Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Random Thought About Viking Apron Dresses

Simple wool tube apron dress
(photo by my husband)
A pair of flat apron dresses,
wrapped in opposite directions
(photo by my husband)
A lined, wrapped, flat apron dress
(photo by my husband)
This afternoon, I had a random thought about Viking apron dresses--the sleeveless overdress associated with heavy bronze tortoise brooches that is associated with women's graves in Scandinavia during the Viking age. The purpose of this post is to clarify that thought and explain it.

As Hilde Thunem and others have observed, the surviving archaeological evidence at Kostrup shows that the Kostrup apron dress likely was a tube with a small section of pleating, probably located at the center front. The Hedeby fragment, believed to have been from an apron dress though this cannot be determined with certainty because it was not found in a grave, likely was part of a fitted garment. If that garment was an apron dress, it too would have been generally tube-shaped.

In her excellent general research article on apron dresses, Ms. Thunem summarizes a large number of textile finds that also appear to be from apron dresses. She mentions a number of textile finds in Norway that include pleated wool sections, similar to the pleated section on the Kostrup find.

Based upon these finds, Ms. Thunem and others have concluded that the apron dress, despite differences in design, generally had a tube shape throughout Scandinavia.  For that reason, she is comfortable with using the term smokkr to describe it.  Smokkr, a word used to describe a woman's clothing in one of the Norse sagas, is etymologically related to the verb that means "to creep through"--an apt name for a tube-shaped garment.

But if you examine all of the Scandinavian evidence in context, the overall picture is slightly different. Here is a brief summary of that evidence as I understand it.
  • The textile finds that support the idea of a tube-shaped dress with pleats or a fitted dress of some kind come from Norway and Denmark, not Sweden.
  • The Birka finds (from Sweden) believed to be part of an apron dress are not pleated, and do not show a seam or other evidence indicating that they might be part of a tube-shaped garment.
  • The Pskov find (from Russia) that is believed to have been part of an apron dress (the folded textile fragments found wrapped around tortoise brooches) also does not appear to have had a seam.
  • There are no finds in Norway or Denmark that resemble the Birka "apron dress" finds, which Agnes Geijer theorized were wrapped around the body instead of being sewn into a tube.
The thought I had this afternoon is that perhaps apron dress construction differed by region.  So far, the physical evidence amply supports Hilde Thunem's conclusion that apron dresses in Norway and Denmark were constructed in a general tube shape, a shape which evolved (possibly by becoming more fitted?) over time.

In contrast, the physical evidence suggests that Swedish apron dresses, and likely also the Pskov garment, were flat sheets furnished with small loops, which were wrapped around the body to form an overdress.   But this evidence does not necessarily contradict Ms. Thunem's conclusion that apron dresses were tube-shaped all over Scandinavia. Although a wrapped apron dress looks very different from a sewn-tube-shaped dress when they are not being worn, both types can look very similar in wear.  The photographs of three of my apron dresses, shown at the upper right, illustrate the point.

I also agree with Ms. Thunem that Flemming Bau's theory of open-fronted apron dresses is not well-supported by the evidence.  She correctly notes that Inga Hagg and Thor Ewing explain why the physical evidence Bau cites does not require, let alone compel, the conclusion that any of the finds to which Bau refers was an open-fronted overdress.

So although the apron dress may have been made in different ways in different places at different times during the Viking age, its basic appearance--that of a tube suspended from tortoise brooches--tended to remain the same.    Ms. Thunem notes that there may have been minor differences in appearance.  I agree, and I think such differences likely resulted from differences in construction, as I've suggested above.  Moreover, since images of women on Viking pendants and other period art do not clearly show the apron dress, they provide no reason either to argue for a particular construction or to refute the theory that all apron dresses appeared to be tube-shaped in wear.

If any of my readers know of Swedish finds that support the idea of a tube-shaped construction, or of any evidence that might bear upon apron dress construction that is not discussed by Hilde Thunem or referred to above, please let me know in the comments.


  1. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that the Vikings' clothing might have differed from one region to another, as well as over time, given that the Viking period spanned about four centuries. It's such a shame the archaeological finds are so fragmentary.

  2. Well, the fragmentary nature of the finds makes the study of Viking clothing so much more challenging. :-)

    My suspicion is that there wasn't nearly as much variation in Viking clothing as there is, say, in Viking reenactor garb, because communication between distant regions was much more limited during the Viking period.

  3. I find it interesting that in Hägg's most recent work that she refutes Geijer's thoughts about the open lengths of fabric with straps being used. From the English summary, " According to Geijer the aprondress/tunic was made of two open lenghts of linen fabric with a pair of shoulder brazes fastened at the upper edges of the weave and kept in place in front with the two oval brooches. However, later analyses of textiles and samples from the excavation have shown that the front of this garment reached higher up on the body than was earlier supposed so that the lower part of the oval brooches covered its upper edge. Several fragments can now be identified as remains from the front of the dress, which shows that the woolen dress was more usual than that of linen. Further details from these fragments indicate that, as a rule, the front and sides of the dress were closed and not open from the top downwards." I have not yet had the time to attempt to translate the chapter on the garment in the book to see what else it says.

    I I think at one point, much earlier than the Viking age, that they did indeed use panels of cloth. However, my experiments with more accurate reproduction brooches vs. the smaller/lighter "inspired by" styles, leave me doubting garments that are not fitted at the top hem. They simply do not sit well, the entire dress shifts with movement, and the back rides up causing the front to collapse forward. It is kind of a nightmare situation. LOL

    1. Though I haven't had a chance to personally review the recent Hagg analysis, I agree with the conclusion that a pair of dresses wrapped in opposite directions, each only wide enough to go around the body once and thus entirely open on one side, is unlikely. As you say, it is hard to place the loops in such a way that the two dresses won't shift around and become unsightly. I have been skeptical of the "layered apron dress" theory for a long time, and am more inclined to think that a linen-lined dress, like my brown one above, is both more likely and more practical in wear.

      But a single wrapped dress can be a different story, as the brown dress above (nicely stable in wear) also suggests. As you correctly point out, to not be dragged down by the brooches' weight and have the brooches overlap the top edge of the apron dress in wear, the top edge needs to fit snugly. That can be done with a single wrapped dress that's wide enough to go around the body approximately one-and-a-half times and have three pairs of loops (two sets in the front, one in the rear that is brought over the shoulders to the brooches) if the loops are placed correctly (this is the basic design of the brown dress above). It also helps (no matter whether you use a wrapped dress or not) to make the back set of loops just long enough to go over the shoulders and reach the brooches once the top edge is in place. As a result, most of my apron dresses sit fairly high on my body (the two blue ones shown above are relevant exceptions). My earliest entries on this blog, dating to March 2009, show a lot of my other dresses and may make for useful comparisons.

      I'm aware that the Birka grave 597 textile find shows a bigger amount of overlap of the tortoise brooch over the apron dress's top edge than any of the dresses I have made, but without knowing more about how the women wearing those dresses were laid to rest, and how the ground settled beneath them afterward, it's hard to reach a firm conclusion about whether that much overlap is possible in wear. Both of Hilde Thunem's dresses (the fitted Hedeby one and the Kostrup one, both closed tube designs) show only a tiny amount of overlap in wear even though they are fitted at the top edge. It may be that the larger overlap shown in Birka grave 597 is due to pinning the dress differently for the funeral, or other factors (such as where the bottom hinge of the Birka brooches was located, relative to the brooches Hilde and I wore with our reconstructions).