NUDITY AND DRESS
The Norse did not run around wearing the furry loincloths and bikinis shown in so many Viking films and other popular media. There is no reason to believe that they were habitually nude, though the fact that the Norse had weekly fully immersive baths indicates that nudity did not have the same status in that time as nudity does today. In fact, going by later graphics of mixed-gender communal bathing, even the nudity of the opposite gender was acceptable (as long as the hair on top of the head is covered) and could feature clothed attendants helping the bathers.
To a good extent, clothing—when worn—reflected the status of the wearer. The dress for sex slaves—slaves who served as concubines—were very distinct. The average dress for slaves was practical in at least four ways. They were not confining, so the wearer could work more easily. They were used for identifying a slave and were different from what was worn by freemen. The cut of the clothing reinforced inferior status in the minds of slaves. And the costumes of frillur were, in many cases probably as erotic to men of the time as are a corset, stockings and high heels today. One has to wonder if wives and later non-slave concubines wore similar clothing when tending to husbands’ sexual needs.
A slave girl is described in Rígsþula, has no shoes, no jewelry. Bare arms and bare legs. Most skirts are knee length at most. Most slave clothing was rather inexpensive and plain, but Ewing opines that concubines might have worn clothing made of fine fabrics and, giving an incident in the Laxdæla Saga as a source, jewelry. Some literary and graphic references show slave girls wearing a skirt coming to mid-thigh or even “so short that her genitals were in plain view.” While this clothing might be, as conjectured, a reinforcement of the slave girl’s sub-human status, it might well have been a fetish fashion that should be very identifiable to most peoples nowadays!
There is no doubt that men and women had certain conventions and standards that had to be obeyed in their dress. In fact:
Another reason found for divorce in the sagas was what we might term “cross-dressing.” If a husband wore effeminate clothing, especially low-necked shirts exposing his chest, his wife could then divorce him…and if a woman appeared dressed in men’s trousers, her husband could then divorce her (Ibid.; also Williams, p. 114).
The Laxdæla saga says,
make him a shirt with such a large neck-hole that you may have a good excuse for separating from him, because he has a low neck like a woman.
The man was prohibited by the Grágás (Gray Goose Laws) from wearing a low-necked shirt—showing his nipples—saying that only women regularly exposed their breasts. While this might seem to document female exhibition, the real meaning is probably somewhat less prurient and refers to women wearing clothing that was suitable for breast feeding.
The wearing of trousers by women is not as forthright but no less a part of the culture:
She insisted upon wearing man’s trousers, for which cause her husband divorced her.
While women were more powerful and self-sufficient than in most other cultures for centuries afterwards, there were gender-specific fashions!
It might hear be appropriate to note here that declarations by Annika Larsson in 2010 that Vikings wore colorful, sexy fashions, devised a revised reinterpretation of the Norse hangeroc that has been pretty well demolished!