While the History Channel would have us believe they were a leather-clad biker gang akin to the Sons of Anarchy, the real Vikings would have had a much more diverse wardrobe. It is first important to understand that the Viking Age lasted almost three centuries, during which styles in clothing changed. Early raids in the 8th century were carried out by small groups of free warriors, banded together for the purpose of pillaging and acquiring wealth to take home. One hundred years later, the West came under siege as ambitious warlords repurposed their warriors for invasion, which required a refitting of their battle gear to withstand the test of large confrontations. This begs the question: what did Vikings really wear?
Early on during the Viking Age, the warriors of various raiding parties would have worn what they could afford, as well as what worked at sea. Anyone who has worn leather knows that salt water is incredibly corrosive to it, making it tough and unwearable. Therefore, leather would have been used sparingly. A more common type of clothing for the era was cloth: heavy interweaved fabric designed to absorb slashing blows (but not stabs). Cloth would have kept sailors warmer at sea as well, and anyone who has ever sailed knows how cold the ocean’s winds can be, even on a hot, sunny day. Cloth, unfortunately, does not leave much behind for us to find, other than the clothes found in ship burials, which was both sparing and thought to be primarily ceremonial. We may only deduce that it was the clothing of choice because of availability, and because of the universal use of cloth protection across the western world at the time.
Later in the Viking Age the Vikings diversified their wardrobes. The riches they brought home from raids increased the wealth of the average free warrior, allowing him to invest in heavier pieces of equipment. Wealth was not the only import to Scandinavia, either. Vikings brought home new technologies for farming and building, as well as weapon making. Does this mean they all began to wear mail and steel helmets? No, but there is evidence to suggest that some armies, at least, may have done just that: equip everyone with the best armor money could buy. Below is a depiction of a 10th century attack on Guérande in which the Vikings (in a ship on the right) are all equipped with shield, helmet, hauberk, and lance.
What this evidence tells us is that the Vikings repurposed their wardrobes to suit their ambitions. Lighter clothing and armor was preferable for raiding, and more complex, heavier equipment was preferable when facing the armies of the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, or Byzantines in the East.
We also know that the Vikings adapted their arms and armor to their enemy. For example, on the island of Groix, in southern Brittany, a Norman burial dating to the mid-10th Century yielded twenty-four shields of a unique design (pictured below). The shield bosses are demonstrative of the Vikings’ adaptability. In this case, they built new shield bosses, apart from the traditional Scandinavian style, ostensibly in response to their battles with the Bretons who still used the roman tactic of throwing javelins at their enemy prior to a charge.
So, what armor did the Vikings wear? The answer is that they wore what suited them for the time and place. In the West, they began to resemble their British, Breton, and Frankish neighbors. In the East, they began to resemble the Byzantines and the Slavs they visited and attacked. It is safe to say that there was little to no uniformity among the Vikings by the end of the Viking Age. In fact, their adaptability was key to their success. There is a great deal of conjecture and interpretation in dealing with what the Vikings wore, and there is still a great deal that we do not know. We do know that as the Viking Age progressed, the attire became more region-specific. A Viking in Brittany in the 9th Century would have appeared different from a Varangian in Constantinople in the 10th Century, and so on.
Perhaps the only universal piece of clothing they wore was a beard. But we cannot know for sure!