Living History is an illusion, and it is our duty to make the illusion as well as we can. We are not living in the past. We are trying to make onlookers regard us as if we are! We are attempting to recreate a totally different culture as completely and as accurately as we can.
We are dealing here with male costume for recreating the culture of Northern Europe in the Viking Age; that covers roughly the years 800–1100 ce. To a great extent, essential kit depend on the accuracy regulations that you subscribe to. Here, I adhere to the regulations mandated by Regia Anglorum (different societies have different interpretations, different strictness and, in the case of one society, no regulations at all. I shall assume that anyone reading this has an interest in the more strict side of the coin).
Let us divide the soft kit into three categories:
First is the material. Quite simply, that means that no garments will be made of cotton nor of any man-made material such as nylon or polyester. The materials to be used are wool, flax (linen, hemp or nettle) or silk. Silk was very expensive and should only be used for posh, uncommon kit. Only royalty or high ecclesiasticals had garments entirely of silk; even the wealthier folk would only use silk for trim. Linen was not nearly as expensive, but it was expensive and had to be processed in an expensive, time-consuming method. However, because some people are allergic to wool to one extent or another, the fact that garments touching the skin are linen is well within the limits of safety and compromise, even if the garment made of linen is not for the class that might have routinely used it. Wool, inexpensive and plentiful, easily manufactured and available, is the preferred material.
Second is the design. Books such as Þor Ewing’s Viking Clothing and Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England deal with the styles that were available. It is interesting to note that styles were largely the same across different cultures, but they did change slowly with time, and they did change in little details from one area to another. Whether or not you assume an impression, you should take care to establish costume for a certain era and a certain location and not merely wear a coat from one era and trousers from another and carry jewelry and objects from another. While this is bad and should be avoided, it is not as bad as just making up things whole sale (or copying from Victorian illustrations and such films as Lee Major’s Norseman or The History Channel’s Vikings). It is called the practical application of research, and it centers upon Research!
Finally is the basic necessity—a tunic. You can have no footwear. You can have no trousers. You can certainly have no hat, gloves or belt. But there is a medieval Scandinavian law that forbade men to expose their chests in public (unlike women, although that was probably to allow breast-feeding and not for any prurient interest). The Tiberius and Julius work calendars show men working in the heat of the field, bare-headed and wearing a long-sleeved tunic. But trouserless to keep cool. The reticence to show a male naked chest continued to some extent into the early twentieth century. Men’s swim suits concealed the chest until the third decade and later. In early Tarzan films, Tarzan wore something across his chest (in silent films, it was Jane who was topless in some instances!).
Let us assume that you have more than the bare necessities. You have an adequate, if not posh soft kit: an undertunic, a tunic, trousers, a belt (and knife; as Eleanor said of a slightly later era in “Lion in Winter:” “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” I think the term “barbarian” is too much modern chauvinism, but you never find me today without a knife!). And shoes.
Let us further assume that the garments are on the extreme side of accuracy. There are three ways to ruin the illusion can be ruined:
The inclusion of oop jewelry and body modifications, such as a watch, male earrings, other modern jewelry and visible body jewelry and tattoos of any sort.
Footwear that is not accurate, that has been external modified for convenience and comfort. The shoes should be turn-soled, no higher than just above the ankles and have no buckles or buttons. There are plenty of surviving shoes from the Viking Age. There is a very good developmental chart in Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. There are some reenactors who stress that having an improper set of shoes is the crowning part of a wonderful impression, and substituting sneakers, boots and even welted facsimiles of period shoes is an easy way to make everything worthless!
And finally, there are spectacles. Anyone wearing spex while portraying a Norseman—even an otherwise impeccable portrayal—is just doing a fantasy LARP and flushing any historical integrity that they might have down the toilet. Wear contacts if necessary; go without spectacles if you can replace them with contacts. You might not see details, but most people can operate without the aid. Experiment, and go without spectacles at other times as well. A friend has long talked about writing an article on her own experiences going without spectacles in period kit, and I still hope that she will write it!
Living History is an illusion, and it is our duty to make the illusion as well as we can. What can ruin that illusion for you?