Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pskov Re-Creation Project--Which Side Is Up?

The question of the placement of loops or straps on the piece believed to be the surviving portion of an apron dress from the Pskov grave is intertwined with the question of which side was the top side, and where on the body the piece would have appeared when the dress was worn.

The Pskov reconstructors have assumed, reasonably I think, that the wide blue silk piece with the red silk woven with a hunting design appliquéd on it would have been at the front and top of the dress, and that the narrower blue silk strips would have gone around the rest of the top of the dress. As can be seen from this sketch, the reconstructors concluded that the angle where the narrow blue silk strips join the front piece bearing the red patterned silk would be located approximately at the armpits when the dress was worn, and that the front panel rose higher on the body than the rest of the apron dress.

This theory strikes me as improbable. Cutting the dress this way would require the loops connecting the back to the front of the dress to be even longer than usual (as the sketch clearly indicates) and would make the dress even likelier to fall off the shoulders than the 85 cm placement of the front loops would do.

In addition, the top edge of an apron dress naturally comes to armpit level. Cutting the dress lower at the armpits is unnecessary for comfort; if the dress were too tight at the armpit lengthening the straps a bit, or perhaps moving one of the loops a few millimeters, would be enough to alleviate the problem.

Suppose instead that the reconstructors are placing the piece upside down. If you invert it as I have shown below, there is no dip at the armpits and the top of the dress is at the same level all around. It becomes possible to place multiple pairs of loops, and pull the dress more tightly around the body, so that the red silk stripe across the wide blue silk panel in the front is plainly visible.

The first sketch displayed with this post attempts to show what I mean. The dotted line at the top of the drawing is where I suggest the top of the fabric originally ended, with the portion outlined in red showing (roughly) the surviving textile. Compare it, if you will, to Peter Beatson's sketch of the top portion of the apron dress here.
Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the find to be able to say whether there are physical details on the "apron dress" piece that rule out this hypothesis. For example, I don't know how many actual loops were found, and whether any of them were found attached to the apron dress. I also don't know whether the stitch hole locations were or what they look like, and thus I can't begin to guess whether they could have been anything other than locations where the loops were fastened to the apron dress.

My view of how the outfit likely appeared in wear is shown in the second sketch, which appears to the right. Yes, it's clear from the sketch that I'm no graphic artist, but what I'm trying to show here is the gathered neck shift of the Pskov reconstructors' theory under a wrap around apron dress much like my orange one. I have shown the apron dress to be somewhat shorter in length than the shift so that the red silk strip sewn to the bottom of the shift shows beneath the apron dress.

I still want to photograph my orange dress, spread absolutely flat, measure to see how far all of the loops are from each other, and compare that photograph to the sketch of the Pskov piece, but these sketches should show where I'm going with this line of thought. Any comments on my theory would be greatly appreciated.


  1. Hi Cathy. I used to be active over on the MedCos forums but you probably don't remember me. I wasn't much into Viking, but some friends are interested in pulling together a household in the SCA and they're interested in Viking, so here I go. I'm very interested in working with your conjecture about the Pskov dress. The droopy peplos-like recreation that's been proposed just does not make sense to me. I have this crazy theory that even women in ancient times want to be dressed in flattering clothes. :) Anyway, how did you envision the "skirt" portion being attached to the top? In order to move around in it, it seems like it should flare out at the bottom. Are you thinking that it is one giant rectangle pieced together, or a sort of "bodice" piece with a trapezoidal skirt?

    Thanks for your thoughts. Renee
    crystaltwinkie at the popular mail site that starts with y.

  2. The droopy peplos-like recreation that's been proposed just does not make sense to me. I have this crazy theory that even women in ancient times want to be dressed in flattering clothes. :)

    Me too! Though I'm willing to grant that women in ancient times may have had some different idea about what styles were flattering.

    Anyway, how did you envision the "skirt" portion being attached to the top?

    I don't know of any evidence of a separate "skirt" portion for any female Viking age garment. My conjecture is that the Pskov apron dress is a wraparound design like my orange dress that I give a link to in my post. That kind of construction would just be a big rectangle; it would fit closely around the bust because of the placement of multiple sets of loops, and it would have room to walk it at the bottom because it would just be wrapped around the body and not sewn at all down the sides. (Though I suppose such a design could be modified with tucks to achieve a closer fit through the torso, and could be belted to give more definition at the waist.)

    You may also want to check out my proposed ideas for a "Fitted Wrap Around Apron Dress" in a more recent post.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. One of the things that bothers me about the wrap around idea is that the edge of the decorated area, including the the dips on the sides, appear to have been finished by binding. Therefore, I think it is fairly likely that the shape of the decorated portion is original. Unfortunately I'm limited to the pictures I can see online. Perhaps when I have more time I can make a piece that shape and size and play with it.

    I've been looking at the drawing of the recreation that is out there (not yours -- the droopy one) and I note that there are none of how the back might hang. It's all well and good that it hangs rather neatly in the front, but I wonder how well it hangs on the sides and backs, especially as they are so much lower than the front. I'm not sure it's a particularly stable arrangement. Pinning in the front with a neat pleat also does not deal with the back and the sides. It may be that the proportions are such that it works, but in addition to it not being flattering, it does not seem very practical or comfortable.

    So, I don't know how it might work. I'm wondering if we're all looking at it with eyes that are influenced by what we've seen before, so we're missing something. For one, I'm wondering if it works better as a more conventional peplos, with loops but without straps, so any excess fabric in the back is made up by pulling it up to the shoulders (and the decorated front with hang higher and perhaps be more visible). I wonder if there is some later clothing item from the same area that looks like it may have developed from something that would have had the surviving pieces as components.

  4. I share all of your reservations about the "droopy" reconstruction. In fact, it is because I don't believe that a woman could wear the "droopy" reconstruction without ultimately walking out of it or having to hold it up at all times that I'm trying to consider other interpretations.

    It might be possible that the garment that the silk-banded fragment was part of was worn like a conventional peplos. However, we know there was at least one loop involved, because the loop survived. Also, if the fragment had been worn as a peplos, I think it would have larger holes in it than it appears to have even from the limited photos that have been made public.

    As for the binding, the Pskov reconstructors have assumed that the binding was meant to protect the edge of the (finished) apron dress. But what if the binding was meant just to protect or accent the edges of the applied silk pieces instead? Then there would be no reason for the binding edge to be the top edge. It's also possible that the silk pieces was, in fact, edged on the other side as well, but that not enough of that edge has survived to confirm or deny that theory.

    I have just about decided not to proceed with any reconstruction until I get to read the reconstructors' full write up in NESAT X. Hopefully, that will contain additional information that will allow for better hypotheses. Count on it, I *will* be reporting on the NESAT X write up in this blog!

  5. There's one other comment of yours I didn't understand. You said:

    I wonder if there is some later clothing item from the same area that looks like it may have developed from something that would have had the surviving pieces as components.

    I don't understand what "later" clothing items would have to do with the possible construction of the clothing found with the tortoise brooches in the 10th century Pskov grave we're discussing. I also have a hard time imagining how the more fitted garments generally worn by the Rus relate to the long, unseamed fragment with the rare silk on it that we are discussing.

  6. What I meant by it is that sometimes you can see the development of other garments from earlier, so I thought that maybe there was something that could conceivably relate back. I'll confess to not knowing much about Rus clothing (my area before I developed a lanolin allergy and went into Persian was Welsh), but your drawing reminded me a lot of what I've seen of Russian sarafans. It's what made me think that maybe there was a separate portion that formed more of a "skirt." I know that's not typical of Viking, but there are some different methods of construction that show up from time to time in different eras and cultures, like the Eura and.. was it Jorvik? I'm thinking of the tunic with the seam that ran under the breasts, and the pleating. It's just that so much is speculation and the scraps so small, that I feel the solution could be something unexpected.

    But I'll be interested in the NESAT X write up reveals. In the meantime, I'm probably just going to throw together my old tried and true wraparound and experiment some more later.

  7. Yes, lots of people think of the sarafan in connection with the Viking "apron dress". However, there is no analog in Rus costume with the apron dress in, or anytime near, the 10th century, and the sarafan as we know it doesn't show up until pretty late (17th or 18th century CE, I think). Lisa Kies gives a great summary, with illustrations of Rus costume on her website:

    As for the Eura dress you're talking about, that design is, so far as I have been able to ascertain, conjectural, based on a shift design from an unknown period. I participated in a long, thoughtful discussion on a friend's LJ about this subject; the discussion is not friends-locked, so you can read it here:

  8. Hi, I just wanted to post here that the Russian reenactors haven't been sitting around, and using the assumption that the Pskov lady was fat and the dress was meant to be that big, here is one of the version how it would have looked on a smaller lady.

    Front, sitting:
    Back, standing:

    She is not doing and exact reconstruction color-wise, just pattern wide, I suppose.

  9. Hi, Anya! Thanks for posting. I love to learn what reenactors are thinking, and what reconstructions they are making, based on new finds.

    So this reenactor is theorizing that the decorated part of the dress would be wrapped much lower down on the body. It's an interesting theory. I've gotten derailed in my efforts to try making such a dress myself, but will get back to it once my employment situation clarifies.

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