The smokkr and the tortoise brooches belonging to it is the most central part of the Viking age woman’s clothing. The tortoise brooches are even used to identify Scandinavian settlements abroad.
This article is about the social meaning of the smokkr. Where did it come from? Who wore it? What did it mean to the wearer and those around her?
The smokkr supposedly originates from the Greek garment peplos which consisted of a rectangular piece of wool, folded down towards the waist, wrapped around the body and held together over the shoulders with two brooches. There seem to have existed two varieties of the peplos; one which was open at the side and one which was sewn or woven together to form a cylinder.
When the peplos during the 400’s B.C. was replaced by the Ionic chiton made of linen as the main garment, women could still wear a peplos on top of the chiton when needed to keep warm. The peplos is primarily identified in statues and pictures, e.g. Peplos Kore and many statues depicting Athena.
Europe during the Pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages
The peplos disappeared from Greek clothing as early as the Pre-Roman Iron Age, but before this it had already spread to large areas of Europe.
During the Pre-Roman Iron Age we find two brooches or pins sitting in pairs at the shoulders of the deceased women in e.g. Schlesia (Poland). We also find pictures of garments reminding us very much of the Greek peplos from the Celtic and German cultures, e.g. the Gundestrup kettle, pictures of Germans on the Marcus Aurelius column, gravestones from Pannonia (today parts of Croatia and Hungary) and Noricum (today Austria among others), reliefs from Germany etc.
In Denmark we find two large pieces of fabric woven as cylinders from this time. One, from Huldremose, is very long, but if you fold it from the shoulders it makes a functional peplos. The other is shorter and is suitable as a peplos without folding.
In short, there are many indices pointing towards the peplos as a garment worn by women in large parts of Europe during this period.
The Migration Period
During the 4th and 5th centuries the paired brooches and pins disappeared from most of the archaeological materials in more central parts of Europe. During the 7th century they disappeared from England too. They were still very common in Scandinavia and North-Eastern Europe though.
In England you can see that several varieties of the peplos were used; with the upper edges over each other or edge-to-edge; with the upper edge folded or not. How the peplos was used and which type of paired brooches were used varied between different areas.
Both in England and Scandinavia it seems like the peplos was worn over an underdress with long sleeves and cuffs, and probably a cape over this.
The Vendel/Merovingian Period
During the Vendel period the peplos was only left in Eastern Europe. In Estonia it was held up with a pair of pins connected by chains.
The paired brooches are still found in Scandinavia, but they were not used with a peplos, but with a kind of garment with braces, a smokkr. During the 6th and 7th centuries the type of brooches varied between the different areas within Scandinavia. During the 8th century a small variety of the tortoise brooches appeared and became the standard brooch all over Scandinavia (except for Gotland where the old brooches evolved into the Viking animal head brooches).
Unfortunately we know very little about the smokkr during the Vendel period. Almost all women were cremated after death, so we have almost no textile remains in connection to the brooches. There are quite a few pictures from the period, especially the guldgubbar (small pressed reliefs in thin gold foil), but they give almost no clues to the construction of the smokkr.
Scandinavia during the Viking Age
During the Viking age the smokkr had reached its final shape, with straps over the shoulders. It could even be fitted or have a gathered or pleated front.
On Gotland the jewellery and thereby the smokkr looked different. Here the paired brooches were animal head brooches descending directly from the Vendel and Migration age brooches. The smokkr did not have straps here, but exactly how it looked is something we don’t know. Close to Gotland, on the other side of the Baltic Sea the peplos was still very much alive.
In the later part of the Viking age the tortoise brooches and the smokkr slowly disappeared from Scandinavia. First from Denmark where very few tortoise brooches from the 10th century survive, thereafter from the more northern parts of Scandinavia. At the end of the 10th Century it was gone everywhere.
Even after the Viking age remains of the peplos can still be found in Finland and the Baltic states. It probably looked about the same there as it did a millennium earlier in southern Europe. It was often worn together with an underdress and an apron.
Who Wore the Smokkr?
First, it is clear that the peplos and smokkr were garments for women, all way back to classical Greece. Occasionally a grave with a man and a pair of brooches can be found. From other artefacts it is then normally clear that the man is dressed in women’s clothing.
Second, the smokkr was very rarely worn by children, and if so they were then normally older children, 11 years and up and thereby almost women.
Third, the smokkr (i.e. the tortoise brooches) are often missing in the very richest graves. In those graves we also typically find old women.
Penelope Walton Rogers can show that in the Anglo-Saxon graves the peplos is almost only used by women between 13 and 45-50, i.e. fertile women. I don’t know about any research that has looked at this aspect in Scandinavia, but based on the knowledge I have this might very well be the case.
Fourth, the peplos/smokkr typically disappears when a region becomes Christian. At least within England and Scandinavia there are clear connections between Christianity and the disappearance of the peplos/smokkr. In England the peplos disappears during the 7th century, in Denmark at the beginning of the 900’s and in Sweden at the end of the 900’s. This coincides with when Christianity takes over as the main religion in these areas.
During the Migration Period, 80-95% of all grown women in Anglo-Saxon settlements wore peplos. This shows that at least then and in that area, the peplos was not a garment only for the rich.
If this continued during the Viking age in Scandinavia, I don’t know. I have heard theories about only rich women wearing smokkr, but as we have seen this seems not to be true for the richest of the graves.
Did the Smokkr Have a Social Significance?
To be able to answer this question, we must limit ourselves and since this site is about the Viking age, let’s focus on the Viking age in Scandinavia.
Conservative and Showing Status
When the Viking age started, the peplos/smokkr had been a central part of female clothing for more than a millennium, in Scandinavia it had been used for at least 600 years. During all these years it had been used as a very functional garment, the small inconspicuous brooches that were used to hold it together show us that.
Despite the changes in the female clothing that occured during all this time, the peplos/smokkr survived with only minor modification. It must have been seen as a very conservative garment and if I am correct in that the smokkr denoted a fertile woman, it might have survived because of this clear social significance.
This type of conservative, status-showing garment was and still is typically worn at more festive occasions and not every day. The smokkr was not a necessary garment during the Viking age; it was often worn under a tunic open at the front or over a tunic or dress pulled over the head. This shows that the smokkr was not a garment that was needed as everyday clothing. During the Viking age the tortoise brooches used together with the smokkr grew from functional and inconspicuous up to magnificent, almost comical dimensions, also a clear indication of a garment that did not need to be practical any more, but probably was used only at special, festive occasions.
When the festive occasions started to be connected to church attendance, where fertility was not a capacity that should be shown off, the need for the smokkr probably disappeared totally.
I end this article with a set of conjectures and unanswered questions. Maybe the smokkr was a garment showing the fertile status of the women during the Viking age. Maybe it was a festive garment. Maybe it disappeared because of Christianity. We can only speculate, but we would be able to find out much more by analysing existing data based on these speculations. Let us hope that someone does this one of these days.