Saturday, August 21, 2010

Revisiting the Historiska Museet's Reconstruction

Most costumers who are genuinely interested in Viking era costume are familiar with the reconstructed costumes displayed on the website of the Historiska Museet in Stockholm.

Of particular interest to me is the Historiska Museet's reconstruction of Viking women's costume, which is featured on this page. (There used to be an English version of this page, but it was moved and then I lost track of it, while the original Swedish page remains easy to find.)

In this connection, I recently re-read an old comment by Carolyn Priest-Dorman from the old Norsefolk list on Yahoo that critiques this reconstruction. The main thrust of Ms. Priest-Dorman's comments is that the Historiska Museet's reconstruction uses components based upon artifacts found at different places and times. For example, the reconstruction's fitted apron dress and underdress with curved arm-openings are based on finds from tenth-century Hedeby, but the trimming on the underdress is based upon Grave 735 from Birka (which is a male grave), the  pleated shift and caftan are based upon other Birka finds, and the triangular headscarf has no apparent provenance whatsoever.

Re-reading Ms. Priest-Dorman's comments now, after I've learned much more than I used to know about Viking clothing and the evidence for its form, is making me re-think one of my projects, which was going to be to do my own version of the Historiska Museet reconstruction.  Even when I first formed the idea, I realized that the headscarf featured in this reconstruction has no evidentiary basis, and planned to omit it from my effort.  But for some reason, I hadn't focused upon the fact that this reconstruction includes an apron dress design based upon the Hedeby fragment, an underdress based upon a different Hedeby fragment, but details and a shift based upon earlier, Birka finds.

For a while, I had the vague idea that I could manage to use the components of this project in other costumes, based upon comments in Eva Andersson's book, "Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby," and a sketch which shows a woman in a caftan.  But taking that approach, I've finally realized, undercuts my original object for undertaking the project--to make a Viking-era outfit that is defensibly from a particular place and period during the Viking era.

So now I'm thinking of ways to depart from the Historiska Museet's design that would result in a defensibly single-period outfit.  That may not be too difficult.  I can continue with my idea of attempting to make a pleated shift, and follow up with an overdress *without* curved armholes, that is trimmed in the same manner of fragments in one of the Birka finds.  (I already have a unpleated, keyhole-necked shift, that could also be worn with such an overdress, and a small silver penannular brooch to close the neckline with.)

The problem is the apron dress.  All of the Birka evidence is for the very top edge of the apron dress.  There is no real evidence as to whether the dress was wrapped, tube-shaped, or fitted, though most people who have considered the Birka apron dress finds seem to believe that they were not fitted.  However, I have an aesthetic problem with wearing an unfitted apron dress with a decorated underdress and pleated shift--it just seems like too much of a contrast with the most sophisticated garments that would be worn beneath it.

What to try?

It occurred to me that my idea for a semifitted wrapped apron dress might make an interesting experiment to add to a prospective Birka costume.  That would not necessarily be inconsistent with the Birka evidence, but could yield a wrapped garment just fitted enough to look very elegant.

So maybe that's what I should plan for my "Birka" outfit.  Now I have even more reason to proceed with my experimental semi-fitted wrapped apron dress--if the concept works in linen, I will be making one from my good, rose herringbone wool, for the Birka outfit.

EDIT: I was wrong. The Birka fragments do offer some evidence that the wool apron dresses, at least, were not of a wrapped style, in that we don't find one layer of apron dress wool over another. Hilde Thunem points this out in her essay on the evidence for apron dress construction, still in progress, which she has recently updated. Thunem comments:
In addition surviving fragments from woollen smokkrs lie in a single layer around the body, instead of the double layer one should expect from a pair of overlapping wraparound woollen smokkrs. Based on this, Inga Hägg proposes that the woollen smokkr consisted of a front piece and a back piece sewn together at the sides. She points out that this closed tube would be a natural continuation of the woollen peplos that seems to have been in use during the Iron Age (as evidenced by the Huldremose find).
So a wrapped woolen apron dress would not be consistent with the archaeological evidence from Birka. That suggests that my wool apron dress should be a simple tube, like my favorite blue wool apron dress. Maybe that's all for the best. It would be simple to make, and I can give it straps consistent in fiber and type with the relevant find.


  1. I do the wrapped style because I find it's easiest as both summer and winter wear, and maternity/nonmaternity clothing.

  2. I am childless and, at my age, will remain so, but I find the wrapped style easiest to put on and the most comfortable to wear. It will be interesting to see whether I can manage to make a more fitted version of it without compromising its other qualities.