Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Where's the Aberration?

I've been doing more thinking about the information from Nørre Sandegård Vest, particularly the information suggesting that the Scandinavian apron dress of the Vendel and Viking period may have been a kind of uniform reflecting the woman's status and affiliation with a particular "tribe"  and not an individual fashion choice.

The picture that is emerging of relative uniformity of apron dress colors and and accompanying jewelry over time reminds me of is late (e.g., 18th through early 20th century) period European folk costume. Dresses and overdresses in this era, such as the bunad, tended to be limited to particular styles and colors among people living in a particular region, and tended to differentiate between married and unmarried marital status.  Perhaps the Vendel/Viking apron dress was a garment reflective of married women's status, that varied in style primarily depending upon the region in Scandinavia in which the woman was living. (Tortoise brooches, in contrast, seem to have evolved into standardized patterns that appeared wherever "Viking" women settled.)

The suggestion that Scandinavian women's costume changed little from the Vendel period through to the end of the Viking era raises another question. I've read scholars (names are not coming to mind right now) who suggest that fashion, as we know it--i.e., short-term social trends affecting the appearance of individualized outfits--did not appear in Europe until the 15th century and is not typically found in other parts of the world until after their first contact with Europeans. In other words, what we think of as "folk costume" is typical of clothing changes before the age of "fashion", and the invention of "fashion" is an abrupt aberration from the pattern of slow, status-oriented clothing style change that was the norm for most of recorded history.

All of this idle speculation will be knocked into a cocked hat, of course, if it turns out that the apron dress finds that have been analyzed so far are not  "typical." But right now it is easier to assemble a picture of apron-dress wearing Viking women as flaunting a "tribal" affiliation as their descendants would do with later-period folk dress than to match the existing finds to an image of Viking fashion as based primarily upon individual expression, in the manner of Renaissance European clothing.   I suspect that we eventually will have enough finds to be able to say, with as much confidence as is possible about the distant past, that Viking women likely wore similar dark blue or brown apron dresses with stylistic differences characteristic of the region in which they lived, or something similar. When that happens, I guess I will have to find another use, or another home, for all of the red, orange, green, and pastel apron dresses I have made.


  1. Very interesting! I love putting together your very in-depth specific knowledge of early fashions and my wider theoretical knowledge about textiles and fashion.

    I'd agree that fashion as we know it is partly a 15th century onward phenomena, and only happened with the upper classes at any time. However, there are plenty of examples of Roman fashion trends - though they tended to focus on hairstyles, and fabric, with slight changes in draping.

    And you only have to get rid of your plethora of apron dresses in different colours if you decide you are only going to represent one person from a particular area and think that the colour defined status/tribal affiliation. Certainly colour would be linked to place though: we know that the dye materials from a particular place dye specific colours, so unless there was massive trade in dyed materials and dye, people would wear the colours of their local dye by default (this phenomena is one of the reasons behind the myth about Scottish clan tartans for example).

  2. Re: Roman trends. I agree, but I'd emphasize the word "slight." When you look at Roman costume over the entire history of the Empire (or even starting with the Republic) it's amazing how little change there was for hundreds of years. You don't really see a major change (i.e. the shift from sleeveless drapey tunics to long-sleeved more fitted tunics) until the barbarians were pretty much in control.

    And I was being a bit facetious about getting rid of apron dresses that don't conform to changes in our understanding of the apron dress. Since I"m not using them for reenactment, and I'm not in the SCA, there's no reason I can't wear what I please....but it won't be the same for me assuming the trends indicated by NSV and other similar analyses are confirmed.

  3. You make all these apron dresses and you're *not* in the SCA? If I may ask, what occasions do you find to wear them? ;-]

  4. Don't laugh, but...I usually wear them at science fiction conventions.