Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Biggest "Damn Little" Ever

Okay, enough linky posts.  Time to finish writing something serious and post it.

Long-time readers of this blog know that, for many years, I have been fascinated by the subject of women's costume in Scandinavia during the Viking age, particularly the overdress/jumper/pinafore-like garment often referred to by English-speaking scholars of costume as the "apron dress."* Recently I've begun to take stock of how the available information about archaeological finds relating to apron dresses and the theories that information has spawned have changed over the past two decades.

I originally started making and wearing Viking "apron dresses" in the early 1990s.  One of my primary motives for doing so at the time was to get a better sense for what sorts of designs might plausibly have been used, and what sorts of designs were impractical or for other reasons unlikely.  At that time, I had heard of few of the archaeological reports on Viking age finds, and I did not have copies of the few reports I knew to be important.  Mostly, I had second or third-hand reports by other historical costume enthusiasts summarizing what the archaeological reports said.  What I was doing wasn't really "experimental archaeology" for reasons Katrin Kania discusses in this post (e.g., I didn't have a "key question" that I was testing, let alone one that could be answered by means of a repeatable experiment), but making all those apron dresses taught me a fair amount about sewing and provided me with a framework that would help me increase my understanding of the nature of the problem as I obtained increasing amounts of information about the archaeology relating to apron dresses.

However, since I became first interested in apron dresses, three things have happened that have greatly affected amateur research into apron dress design.

First, it has become much easier to obtain copies of archaeological reports, even quite rare ones, from the Internet.  Buying books published in other countries, learning about different theories and reports through web searches, and discussing ideas with other interested scholars everywhere has increased the available pool of information--and disinformation--about the "Viking apron dress" way beyond what was available to me, as someone who did amateur research in spare moments as a hobby, twenty years ago.

Second, the Internet has made it possible for other amateur reconstructionists like me to post pictures of the dresses they have created based on their understanding of the archaeological research. I did not realize what a great number of dress variations there are until I started Pinterest boards to collect pictures of other costumers' apron dresses and images showing other costumers' apron dress patterns.*  I began to do this not just to collect pretty pictures (though I greatly enjoy looking at pretty pictures of other people's costumes, authentic or not) but to see whether I could spot any trends in the reconstructions.

The only trend I spotted is that most of the currently viewable reconstructions on the Internet are clearly based upon published archaeological finds.  The two most common are fitted tube-style apron dresses, based upon the Hedeby harbor find, and a tube with pleats in the front, based upon the Køstrup find.  A smaller subcategory found nowadays includes open-fronted tube dresses with a hanging panel suspended over the opening, based upon an analysis of period art and, to some extent, the Birka archaeological evidence, by Flemming Bau. A few hardy souls have attempted to make reconstructions of a garment found wrapped around a pair of tortoise brooches in a grave located at Pskov in Russia.  I find this trend encouraging, since it seems to have made more eccentric attempts at amateur reconstruction of apron dress less common, and has increased the general level of knowledge about women's clothing in the Viking age in the SCA and reenactor communities.

In addition, a growing number of costumers have blogged, in detail and with photographs and other illustrations, detailed descriptions of how they made their own apron dresses and why they made the choices they made in designing them.  Some of the more thoughtful Internet articles/posts of this sort have been composed by Jenn Culler, Catrjin vanden Westhende, Margaret Sanborn, and Hilde Thunem.

Third, the mere fact that other reconstructions can be, and are, easily published on the Internet means that people feel freer not just to post their own creations, but to base new apron dresses upon other people's creations--whether or not those creations have any significant archaeological or other scholarly support.  Though more apron dresses are now based, however loosely, upon archaeological finds, there are still an awful lot of design variations, possibly more than pearl's list from several years ago** indicates, and the list continues to grow.

Does all of this mean that we now know all that there is to know about Viking apron dresses, if not women's clothing in the Viking age in general?  Far from it.  For a start, we have yet to discover a complete or nearly complete apron dress in a grave, as we have done with a Middle Byzantine shirt and a Roman era costume from Denmark.   As is clear from the articles I have cited in this post, all of the published archaeological textile finds that are believed to have come from Viking age apron dresses are fragmentary. Deducing what those finds can tell us about the clothing from which they came is how archaeologists have come up with the theoretical designs (fitted tube; pleated tube; open tube with front cloth) that have been promulgated in the scholarly literature thus far.   But we still lack confirmation that any or all of these theorized designs were actually worn by Scandinavian women during the Viking age.  (For example, the Hedeby fragment may have come from an undergown, or a sleeved overgarment, and not an apron dress; it was found with other fabric  remains that had apparently been used as ship caulking rags, not in association with tortoise brooches or even human female remains.)

Even assuming that at least the fitted tube and the pleated tube styles correctly represent actual garments that were worn, we still lack considerable information about where these styles were worn, and who wore them.  For example, the Køstrup find is not unique.  As Hilde Thunem notes in her article, at least one find of a finely pleated wool fabric that may have been part of an apron dress was made in Vangsnes in Norway.  The existence of that find raises all kinds of questions.  Were pleated apron dresses native to Norway, or was the woman in the Vangsnes grave someone who had moved north from Denmark?  Were pleated apron dresses rare, common, or in-between? Did apron dress styles change over time, and if so, was the pleated dress a late style (the Køstrup find is 10th century) or an early style that somehow survived?

And there are many other questions that cannot be answered on the basis of the known research. Here are some of the other unanswered questions that particularly strike me when I look at current apron dress recreations.
  • Was the apron dress worn by all classes of women or only certain ones?  The characteristic brooches and loops have been found in graves with different quantities of grave goods though, arguably, not in the wealthiest graves.  However, the most famous wealthy grave without apron dress loops or brooches, the Oseberg find, appears to have been robbed in antiquity and may lack such evidence for that reason.
  • Was the apron dress worn by children?  A lot of reenactors have assumed that they were, and I have seen pictures of some very clever brooch-free adaptations of apron dresses worn by toddlers, and even babies. Unfortunately, skeletal remains in Scandinavia are usually too fragmentary to make a study, like the one Penelope Walton-Rogers made of early Anglo-Saxon graves to determine the typical age of 6th century Anglo-Saxon women wearing the peplos as an overdress, viable.***
  • What colors were used for apron dresses?  To date, the only apron-dress finds of which I am aware as to which the color has been discerned by chemical testing or otherwise have been either dark blue or dark brown, even though apron dresses were made (often, if not exclusively) from wool, which can easily be dyed in a wide range of colors with Viking age technology.  
Hilde Thunem has remarked that "The answer to what we know about Viking clothing can be summed up in two words; 'damn little.' " Despite the results of patient professional analysis of the finds at Hedeby, Køstrup, and elsewhere, that remains as true today as it was in the 1990s.  There are simply too few actual textile finds upon which to base solid generalizations at this point in time, and that's a lack no amount of re-creation experiments inspired by the few finds we have can remedy.

So what can be done?  If we are going to learn more about what Viking women wore and what their clothes looked like, we need to do more than make pretty dresses based on the little information we have; we need to get more information, somehow.

One possibility is to compile data about actual archaeological finds and see whether any patterns emerge.  With the creation of and the possibility of ordering archaeological reports from major booksellers or directly from the publishers via the Internet, this type of analysis is open to every interested person.  Although I would personally regret seeing historical costume enthusiasts, SCA members, and reenactors stop making more different beautiful apron dresses, I think that everyone's time might be better served by better organizing some of the data we do have, so it can be analyzed for patterns that might give us more costume information.  For example, pearl prepared a table listing the various fabric loops found in the Birka graves, with information as to the fabric from which the loops were made (i.e., linen or wool) and, where possible, the fabric from which the garment beneath the brooches was made.  Her table can be found on, and downloaded from, this page.

All of us (including me!) should think about gathering similar information from the reports we have, and making it available on the Internet, for everyone to use in advancing our knowledge of Viking era costume.

*    Thor Ewing has suggested that the Vikings themselves might have used the term "smokkr" for the sleeveless overdress with loops that I am calling "apron dress"; this is a clothing term that comes from a Viking poem called the Rígsþula.  Ewing, Thor.  Viking Clothing 37-38 (Tempus Publishing Ltd. 2006).  The term is related to a verb meaning "to creep through", which is an apt description of an apron dress if the garment was tube-shaped, but not if it was a wrapped sheet (as Agnes Geijer suggested was the case with regard to apparent fragments found in some of the Birka graves).  Because we cannot yet rule out the possibility that some of the Birka fabric fragments may have come from an apron dress that was a wrapped sheet or pair of sheets (which one would not need to crawl or climb through), I am reluctant to adopt the term smokkr, at least at this point in time.

**    A few years ago, my friend pearl attempted to compile a comprehensive list of amateur apron dress reconstruction variants based upon the Hedeby fragment; her report may be found here.  (Log in for Dreamwidth required).

***   Professor Walton Rogers studied early Anglo-Saxon graves with paired shoulder brooches and concluded, based upon age estimates of skeletal remains in one region of Great Britain, concluded that the peplos was worn primarily by women "between menarche and menopause," i.e., by women of child-bearing age.  Rogers, Penelope Walton.  Cloth and Clothing in Anglo-Saxon England 178 (Council for British Archaeology 2007).  Unfortunately, Professor Walton Rogers could not expand this analysis to other regions because in other regions skeletal remains were too fragmentary for age-at-death estimates to be possible.


  1. The internet has made research a whole lot easier, that's for sure. I agree that the difficulty lies in consolidating all the information that's out there. Currently it's very hard to identify patterns in the data.

    1. Part of the reason it's hard to identify patterns in the data--any data, not just data about Viking age archaeological textile finds--is that it takes a surprising amount of effort to gather it into one place. As Mulder said (or should have said) to Scully, sometime during the X Files series: "The truth is out there--it's just badly indexed." :-)

  2. Tell me about it. I probably got citations for 20 more female burial sites just from reading the Cumwhitton book last night! I doubt that there's any substantial textile finds there, but you never know.

  3. If you could have a table/ spreadsheet with whatever you wanted in it ... what would that be?

    1. Whoa. That's quite a question.

      I'm not sure anyone could process all the possible useful information if it were placed in one gigantic spreadsheet. You'd have to do a full Excel workbook, with different pages optimized for different issues.

      The different sub-spreadsheets I'd like to see include: All tortoise brooch finds where there are enough skeletal remains to attempt to estimate the age at death (for attempting to deduce what ages of females wore the apron dress); All grave finds with paired tortoise brooches, sorted by the number/wealth of grave goods; All female grave finds with brooches, sorted by number of beads present in the grave; graves with bead spreaders (sorted by region so one could confirm the region/s in which large numbers of strands were worn between brooches). Rebecca Lucas did the world a real service by compiling a chart of Birka finds that identified the fiber content of surviving apron dress loops and, where known, what the fabric of the body of the apron dress appears to have been.