The Vikings Didn’t Wear That!

There are two things (well . . . at least two things) that have slowed actual information on the Rus as far as costuming go. One concerns incorrect ideas that have simply not lost sway. The other concerns politics.

When I’m talking to someone with a Viking persona about what they want their garb to look like, I generally sketch out some ideas. Almost half of the time they tell me that one or two of the things I sketched aren’t Viking and that they are Rus or early period Russian. Mainly, it’s the kaftan-like coat and the poofy pants.

My first reaction, after confusion, is to tell them that some of the best extant pieces of these garments come from Viking finds in Scandinavian countries – Birka and Hedeby respectively. Granted, those cities were trade cities with people from all over the known world, but the graves that the extant pieces came from were Scandinavian-type graves. So why do they think that these are Rus or early Russian articles of clothing?

Generally, they don’t really know the exact reason other than that friends who have Rus personas often wear them. To which I say that maybe they were Rus items of clothing, but you can not argue with the hard evidence that they were Viking as well.

Over the years of battling this common misconAlexander Vasilevich Viskovatov uniformception, I’ve developed a pet theory. We’ve all seen Fiddler on the Roof, and we’ve all seen pictures of early Russian folk costumes. My educated guess was that since we’ve seen Russians wearing the kaftan and the poofy pants, despite that the context was centuries after the Vikings, we still associate those items with Russia. Somewhere in our brains we have overlapped images of 19th century Russian folk costumes with the costumes that people would wear in Viking-age Russia.

An example is the image on the right from Alexander Vasilevich Viskovatov’s 19th century book “The Historical Description of Clothing and Weapons of Russian Troops.”  Does the outfit these “17th century” soldiers wear look familiar?

At the time, not having researched into Russian garb, I had no idea if those items were part of the Viking-age Russian costume, but I did know that they were Viking.

A while ago, while researching Rus garb, I was translating Saburova’s essay “The Old Costume” and I read something that he wrote. Basically, when the field of archeology opened up in the mid 19th century, it was okay to write wild theories with little or no proof and not have people read you the riot act. In 1868, this guy Golovatsky wrote a book saying that the 19th century folk costume had a direct line back to medieval Russia down to the tailoring techniques. In 1916, this fellow Volkov picked up the torch and kept it going. After that, we have a whole slew of other archaeologists who perpetuate this idea.

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s we had very little extant evidence to say one way or another. Any theory can be true when we are simply guessing. But why did this theory stick for so long?

That’s when the politics came in. During the era of Soviet Russia, it was down-right dangerous to promote ideas about the Slavic culture being influenced by anyone outside of Russia. Basically, they wanted to believe that the Kiev State and the then modern Russian State developed all on its own.

During this time we have a great amount of archeological finds popping up with extant fabric, but it was not a bright idea to say that the people in these grave-finds were of Viking origin. Not until the fall of communism in the early 1990’s were the scholars able to start comparing the textiles find in Viking-age Russian graves to the textiles found in Viking cities.

Does this mean that the kaftan coat and the poofy pants were not worn by the Rus? Not necessarily. It simply means that even if the Rus wore them, the Vikings wore them too. It also means that my confusion makes sense. Hopefully as we reexamine more and more of the Viking-age finds in Russia, we can unlock what the Rus actually wore.

Saburova, M. A. “The Old Costume.” Ancient Russian. Life and Culture. Moscow: Moscow House: Science, 1997. 93-109.
Сабурова, M. A. “Древнерусский костюм.” Древняя Русь. Быт и культура. Москва: Москва, издательство «Наука», 1997. 93-109.