A Survey of Viking Male Clothing

At the local Deck the Halls of Valhalla event, I taught a class on Viking-era male Scandinavian clothing.  Rather than bring a small tree for a handout, I instead prefer to give only visual aids, and link students to what amounts to my speaking notes.

I'm focusing on clothing during the Viking age, which is commonly regarded to span from the 793 CE raid on Lindisfarne to Harald III of Norway's failed 1066 invasion of England, in the areas bordering the North Sea with Scandinavian settlement: Scandinavia proper, Britain, Ireland, and the North Sea islands.

Based on archaeological and literary evidence, I'll present an overview of  textiles and dyes, the various articles of male clothing, their cultural significance, why we believe what we believe, and how confident we are in it, and finally provide some recommendations for reenactors.

This class is based primarily off of Thor Ewing's Viking Clothing, although I've also spent some time reading the sources he uses like War and Worship, Northern European Textiles: Until AD 1000, and Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials.  There are a lot of other people with opinions online, and I'm not being diligent carefully annotating my assertions - don't @ me.

Because we have limited evidence about the Viking age, we will sometimes be piecing together disparate information from multiple directions.

On one end, we have Roman depictions of Germanic people and the bog finds from 3-6th century Denmark and the like.  On the other, we have the literary evidence from the sagas and eddas, which was written down in the 1250s and often represents later fashions and clothing evidence than Vikings would have worn.

We also have discussion of Vikings from the people they interacted with, particularly Arabic scholars writing in Central Asia and Spain, as well as earlier descriptions of the Franks.

Finally, we have a small amount of evidence from the Vikings themselves: the excavations at Birka and Hedeby are particularly rich, as well as scattered other finds.  Runestones and the enigmatic gold foil impressions known as Gullgubber round out what we have.

Textiles and Dyes

The three fibers available in the Viking world were linen (including coarser bast fibers like hemp and lime, but really this is mostly flax fiber for clothing), sheep wool, and silk.

Silk shows up as trimmings in finds and depictions, but probably wasn't used much by the Norse as the primary fabric for body garments because it was so expensive and rare.  It does show up in hats and narrow-wares.

Linen was a relatively recent import to Scandinavia by the Viking age, but was adopted very rapidly when it did appear.  Some areas, notably the island of Gotland in the Baltic sea east of Sweden, never adopted linen, and it was rare in western Norway.  Linen was used for the layer of clothing close to the skin: shirts, breeches, and hose, but also possibly outerwear when it was particularly important that the clothing be cleaned easily: in Wales, woolen clothing was banned for "the porter, the fuel man, and the washerwoman."  As we'll see later when we talk about shirts, there's good evidence for linen being worn as a fashion layer for shirts as well.

Linen was most often Z/Z tabby, and came in various grades, mostly 12-20 threads per centimeter for shirts.

Wool was a dominant fiber, and one that had been used traditionally by Germanic peoples.  Wools varied in sheep type, with short fibers used for finer, closer-to-the-skin fabrics.  Wools were combed, and spun in what we would now call a worsted style, producing denser, less fuzzy yarns.

Wools could be tabby (very coarse to fine, 2-20 threads per centimeter), with 18-20 threads per centimeter in the warp against 12-14 in the weft being common, but coarser fabric also existed, with a find from Hedeby - an inset shoulder from a shirt - being only about 6 x 5 threads per centimeter.  Fine repp (a heavily unbalanced tabby) was also common - about 20% of tabby finds - with a typical find being 20-33 x 10-19 threads per centimeter.  Birka had particularly nice tabbies.

Twill wools were also very common, with most being 2/2 twills.  Some twills use Z-spun yarn for the warp and S-spun for the weft, with the warp usually finer and harder, 8-18 x 6-12.  2/1 twill was rare, and seems to indicate the arrival of the horizontal loom, and with it some notion of European fashion in the 10th century.  One interesting twill type, a Z/Z 2/2 twill type from Norway ("Veka" type) often had the warp dyed blue with an undyed weft, producing an effect not unlike modern blue jeans.

Fancy twills like herringbone, diamond, and broken diamond were very common.  A specific kind is "Birka cloth" which is exceedingly fine Z/Z diamond twill at 20-46 x 9-16 threads per centimeter.  There's some argument that these were imported, but I'm not convinced.

Some cloth was woven with a fuzzy pile, particularly the Icelandic vaðmál which was used as currency in the sagas, as well as the lining of a crossover coat.

High-status Viking clothing was very often dyed.  There are a wide variety of plant dyes for yellows, greens, and browns, but the most prominent dyestuffs are weld for yellow, madder for red, and woad for blue, as well as orchil for purple.  Curiously, madder red was extremely common in British finds, orchil purple in Irish finds, and woad blue in Scandinavian finds.  There seems to have been a trade in mordants: aluminum-rich plants were imported to York, presumably to be used as a mordant.

An interesting online resource for practical medieval dyes is this facebook page

Articles of Clothing


I'm going to refer back to these repeatedly, so I'm putting them at the top.
Eadui Psalter: Arundel 155, f. 93
This early 11th century depiction of David and Goliath probably shows raider Þorkell inn hávi as Goliath, and his clothing is marked as Viking in several ways.
Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944
King Knut is on the bottom right.
Bayeux Tapestry.  Harald barefoot, in a red shirt on the right.
The pleats are a bit indistinct in this fuzzy image.



We have almost an entire extant shirt from Viborg.  It's very late, 1000-1100, but it's pretty much all we have.  It's also very complex: it has decorative seams, and is lined.  If one simplifies the pattern, you get a rectangular body folded over the shoulder with a tight square neck hole, a possible slight taper to the waist - although I imagine that this will be unnecessary on many people... - and then slits down to the hem.  The sleeves taper to the wrists from about the elbow, and there are square underarm gussets.  The shirt closes at the neck with ties. 

There are a few other examples of similar cuts in wool, but they're mostly pre-Viking and are all weird in some way or another.  Some have angled shoulder seams and slightly inset sleeves.

Shirts seem to have small neck holes.  There's sagas suggesting that larger holes are unmanly, and all the depictions we have are of narrow holes.

Shirts seemed to have varied in length, growing longer towards the end of the Viking period.  The Oseberg tapestry shows shirts from the top of the thigh to the knee, and an early shirt from Högom, Sweden goes just to the top of the thigh, but later depictions like the Knut and Goliath images show much longer shirts.

These earlier shirts all have slits at the sides - they don't have side gores, and in fact there's good reason to think that side gores were not used at all in Viking fashion.  The first gored extant we have is probably just post-Viking, from Skjoldehamn.  Later shirts were longer, and we start to see finds (particularly from Hedeby, which sometimes might represent European fashion) where the warp runs across the body.  This indicates a separate skirt piece, and probably means pleated skirts.  We see examples of this in the Bayeux tapestry, and in Knut's clothing.  This is probably the prototypical late Viking shirt.

Note that Knut and Þorkell's sleeves both show the same puckering at the cuffs, and Knut's seem to be quite tight to the arm.  I'm not entirely sure what the implications of this are.  There are some picture stones with much more voluminous sleeves, similar to houpellande bag sleeves or batwing sleeves.  In general, tighter tailoring probably represented wealth, but so too could extravagant fabric use.

You'll note that I'm not distinguishing between undershirts and outer tunics.  It seems that this distinction was not particularly salient.  The linen layer, when it was added, was added under an existing wool shirt and followed its model.  There are also decorated linen shirt fragments: the Viborg shirt has decorative seams, and there is a fragmentary shirt from Birka with silk and silver braid decorations - this was under a caftan, but was still clearly meant to be worn by itself sometimes.

While in later medieval fashion, an undershirt like this was clearly a private, half-dressed garment (and it's viewed as so in the sagas), it seems that this was not the case for the Vikings, especially if your shirt is decorated.  We also get a report of the Franks under Charlemagne wearing their cloaks directly on linen shirts.  I view this as particularly welcome news as a reenactor in a warm climate, as layers of wool get pretty hot.

Belts were worn over the shirt, and we have found many belt buckles where you would expect at Birka.



There seems to have been a strong norm for breeches to only reach the knee, where they may or may not anchor hose via a hook-and-eye.  Breeches were usually linen, and may have been dyed - we hear of Carolingian Franks wearing kermes-dyed breeches, and blue ones are mentioned elsewhere.  The Mammen grave has blue leg fabric of an unspecified material.  These linen breeches were probably similar to continental braies, and of simple construction with a straight leg.

Breeches were worn with belts to hold them up, of rope, cloth or leather.

Hose, Leg Wraps, Socks

hosu, vindingar

We have evidence of high-status dyed hose from both before (Franks in De Carolo Magno) and after (sagas) the Viking age, so they seem likely.  They are possibly linen, although wool and even silk are also possible.  Hose may be held up by bands, garters, or hooks.  They may also be leather, which makes them rather more like boots.  Knut is wearing hose with what are probably garters below the knee.

We also have good evidence for leg wraps, which were typically 3-4 inches wide in zigzag twill, and may be dyed.  You can see them on Goliath.  The Bayeux tapestry has warriors wearing similar bands around their forearms

Socks are also known.  We have a nalbound sock from York, and Goliath may be wearing socks, or footwraps.

Other Legwear

There are a few options for other leg choices.

One fashion common to the eastern part of Scandinavia, and possibly representing influences from farther east, are the very voluminous high breeches hábrók.  These were linen if we believe Ibn Rusta and the Hudud al-'Alam's reports, and similar to the brœkr but much more voluminous.  "Hundreds of cubits of cloth."  We have some examples on picture stones, worn with a short shirt to emphasize the effect.

There are also picture stone examples of more straight-legged pants, perhaps because they're useful for sailors as they dry well.

We also have evidence for footed breeches, perhaps similar to the Thorsbjerg trousers from the third century.  There is a find in Hedeby which may represent footed breeches, but also may not.  In Njáls Saga, Flósi wears them for walking a distance, indicating that perhaps other trouser styles are less suited for walking.  We also have picture stones with hábrók wearers on horseback, which is intriguing.

Cloaks and Capes


The simplest cloak is the most common for high status vikings, and is just a large rectangle of cloth pinned with a penannular brooch or ring pin.  These were probably 6-9 feet long and perhaps 3-5 feet wide.  Smaller cloaks show up in some sources as well.  Early bog cloak finds are of leather.  There is some evidence for cloaks made of fine fabric for the very wealthy, which could conjecturally be silk but may also just be lighter wool.

Other cloaks cut more like the Roman paenula - essentially a poncho - show up in other sources, like the Oseberg tapestry.  Semicircular or triangular cloaks with a neck slit and optionally a hood may have been the hekla.

A cope-like garment attested mostly in the sagas, but also in poetry, is the Slæðr.  This is probably a semicircular garment attached at the shoulders and trailing to the ground, made out of fine silk.  The Roger of Sicily cope is possibly something in this style.


Another eastern fashion that shows up in Birka graves - but only as button rows and other traces - is the caftan, which is a jacket that buttons down the center to the waist, and was worn with a belt.  They also occasionally show up in art, like on a runestone from Hunnestad, Sweden.  This fashion was also known in Egypt, Iran and the Caucasus, but we don't know a lot about exactly how Viking caftans were cut.  Were they imported?  Were they an explicitly eastern fashion?

Crossover Coat

This garment, possibly called a kyrtill, is attested mostly in the position of penannular brooches and ring pins on the right hip in Birka graves, on and Gullgubber.  Birka finds, and some saga evidence as well as  a depiction of Louis the Pious (if it is indeed the same garment) seem to indicate that these didn't go much past the waist, but the Gullgubber seem to be longer.  They're pretty stylized, though.  These were also made of fur or leather.


Some picture stones show what seem to be full-length shirts.  We don't know much else about these, and they might be an imported fashion.  Perhaps they're related to the Byzantine dalmitic?



We mostly know of these from the sagas.  We don't have a lot of examples of hoods, and the ones we do have are all weird, like the Skjoldehamn hood.  


Hat depictions are mostly conical and floppy, with the point hanging to the neck, although some god statues show pointy cone hats.  Yes, you too can be a gnome!  Presumably these were made of stiff material.  Floppier hats could be made of cloth, fur or leather.

We also have some examples of skullcaps, like on the Oseberg burial's cart.

We find a LOT of metal ornament on hats in Birka, as well as headbands.  

Some Conclusions

This suggests a basic outfit for Viking reenactment, and one that I'm going to try to strive for:
  1. A linen shirt, possibly decorated.
  2. Optionally, a wool overshirt, definitely decorated.
  3. Breeches to the knee, which may be of the puffy kind or not.
  4. Linen or silk hose
  5. Optionally socks
  6. Shoes (I've omitted shoes for brevity, and because most people don't make their own)
  7. Optionally woolen legwraps, or garters.  If neither, the hose need to hook or lace into the breeches.
  8. A rectangular woolen cloak with pin or brooch
  9. A hood for bad weather, or a conical hat


Popular Posts