Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sex and the Apron Dress

In a recent post, I noted that there is a wide range of sex-specific folk garments in Northern and Eastern Europe, and many different approaches to what entitles a woman to wear them. Some are assumed upon puberty, others upon betrothal or marriage. Some have to be abandoned if a woman does not conceive and bear children; others are worn into old age.

The one garment worn in the Viking Age that is woman-specific is the apron dress. There is no clear idea to what extent the wearing of an apron dress was limited to females at certain stages in their sexual and reproductive lives. Many Viking reenactors dress their young daughters, even girls still in the toddler stage, in little apron dresses. Is this anywhere close to the actual historic practice? Were apron dresses worn by all females, or were they only donned at puberty? Upon marriage, perhaps? Did old women and widows cease to wear them?

Is there any way we can come up with an answer to any of those questions that is more than just speculation?

Maybe there is. In Cloth and Clothing in Anglo-Saxon England, Penelope Walton Rogers studied 6th century grave finds in southern England to make an attempt to answer this question with regard to a garment that allegedly shares ancestry with the apron dress, namely, the peplos, which is also a sleeveless overgarment (at least in Northern Europe) held up by paired brooches that is worn by females. Walton Rogers examined graves in which the skeleton had been sexed and ascertain for each sexed grave whether the paired brooches characteristic of the peplos were found. The paired brooches were primarily found in graves of females ranging from early teens to the 40s, suggesting that the peplos was taken up at puberty or thereabouts (perhaps specifically at menarche) and abandoned as the woman aged beyond her child-bearing years (i.e., menopause).

I know of no such study that has been done of Viking women's remains. It would be possible to duplicate Walton Rogers's methodology if a sizable body of excavated graves exists where the jewelry finds have been recorded and the skeletal remains have been sexed on some other basis than the jewelry itself. I should look at the Barshalder study and see what I can track down about the skeletal remains at Birka. It is possible that sex typing was done on some of the graves there; if so, it may be possible to apply Walton Rogers's approach to it and see what there is to be learned.


  1. I know of no such study that has been done of Viking women's remains.

    The closest I can think of, is that Ewing in Viking Clothing looks at the distribution of tortoise brooches (maybe it was based on the Birka data?). Does that ring any bells? (Of course, it is Ewing, with no footnotes, so who knows precisely where his data came from.)

  2. Found another thing that may be useful--
    page 442 onwards of Michele Hayeur Smith's thesis is an appendix, with items of jewellery and (if available) the age and sex of the skeleton.

    It seems to be all based on the 2000 edition of _Kuml og Haugfe_, though, so it probably isn't as detailed as you may like.

  3. (Of course, it is Ewing, with no footnotes, so who knows precisely where his data came from.)

    Too true, though I'll check at some point. If he'd said something specific about such data, I think I would have remembered it.

    The Hayeur Smith thesis is a great place to look, thank you. (I haven't really had a chance to read much of it, yet, with work and travel activities.) If she includes data about 1) which graves have been typed as female; 2) approximate age of occupant; and 3) whether there were any tortoise brooches in it, that will be a great start!

  4. Not sure if you're familiar with this already, but check out the garments elderly Slovakian women wear in and around the villages of eastern Slovakia. It's pretty much the only place I've discovered around Europe where they still use traditional 'costumes' as daily wear. It's a wonderful sight to behold but sadly on its last legs.

  5. James: Thanks for the tip. I think there is at least one article about Slovakian aprons appears in the book Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia, which I discuss in a different blog post, but I'd have to check.

  6. Have you noticed how far up the shoulder the brooches are in Walton Rogers' illustrations? pages 182/3 for example.
    Yes, they are an older 'peplos' (tube dress) style rather than the later 'sarafan' (strapped dress) style, but I find hefty brooches suspended half way down the chest from long linen straps completely impractical.
    Very much enjoying catching up with the blog this holiday!