Costumes for Medievalists: Anglo-Saxon Dress

Seeing people running around the Renaissance faires in horned helmets and furry loincloths doesn’t make me weep for the historical inaccuracy, but when I see someone in an accurate Viking costume, it makes me really happy. I’ve seen a couple of women in hangarok, but never in Anglo-Saxon costume.

The terms “Viking” and “Anglo-Saxon” are not synonyms, but I tend to use them that way when describing this costume to people who aren’t medievalists. My costumer/sister will someday write us a post on choosing historically-accurate fabrics and sewing this costume, but for now, here’s a brief look at my (mostly) historically-accurate Anglo-Saxon costume, made with the aid of Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Though a costume from the High Middle Ages would be more appropriate for someone in my field, I chose a costume dating to roughly the 5th century (I think…I no longer have the book) because it’s more appropriate for my area’s weather and it’s easy to make.

front view: off-white long-sleeved dress underneath brown peplos with green belt side view back view

The Dress

dress without peplosNobody is quite certain what the inner layer of an Anglo-Saxon woman’s clothing looked like since we have no surviving garments and much of it is covered in artwork. All we can really tell is that it is long-sleeved (with either tight or hanging sleeves) and sometimes had a slit in the collar. These garments were probably not seamed to fit the body’s figure and were gathered at the waist with a thin belt.

For ease of production, my dress is one of Simplicity’s Lord of the Rings knockoff patterns sewn in off-white linen. We used pattern B from this group without the bodice and cut the sleeves straight instead of making hanging sleeves. For better historical accuracy, we thought about cutting the sides of the dress straight instead of making it seamed with a full skirt, but that would have drastically increased the amount of fabric and time necessary. The sleeves have slits so they can be rolled up to the elbow, as an Anglo-Saxon woman would have done while working, and the sleeves are trimmed with a simple cotton edging. The dress has a historically-inaccurate zipper in the back to make my life easier. Though this pattern is not historical, when worn under the peplos, the end result looks the same as the dresses depicted in artwork.

The Peplos

holding the peplos in front of me--it looks like a rectangle when it's not being wornNobody is entirely sure what the Anglo-Saxons called this garment, so the costume books I’ve looked at use the Greek term, peplos. As you can see in the picture to the left, it is nothing more than a fabric tube. A historical peplos would have been woven in one piece, but mine is a single cut of twill sewn up the back and hemmed on both ends. The top is finished with the same edging as the sleeves to give the fabric more support at the points where it’s pinned. The peplos looks really stupid when worn on its own, but it’s much better when accessorized with a belt and brooches. The picture on the right shows the peplos without a belt so you can get a better idea of how its worn. There is a great deal of fabric under the arms and it’s quite a loose-fitting garment, so it fits a number of body shapes and can be worn several different ways.

dress and peplos sans beltI had my peplos made a bit shorter than my dress, though according to Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, art never depicts it being worn this way (we have no idea if the dresses were ankle-length or were more like shirts). Making the peplos shorter makes it easier for me to wear the costume because otherwise, I would have to gather it at the waist very carefully to make sure nothing is sticking out at the hemline. Shortening the peplos also makes it a little cooler.

There’s plenty of data to show that the peplos was often worn with nothing underneath it, so it’s a surprisingly good fit for multiple climates. I often need to wear this costume sans-dress when the weather is at least 90 F/32 C, if not higher. The loose design and the big armholes make this a wonderful hot-weather costume. To be historically accurate, this costume should have been made of wool, but we can only wear wool in Texas for maybe 2 days out of the year. The only drawback is that the amount of fabric means I need a friend to help me adjust the folds so it looks less like a potato sack.

The Accessories

wrist claspsI’ve been eying some historically-accurate wrist clasps on Etsy, but I can’t afford them, and it didn’t occur to me until long after the costume was finished that I could have made some out of wire. I used some clasps from the craft store that are something like this antique gold clasp.

large penannular brooches on each sholder to fasten the peplos and a small in the center of the dress collar to fasten it shutAnglo-Saxons didn’t favor symmetry, so grave goods often show mismatched sets of shoulder clasps. I prefer symmetry, so I hold up the peplos with a pair of penannular brooches from Twilight Forge on Etsy. The slit in the collar on the dress doesn’t need to be clasped shut, but I bought a tiny penannular brooch from a shop at a renfaire for that purpose. I bought a torc from the same person (you’ve seen it on the Book of Kells costume). Torcs would have been rare by the 5th century, but at least one has been discovered in a burial, so I’m justified!

I started out with a green cloth belt, but I eventually purchased a dyed leather belt from another renfaire shop. Dyed leather and this many metal accessories would have been expensive in the 5th century, so I’m a pretty high-class Anglo-Saxon lady.

belt close-up: green leather with Celtic animal figures and knotwork in black
Nobody ever finds this Anglo-Saxon dress an attractive costume (especially compared to the amount of shelf-bosom running around the faires) and nobody has ever asked me about the design or the period. However, I’ve never had a costume I love as much as this one. It’s cool, it’s amazingly comfortable, and when I’m feeling down about the pay range for medievalists, it allows me a feeling of childish superiority over the people in horned helmets and furry loincloths. See you at the faire.

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