Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Thoughts On Annika Larsson's Apron Dress Interpretation

Right now I don't have much to post about on my own costume projects, so I've decided to post about someone else's apron dress idea--Professor Annika Larsson's. Although Professor Larsson's reconstruction is no longer actively in the news, posting about it here will give me an opportunity to note all the things I like about her reconstruction--as well as the things that bother me about it--in as coherent a manner as I can manage.

Those of you who follow archaeological theories, particularly those relating to Viking material culture, may remember the rash of news articles that came out last year about Professor Larsson's theories. One of the more detailed news articles may be found here. A larger photograph of the reconstructed woman's costume based on Larsson's theories is here, and a second article, which includes an additional photograph showing the same outfit with an optional shawl, is here. These two articles have fairly tame titles; some of the other news items included titles like "Viking Women Had Sexy Style."

For example, a Science Daily article quotes Larsson as saying:

"The grave plans from excavations at Birka outside Stockholm in the 19th century show that this is incorrect. The clasps were probably worn in the middle of each breast. Traditionally this has been explained by the clasps having fallen down as the corpse rotted. That sounds like a prudish interpretation," says Annika Larsson.

I am not familiar with the Birka grave plans. However, I have seen photographs of a number of other female Viking burials that clearly show the brooches, in situ, with the brooches at or near the collarbones--nowhere near the "middle of the breast", such as the one at Cnip, on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides (scroll down the page for the picture), and the Adwick-le-Street find, near Doncaster. (It should be remembered that the Pskov "apron dress" was not found on a skeleton, so we do not know where those brooches would have rested when the garment was being worn.)

It is not prudish to take into account the fact that positions of buried items might change as the corpse rots or other changes affect the soil over time. Nor is it prudish to consider that the pin on a tortoise brooch runs vertically along the long dimension of the brooch. If one wore such a brooch directly over the middle of the breast, as Larsson suggests, the pin would rub against the nipple. Larsson's model avoids this because her breasts are large enough, and hang low enough, that the brooches actually tilt a bit away from the body (see the photos in the articles above); that would certainly not be true of all, or even most, women.

Professor Larsson's reconstruction particularly interests me because it is based fairly directly upon the Pskov find (as will be obvious to the reader who has read some of the early summaries and examined the photographs of the textiles found in Pskov). Most of my disagreements with her work lie in the fact that her reproduction falsely represents the nature of the Pskov grave finds though it is apparently based upon them. For example:

* Larsson's reconstructed outfit appears to show a long-sleeved red silk garment being worn under the shift, instead of red silk sewn on the ends of the shift cuffs, even though the red silk cuffs in the Pskov find were clearly sewn to linen.

* Larsson's reconstruction uses trim that was meant to represent metallic brocade tablet weaving> However, so far as I have been able to determine, no tablet weaving was found among the Pskov fragments. Instead, those fragments incorporate strips of silk fabric as trim, one of which was woven in a hunting pattern and may have been an antique already at the time when the apron dress was made. (See the abstract of the Pskov researchers' article for NESAT X, coming out later this year--the Pskov abstract is on pages 26-27 of the link above.)

* Larsson's reconstructed apron dress is trimmed vertically (i.e., on the side that was oriented down the torso) instead of across the torso. Judging by the shape of the Pskov piece and the fact that a short piece of expensive silk was used on top of a longer piece of silk, the trim was likely worn across the torso instead. (Now that I think about it, every instance of tablet weaving or other trim on a Viking era garment that I'm aware of from archaeological finds involves shorter pieces, oriented horizontally on the torso, not lengthwise down the body. The Mammen cloak has vertical decoration along its edge, but that decoration is embroidery, not applied cloth or tablet weaving. See also Carolyn Priest-Dorman's article about the positioning of trim in various European cultures, including the Viking cultures, before and during the Viking age.)

To be fair to Professor Larsson, there are several aspects of her reconstruction that do not disturb me, though they have drawn fire from other costumers and members of the reeenactment community. For example.

* Some have complained about Professor Larsson's use of obviously modern metallic trim in her reconstruction. It is not always possible for a researcher to afford the types of valuable (and rare) materials used in the Viking period for reconstructions, and since Larsson was not trying to draw inferences about tablet-woven trim in making her reconstruction, I think the use of modern trim is excusable. (As I said above, it is much less excusable for her to have used such trim on a reconstruction based on the Pskov find, where no tablet-woven trim was found at all.)

* Some have argued that having only a thin layer of linen over the breasts would be too uncomfortably cold in the Scandinavian climate. That would not necessarily be the case if such an outfit were exclusively worn indoors, for display at fire-lit evening feasts, where the combination of the fire and the presence of many people would probably have contributed enough warmth to make it comfortable for a woman to wear clothing that was thinner and more revealing than usual.

Moreover, I think it is useful for Larsson to make the point that, based on what we do know from the graves, Viking women must sometimes have dressed for display, as their men did. There are finds that show that Vikings, including women, sewed metal trim and mirrors and other shiny bits to their clothes. It is worthwhile to consider how such garments would have sparkled in the firelight at feasts, and to think about that point in the context of our general knowledge of Viking culture when we think about what Vikings may have worn, and at what times. Cultural reconstruction work of any kind, including costume reconstructions, needs to consider all the available evidence to try to build a unified picture of what garments people in earlier cultures wore, and on what types of occasions those garments were worn.


  1. Now that I think about it, every instance of tablet weaving or other trim on a Viking era garment that I'm aware of from archaeological finds involves shorter pieces, oriented horizontally on the torso, not lengthwise down the body.

    There is that little fragment from Birka with horizontal and a vertical strip of silk, only drawing I can find online is figure 7 here though. I know it's mentioned with more details in Ewing's Viking Clothing book somewhere.

  2. That's a good point. Though the vertical piece isn't a standalone piece, and doesn't go down the full length of a garment.

  3. By the way, they do have such a thing as summer in Scandinavia, during which it would be warm enough to wear light weight garments.