Vikings in Vogue

Want to know what was in fashion in the Viking era? Looking to impress the Viking beforeigner in your life? Our handy guide reveals all.

When we think of what the Vikings wore, it’s easy to imagine clothing fit for battle: tough leather and hard steel. But the truth is a lot cosier and a lot more woollen.

The reliable tunic formed the principal upper body garment for Viking men. This could vary with the seasons, being long-sleeved in the winter and short-sleeved in the summer. Viking women wore a basic ankle-length dress, often with a strap dress, or apron dress, atop it.

Wool was the go-to material for clothing. It could be used for almost every item of clothing, although when it came to undergarments, the richer Vikings would splash out on the less itchy, but considerably more costly linen.

And for the truly rich, silk trim would be applied to most of their garments.

Clothes were often very colourful. The ancient Norse had access to a wide variety of dye-producing plants locally, and gained an even wider range due to their burgeoning trade routes obtained through sailing to other lands.

Instead of knitting, Vikings used an old technique called nålbinding. The name means simple ‘to bind with a needle’, and it is different from knitting in that only one needle (traditionally made of bone) is used, and the process takes more time. But what you end up with, when nålbinding, is a garment that is robust and runs little risk of unravelling even if some stitches break.

It’s quite common to find Viking socks at dig sites that still hold up well today, and some people in modern times still learn the technique.

Trousers were made without buttons or flys, and were simply held up by tightening a belt or a drawstring around them. Clothes did not have pockets, so both men and women used leather handbags to carry their everyday items in.

As for outer layers, animal skins were used for cloaks, often with the hair or wool still on the outside, to form protection against the wind. A combination of beeswax and fish oil made animal skins resistant to water, a rudimentary form of weatherproofing.

Because clothing decays more easily than other archaeological remains, like human bone for example, it is hard to find good examples in the field. A lot of the time we have to rely on historical writings and ancient techniques that persist today.

Battle gear is a bit easier to find in the record, both because metal weathers more slowly than fabric, and because more historical descriptions exist of battles than of daily life. So what did the Vikings wear into battle?

For a start, horned helmets were never a thing. Viking warriors did, however, wear heavy metal helmets during battle, which featured prominent nose guards.

These helmets were often made from multiple smaller pieces of iron riveted together, because although mining was known about in Viking times, the most common source of iron was restricted to small nodules scavenged from bogs.

For battle, chain mail was favoured as an outer layer over tunics, and it was enough to prevent cuts from swords, but did little to protect against broken bones since it cannot absorb nor dissipate the force of the blow. With enough strength, chain mail can also be perforated — some Viking bones uncovered at dig sites show the imprints of chain mail rings from sword blows. The development of full plate armour and suits of armour was still a couple of centuries away, and chain mail was expensive, so the Vikings relied more heavily on their shields and their prowess in battle than on their gear.

According to the sagas, long cloaks also made themselves useful in battle, as a way of dampening the effectiveness of incoming sword swings. It turns out it is surprisingly hard to continue fighting once a cloak has been thrown over your sword!

All in all, the clothing of the Norse era was colourful, comfortable and cosy — qualities that made the harsh winters far more bearable in a world before central heating existed.

The focus on wool and knitting still persists in Scandinavia today, which just goes to show how important and truly timeless these techniques are.