necklaces for women was more elaborate compared to men. Women's necklaces were frequently made of polished beads, gemstones, silver, or gold. Men's necklaces tended to be simpler, often depicting Thor's hammer or other pendants.

 

Hammer of Thor Mjolnir Necklace in 925 Sterling Silver Skanen Replica

 

The topic of clothing during the Viking Age is a long and extensive one. The clothing and jewelry someone wears often depicts the very identity of a person and thus is subject to extensive variety.

 

Bibliography

Crawford, J. The Poetic Edda. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2015.

Ellis Davidson, H. R. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Lindow, J. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Magnusson, M. Vikings!. E.P. Dutton, NY, 2000.

Sawyer, P. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Simek, R. A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. BOYE6, 2008.

Somerville, A. A. & McDonald, R. A. The Viking Age: A Reader. University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division, 2015.

Wolf, K. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. Sterling, 2013.

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