We know a great deal about what women wore in the Viking period because of many archaeological finds of women’s clothing in Viking Age graves.
The clothing is well preserved and much of it has been reconstructed. It consists of a long under-dress, with long sleeves and a sleeveless tube-shaped apron or mantle dress, fastened below the shoulders with two large metal or tortoiseshell, shaped brooches. A string of colourful glass and amber beads was often looped between these brooches. Many women also wore a small separate apron and a shawl, secured by trefoil-shaped brooches.
Clothing was made from wool or linen; spindle whorls and loom weights show that wool was spun then woven into cloth or wadmal. Natural dyes were added to the yarn to offer a variety of colours, particularly red, green, yellow and blue.
Women also wore leather belts, on which they hung small leather bags to keep small items such as sewing needles and hones.
Although clothing rarely survives in the archaeological record, examples of men’s jewellery have been uncovered (mostly from graves) and these can offer us an insight into what they wore, and how this was fastened.
Men wore trousers, tunics and cloaks made from wool and linen. Animal skins were also used to keep them warm in the winter. Clothing would have been secured with bone or metal pins, large penannular brooches and leather belts.
A rare example of a fragment of a thick woollen glove or mitten was recovered from a peatbog in Shetland. Made from woven cloth (2:2 twill), it has been radiocarbon dated to 970 ± 30, calibrated to 1010-1160.
Evidence from excavation shows that Vikings wore handmade, soft leather shoes and boots. Over 700 fragments of leather footwear were excavated in Waterford city centre. The leather used was mainly calf and cattle skin, although later, during the 11th century, pig and sheep skin were also used.
Some early shoes were made from a single piece of leather sewn together with either thin strips of leather or waxed sheep’s wool. Surviving examples from York show ankle boots, some being fastened with a toggle or metal buckle at the side.
The Vikings also wore woollen socks and these would have been constructed from woven cloth (wadmal). Later, by the 14th century, we find woollen socks made by nalbinding, an early form of knitting.
Viking women’s hair was also well kept. It was typically long and could be attractively styled. Evidence can be seen in pictures on runic stones, on small silver and bronze figures and pendants, and on the Oseberg tapestry.
The most typical hairstyle is a knot at the back of the head, with hair hanging down from the knot like a ponytail. An 8th-century grave find from Kent in England shows this type of hairstyle.
Another example is a Viking Age grave find from Hollola in Finland. In this case, the hair itself with its knot was exceptionally well preserved and it has been possible to reconstruct the hairstyle, which requires very long hair.
The hair and beard were of major importance to the Viking man. This can be seen in royal bynames like Sweyn Forkbeard, whose beard was probably divided in two, and Harald Fairhair, who must have had a fine head of hair. The numerous finds of combs show that people combed their hair regularly.
Certain sources emphasise this, such as an anonymous letter written in Old English. In this a man advises his brother to stick with the prevailing Anglo-Saxon style and not enter into the “Danish fashion”, which is described as a reverse “mullet” hairstyle, with long hair on top of the head and short hair at the back.
Beards were also well groomed. This can be seen, for example, on a carved male head found at the Oseberg ship burial in Norway. The male has a long elegant moustache and beard.