Sunday, 10 February 2013

Where are the horned helmets?

I came across this set of photos of the upcoming TV series Vikings on a re-enactment mailing list recently. It got me thinking about how the popular image of Viking dress has changed over the years, and how little archaeological finds and research have contributed to it.

As an example, how about these from The Vikings, 1958:

as opposed to these from 2013:

I don’t think either of these productions were interested in what the clothes Vikings wore might actually have looked like. But they were having a lot of fun with what clothes the Vikings ought to have worn. This tells us more about what the Vikings mean to us than what they might have meant to themselves. So, the material culture the Vikings actually used  to communicate, and which we know about via archaeology, is not important. To modern audiences, the material culture they ought to have used includes:

1.   LOTS of leather. True in 1958 and 2013. Today this is all about badassness. Not sure about the 1950s - perhaps there were also hard-working/cool cowboy connotations?

2.   Lots of fur. Abundantly clear in 2013, but not so strongly signalled in 1958. I suspect this is visual shorthand for a lot of things: a simpler time (no PC objections), being close to nature (wearing grown things, not made things), and badassness (hunting and killing).

3.   Really huge crude stitching in 2013 but not 1958. Today, early medieval clothing is clearly supposed to be primitive. I suspect that in 1958, people knew that handmade didn't have to mean crude, but today too few people have any experience making clothing to feel that.

4.   Dark colours in all clothing, except for women when being rescued/wifely. True in 1958 and 2013, though in 2013 this is not the only role available (progress! Now we can be men  fighters too). I think we can blame Beau Brummel for starting this one, plus whoever designed the uniforms for the SS, biker gangs, and technological improvements in dyeing technology  which means that dark colours are no longer more expensive than light ones.

Some things have changed between the two incarnations of the Vikings. The 1958 short shorts and sheepskin boots have died in 2013 in favour of MOAR LEATHER. 2013 hair is different, reflecting hippy, punk and goth influences: there’s a distinct feeling of Vikings as counter-culture. Sleeves are longer in 2013, as are beards. Hmm.  

All is not entirely bleak, though, from the point of view of an archaeologist interested in dress/costume/textiles. There are definitely more accurate details in the 2013 production. There’s a hangerok, with beads and paired brooches (not oval brooches though). There’s relatively little wrong with this shirt. There are pleated patches on a kirtle here and all over an underkirtle here, though this one is crepe so it’s cheating, really. This shot includes 15-16th century costume detailing, the hooked-on sleeve. Wrong period, but still.

I don’t think I’ll be making the time to watch the new TV series. Maybe in 50 years time it’ll be interesting as a record of the twenty-teens...

(Edited Feb 2014 to fix broken image links)