The research-rambling post

This is not a post about my work for the HSF, but rather a post explaining why I will answer the question of historical accuracy on the project with ”no idea”. If you’d rather read about the actual project, you must wait for that post. I hope I will post it tomorrow or on Wednesday.

As I’ve already said, my project for this challenge (Flora & Fauna) is a Viking apron dress. The apron dress is probably the most obvious Viking dress in reconstructions of Viking Age clothing. The pattern I’ve used as a base is this one from Historiska Världar, a forum for re-enactment started by the Swedish Historical Museum. The pattern probably uses the large textile find in Haithabu/Hedeby as its archaeological source.

The most common evidence of the apron dress is really the fabric traces left in the oval brooches found in pairs, mostly in burials. The textile material from Birka is mostly of this kind (although there have been some tarred textile lumps found in the harbour excavation, and also one oval brooch has been found on the bottom of the harbour). Then you have some few Viking pictures from Gotlandic picture stones and other figurines in metal, on which it’s seldom possible to see an apron dress with the oval brooches. It seems to have been a ”middle garment”, with an over garment on top, a theory which is also confirmed by some grave finds (but a theory nonetheless). The tapestry found in the Oseberg ship burial also show some woven women, one of which with a skirt and top, and a wide belt (no apron dress at all). Most of these images, though different between them, show a train on the dresses. But it’s really difficult to interpret with certainty the dress from small, iconographic figures in stone, metal or textile. And then, even rarer, are the larger textile finds of Haithabu/Hedeby harbour (which was secondary used as ship caulking), Pskov and Køstrup, and some smaller finds. So you have textile finds from all over Scandinavia, and Russia, and Northern Germany, although there’s no full outfit anywhere, only fragments (no bog or ice bodies from the Viking Age so far…). The textile finds that exist don’t tell a similar story. It’s believed that dresses in Sweden and Denmark differed, and the interpretations of the Pskov find and the Haithabu find (though there are several different reconstruction-theories of both) show two different dress types, since the Haithabu seems to be tight-fitting and the Pskov has approx one meter width for the front (or in one interpretation the back) piece.

Not even the weave and materials are the same in the finds. There are woollen diamond twills, tabby weaves, twill weaves, and linen examples. The loops for the brooches, though often linen, are also sometimes of woollen fabric.

When there is so little evidence of the full garments, it’s hardly surprizing that there are plenty of slightly different reconstruction alternatives. And that there should be slight regional differences in dress fashion is not something requiring a large stretch of imagination, especially when considering the differences in materials even from the same site.

There is also very, very little evidence about the lower parts of the dress (the part where I had planned to place the animal ornamentation). On more than one figurine, though, there are ornamentations of some sort on the lower parts of the skirts (but what kind of garment that represents is uncertain, as so much else when it comes to this elusive dresstype). It could well be tablet woven bands rather than embroidery. But there’s also a beauty in the fact that no-one knows. As long as it’s possible, it’s possible. Much is interpretation, and much of it may be wrong.

For an online article about the finds, and a presentation of several different reconstructions, I really recommend this article by Hilde Thunem about the apron dress (or smokkr, which might have been the contemporary name). It’s long, but it’s got pictures and presentations of finds, figurines and interpretations. And this seems to be her link page, with several more articles for the textile nerds (aren’t we all?) with a Viking interest.

I was talking to some friends about the lack of evidence, and how fun it would be to go to an event in completely well-researched garments, but garments which differ from the current re-enactment fashion. My current project is not that controversial, though, so it will be some time in the future. We talked about the find of a red-blue-striped woven ”fake fur” fragment and the fact that it’s really easy to get an almost neon light lime-green colour with plant dye from a plant growing wild at the shores of lakes and ditches in Sweden. And that none of us really fancied having the oval brooches placed right on our nipples, even with a shift inbetween, as one of the different published interpretations of the elusive apron dress seems to have. And then we went to have lots of ice-cream.


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