Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts About Apron Dress Origins

Hilde Thunem has continued to draft her article on the extant research into Viking apron dress design. As of the date and time of this post, she has added material about the Kostrup and Pskov finds, and mentions a number of less-discussed finds that provide less specific evidence, such as Adwick-le-Street, Kaupang, and Værnes.

One of the issues Thunem's new material touches upon is the murky question of the apron dress's origin.  I suspect that most reenactors assume that the apron dress descended from the Greek peplos--but I have yet to see a discussion of the evidence, if any, for this hypothesis. There is plenty of artistic evidence for women in Germania wearing the peplos from late antiquity into the Migration Period, and ample evidence that it was worn in Great Britain during those periods.  But those areas also demonstrably had ample trade and other contacts with Rome, and those contacts could have transmitted the peplos idea (which seems to have inspired the stola worn by early Roman matrons) to northern Europe.  Other than the Huldremose garment, which dates to the heyday of the Roman Empire, I know of no evidence that the peplos was worn (or, more exactly, continued to be worn given the existence of the Huldremose peplos) in Scandinavia until displaced by what is now often called the Viking apron dress.  

Thunem does not explicitly discuss whether the peplos is the ancestor of the apron dress, but she does mention a Viking age Scandinavian find, in Vaernes, Norway, where a tortoise brooch appears to have been pinned, not through a loop as is typical, but directly into fabric as would have been done with a peplos overdress.  Similar peplos finds in period have turned up in Finland (such as at Eura) and in parts of Latvia.

There are two possible reasons why there might be Viking era sites, such as Vaernes, that show evidence of the wearing of a peplos overdress instead of an apron dress with loops.  One is that the peplos sites involve coarser fabrics than the apron dresses do, and that apron dresses with loops were devised to avoid having to stick heavy pins into fine woolens and linens. Thunem repeats this theory in her draft. Unfortunately, I don't know whether the Eura "peplos" is coarse compared, say, to the fine lozenge twills of Birka or the apron dress remains of other sites.

The second reason may be that the finds involving peplos-style overdresses during the Viking age are in locations that were simply too far in the hinterlands to have become exposed to the apron-dress-with loops style.  It seems to be true that these finds seem to be in the far corners of the Viking world.  Vaernes is  far north of the active Viking trade centers such as Birka and Hedeby, while   Finland and Latvia are both east and north of those trade centers.  On the other hand, the Pskov dress definitely had loops, and Pskov is even farther east than Finland and about as far north.

It is also unclear what the existence of peplos-style dresses in these regions says about the origins of the apron dress.  The Imperial Roman era stola had straps, and Alexandra Croom states that the Greek garment from which it derived also had straps.  Does this mean that the Vaernes, Latvian and Finnish peploses descended from garments brought to those regions before Roman Imperial times?  Or did this fashion arise there, independently of any Roman or Greek trading activity?

I shall have to see whether I can locate the Blindheim writeup on the Vaernes find that Dr. Owen-Crocker references (and that Hilde Thunem cites in her article); that may indicate whether the Vaernes find, at least, is of a coarser fabric than the Birka and Hedeby fragments.

It's also worth noting that the stola--an overdress with straps, like the apron dress--fell out of fashion quite early in the Empire.  Croom states that by the second century CE, the surviving statues and artwork showing it appear to be of historical or mythological characters.  [A. Croom, Roman Clothing and Fashion,  at 74 (Tempus Publishing 2000)].  It seems odd, though far from impossible, that such a garment, which became unfashionable early in Rome's imperial career, might have evolved into a flourishing new fashion more than half a millennium later.

I also need to get my hands on the article by Inga Hägg where she discusses the possible origins of the apron dress.  


  1. There is an article on this topic:
    Hägg, Inga. "Some Notes on the Origin of the Peplos-Type Dress in Scandinavia." Tor, I (1968), pp. 81-127.

    But it might be worth keeping in mind, that the original idea for the apron dress didn't come from looking at costume history, but from ethnology.
    Chapter 12 of Geijer's _Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern_ discusses it in some detail (but in German), but in the English summary "The Textile Finds from Birka" in _Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe_ p. 98 says "Outside the shirt, the women used to wear a kind of skirt, the appearance of which could be reconstructed from analogous garments from the Baltic area."

    _Ancient Finnish Costumes_, although not Norse, discusses on p.55 two examples - the Karelian hurstut, and the dress worn by 17th century Lithuanian peasants.

    I'll have to read the Hägg article again, but I wonder how much of our ideas about the apron dress are based on ethnography.

  2. Ah, ethnology again.

    I have a copy of Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern; I should try deciphering Chapter 12 for myself.

    If you have a copy of the Hägg article, would it be possible for you to send me a PDF of it? That was the "Hägg article" I was referring to in the text.

  3. I've e-mailed you. :)

  4. No, no I haven't. The message was too big. :(

  5. Thanks, pearl, for helping me out!

  6. Pearl, is "Ancient Finnish Costumes" the book by Pirkko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander? If so, it's not in the Library of Congress or any other library within 200 miles of me. :-( Just wondering...

  7. Yes, that's the one. There is a scan here: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/FTP_Files/Ancient_Finnish_Costumes.PDF