Pagan Anglo-Saxon Clothing

Men's Clothing

Continental evidence indicates that a short cloak or cape, made of skin or fur (usually sheepskin), was an important feature of Germanic men's costume. Caesar and Tacitus mention this garment as being sometimes the only garment worn, and Iron Age finds from Danish peat bogs would seem to confirm their observations (although it is considered unlikely that the early 'Anglo-Saxons' would have gone naked except for a cloak). They seem to have been worn fur side inwards, skin side outwards and were secured by lacing, sewing, tying, or by securing wooden or leather toggles through loops of leather (i.e. they did not require pins or brooches). Cloth cloaks, short or knee length, were also common. These cloaks were not tailored, but consisted of a square or rectangle of cloth which was clasped at one shoulder, usually the right. Cloaks would be woven in one piece on an upright loom, and often, to begin and end the weaving, tablet woven borders would be used. Similar borders could also be woven in at the sides, thus edging the garment right round. Particularly noteworthy are the large and luxurious cloaks found in the peat bogs of Thorsbjerg, Denmark and Vehenmoor, Germany. Both were of a complex weave and dyed with precious dyes in different colours. The edges of the Thorsbjerg garment were braided on more than one hundred tablets, the Vehenmoor on about one hundred and forty six, and both had elaborate fringes. The Thorsbjerg garment was about 66'' (1.68m) wide and 93'' (2.36m) long, the Vehenmoor 69'' (1.75m) by about 112'' (2.85m). They were worn by folding the material lengthways, and pinning it on the right shoulder. It is very probable that the richest Anglo-Saxons wore voluminous cloaks of this kind; less luxurious versions would also have been common. They are versatile and practical since unpinning and unfolding them turns them into blankets.

A different type of cloak in use by the Germanic peoples was a poncho type garment with a central hole for the head. There are no representations of a man's poncho in Anglo-Saxon art (although some women in late Anglo-Saxon England seem to have worn a poncho like garment) and no direct evidence it was worn in Anglo-Saxon England, but it is certainly a type of garment that might be known, if uncommon. Another type of outer garment possibly worn by the early Germanic settlers is the hooded robe, known to modern scholars as the 'Gallic coat'. It seems likely that cloaks could be made from skin or textile and could vary in size from small capes to large voluminous cloaks of the Thorsbjerg/Vehenmoor type.

There are many Old English words for these outer garments - both sexes could wear the hacele (a cloak which might be hooded), the mentel and the sciccels (which could be made of fur). Men wore the fur crusene and heden (which could be hooded) and the rocc (which could be made of fur or skin). The ofer-slop was worn by men, so was the loþa (which could be made of shaggy fabric and used as a coverlet as well as a cloak). There is no evidence to which sex wore the rift (a cloak or curtain) and the sciccing.

We can be fairly certain the Germanic settlers wore trousers - the wearing of trousers had long distinguished the 'barbarians' from the Greeks and Romans (although the Romans eventually adopted the wearing of trousers too!). They were sometimes worn beneath a tunic and sometimes worn only with a cloak, and were fastened around the waist with a belt. Pictorial representations often show them to be rather loose; the slack material was gathered round the waist and it hung in folds around the legs. However, the examples known from archaeology are all much more closely fitting, more akin to the tight fitting leg coverings shown in later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, so it seems that whether the trousers were tight or loose was largely a matter of personal choice or tribal tradition. Trousers at this time all seem to have been ankle length, with the shorter trousers only remaining as undergarments. Some high quality trousers seem to have had feet and belt loops in them, others did not. Some examples have slits at the ankles to allow for the narrowness of the trousers. Trousers were referred to as brec (short trousers) and braccas (breeches or long trousers).

Trousers were bound to the legs by leggings or garters, several of which have been found in continental excavations. Two types are known from linguistic evidence which correspond well with the archaeological finds. First a legging proper, or stocking, made of woven fabric or leather; second a strip of fabric which could be used to tie on the leggings or confining the loose folds of the trousers (as well as covering up the ankle slit), or which could be wound around the shin and foot for warmth and protection, much like 'puttees' and probably known as strapulas or winingas. Also known from archaeology are rectangles of cloth wound around the lower leg and tied in place with strings or ribbons. These may well be the gaiter like garment known as hosa, in which case the ribbons would be the hose-bend or wining known from linguistic sources. These may also have been made of leather since we know of the word leder-hosa. However, it is also likely that the word hosa could also be used for the stocking like garment (especially when considering their similarity to the later medieval leg coverings known as 'hose'), in which case the hose-bend and wining could refer to the garter holding them up. A few Anglo-Saxon men may have been in the habit of carrying their knives or tools stuck into their leggings since a few small knives and tools have been found at the lower legs of skeletons in Anglo-Saxon graves.

Shoes would generally be round-toed, flat soled and reach to the ankle or just below. Probably sandals of the Iron Age and late Roman type were still being used, although enclosed shoes of one piece construction seem to make their first appearance in this period. Shoes were stitched or laced together with leather thongs, not nailed as with some Roman examples. Shoes would be of leather or rawhide. There are many words for footwear, some of which seem to describe a particular type, but it is now unclear exactly which words represent which type of footwear. These words include scoh ('shoe', a low ankle-boot, shoe or slipper), swiftlere (a rawhide shoe), hemming, rifeling, the bag-like socc and a thonged sandal called a crinc (perhaps similar to the open topped Iron Age footwear). As far as we know these shoe types could be worn by either sex.

Open topped sandals of the type found in Danish and German peat bogs and early Germanic graves.

This type of footwear would also have been worn by some of the early Anglo-Saxon.

Most men also wore a tunic, girdled at the waist and usually with long sleeves. These tunics are usually mid-thigh to knee length. On the excavated examples these sleeves are usually long enough to be folded back in to a cuff (as on some Celtic tunics) or pushed back from the wrist in folds (as in later Anglo-Saxon examples), and often have the last few inches of the sleeve seams left open at the wrist to allow the hands to pass through (there are no examples of wrist clasps from male graves, so the slits may have been closed by tying, sewing, or left open). Some of these tunics also have the last few inches of the side seam left unjoined, to allow for easier movement. The neck openings on these early tunics were just slits or oval openings. Tunics were often decorated with tablet woven borders, but the ornate decoration of tunics like those of the late Roman type appears not to have been used. Tunics at this time appear to have been known by the names cyrtel (probably the shorter type of tunic) and pad. It also seems that some men, possibly only the rich, wore a linen undershirt (at this time most linen was probably imported from mainland Europe and/or Ireland). This would be similar to the overtunic (it is uncertain whether it would be worn outside the trousers or tucked into them), but made of undecorated linen. Words for this garment include cemes, ham, hemeðe, serc and smoc.

Belts were worn both to hold up the trousers and to girdle the tunic. Most belts were of leather and were fastened by buckles, although woven girdles could also be worn. Most belts were utilitarian items and were often used to hang items of equipment from, although some belt ornaments are known. Not all belts were fastened by buckles, many would have been 'tie-belts' where one end of the leather belt is tied through a loop in the other end (a belt of this type was found on the body of the 'Tollund Man' in Denmark. It is likely that a plain belt (perhaps only a tie-belt) was used to support the trousers (where it would not be seen) whilst a more decorative belt was used over the tunic (where it would be more visible). Items like knives and pouches probably hung from the trouser belt rather than the tunic belt. A few elaborate belts of the late Roman military type were still used, although most were plain, narrow (1.25" and less) leather belts. Belts were known by the Old English words belt or fetel. Leather pouches known as fetels (to carry fire starting materials, not money) were also sometimes worn on the belt, and could often have a fire-steel attached to the front. Continental evidence suggests that these would be worn at the back of the belt.

Headgear is almost unknown in this country at this time, although there are rare examples on the continent. Probably hooded cloaks, or the versatile rectangular cloak pulled over the head, provided protection against bad weather. The words hæt and hufe may have been applied to men's headgear, and the word hod probably signified a hood.

Typical male Anglo-Saxon dress in the pagan period

Women's Clothing

Women's costume in this period is a lot easier to reconstruct than men's, since it seems to have involved much jewellery which helps determine the whole costume's appearance. There are consistent features of all early Anglo-Saxon women's costume, although there are also several regional variations. These are usually referred to as the Anglian, Saxon and Kentish or Jutish styles (and certainly their distribution coincides with Bede's description of which people settled where.

The basic item of clothing was a 'peplos' dress. This is usually a tubular garment (although it can be just a rectangle of cloth) clasped at the shoulders by a pair of brooches, leaving the arms uncovered. This type of garment has been worn by women in countless cultures from the earliest times and was clearly a feature of Germanic costume for many centuries. Excavated examples vary in size from 54" (1.37m) to 66" (1.68m) in height and 94" (2.40m) to 106" (2.68m) in circumference. It is interesting to note that these measurements correspond closely to the measurements of the two cloaks mentioned above, so the cloaks could have been worn as open sided peplos dresses (it also gives us a clue as to the size and type of loom in use). The height of these dresses would mean that the top of the dress would have to be folded over into a cape and/or the dress would have to be heavily bloused over a girdle, both features seen in continental pictorial representations. There are numerous ways of wearing a peplos dress, involving anything from one to three brooches, although two is definitely the most common number. It seems the early Germanic settlers were fond of a symmetrical look and most of the pairs of brooches are identical, or at least very similar. The girdle is usually worn around the waist or hips, although at least one source shows the women wearing the gown pulled in just below the breasts, then hanging loose, an arrangement which may have been comfortable during early pregnancy. The folds of the gown usually conceal the belt, but a few sources show a second visible belt. This garment was usually worn ankle length, although, if worn over an underdress, it may sometimes have been worn calf length. These garments were often edged with tablet weave, at least at the top edge, and probably sometimes also at the bottom. The style of brooches worn seem to form a regional pattern: quoit brooches were worn only south of the Thames and, like the equal armed brooch, were known only in the earliest period. Radiate headed brooches, bird-shaped brooches and inlaid brooches were largely characteristic of Kent. Cruciform brooches were particularly popular in Anglian areas; annular brooches were especially favoured by the Northumbrian Angles. Saucer brooches were most popular in Saxon areas, as were disc brooches. Long brooches, in all their forms seem to have been fairly universal. (For more details on these terms see the jewellery section. [to be added soon]) Some poorer female graves have lacked the pairs of shoulder brooches, and it is probable that in these cases the two edges were sewn together, rather than pinned with brooches. Peplos gowns were usually made of wool, although a few were made of linen. We do not know what name was given to this garment, although slop and wealca are the most likely.

In warm weather the peplos gown would have been worn on its own, but in cold weather, or on special occasions, an underdress would have been worn. The style of this seems to have varied, in some cases perhaps only being a bodice, and in others being a full length 'gown'. The sleeves also seem to have varied in length from almost non-existent to full length. The main types seem to be: a bodice with long, tight sleeves with an aperture at the front closed by a brooch, with the peplos fastened to this by another central brooch. (There may have also been a full length version of this garment, or it may have been worn with a 'petticoat'. [see below]) This style is most often represented in Anglian areas, where wrist clasps were used to fasten the sleeves (this is a custom which seems to be almost exclusive to Anglian women), although a version without the wrist clasps may well have been worn in other areas. Another type would be a full length sleeveless, or short sleeved, underdress (perhaps pleated like later Scandinavian examples), similar to the man's tunic and reaching to somewhere between the knee and ankle. This garment seems to be more typical of the Saxon woman, although it may have been worn under, and in addition to, the bodice mentioned above. Finally, there is some continental pictorial evidence to suggest that a long 'petticoat' may have been worn under the peplos. This would probably have taken the form of a cylinder of cloth worn around the waist or hips, drawn tight with a drawstring around the top edge. These undergarments would usually have been of linen or fine wool. There are several Old English words for undergarments but it is unclear which of them refer to women's garments. The words are cemes, ham, hemeðe, scyrte, serc and smoc.

The costume of Anglo-Saxon women in Pagan times was certainly girdled or belted, as demonstrated by the survival of the leather or textile from which the belt was made, by the numerous preservations in situ of fasteners such as buckles, and the regular discovery of objects at the hip or waist which had obviously been attached to belts. Women's belts seem to have been fastened by many different ways including buckles, tie-belts, knotting, or perhaps, toggles. Many items hung from the belt including knives, shears, keys, toilet implements, cosmetic tools (tweezers, brushes, etc.), amulets, spindles, pouches, etc..

As well as the underdress and peplos, many women also wore cloaks, capes or shawls. Cloaks would have been of the square or rectangular type worn by the men, although some representations show the cloak fastened centrally on women, rather than just at the shoulder. Shorter capes and shawls could also have been worn. Names for outer garments are many, and it is not usually clear which were worn by men and which by women, but they include loþa, rift, mentel, hacele, ofer-slop, pad and sciccing. The crusene and heden were of fur or skin, the rocc and sciccels could also be of fur. One cloak type garment exclusive to women seems to be the hwitel which was made of white (undyed) wool and was probably fringed.

There is no evidence that in Pagan times women habitually covered their heads like the later Anglo-Saxon women, but a number of types of headgear are known. A cloak or shawl could easily be drawn up over the head, to form a hood, and rectangular scarves, sometimes fringed are known from archaeology. Caps or hairnets of a technique known as sprang are known from pictorial and archaeological sources, often covering plaits or braids of hair. Pictorial and archaeological evidence also suggest the use of veils, often of linen, draped loosely over unbound hair. A veil is prone to slip, or be blown by the wind, so if a veil was to be worn it would either have a band over it to secure it, or a fixed base, such as a braid of hair and/or a cap, could be used to pin it to. A few wealthy Kentish women were buried with gold brocaded fillets (perhaps known by the Latin word vitta, or the Old English words nostle, snod and þwæle), a fashion imported from the Frankish Kingdom. Possibly women in humbler circumstances wore fillets made entirely of textile which has since rotted away. The linguistic evidence suggests a wider range of headgear than archaeology and sculpture. The word hæt (hat) was in use as were cuffie (loose fitting hood or scarf) and scyfel (some kind of cap or hat). The binde, a fillet, seems to have been worn by married women.

We do not know how Anglo-Saxon women kept their legs warm, they may have simply added extra layers of gowns and petticoats, or they could have used some other method. They probably would have made use of short linen trousers (brec) and puttee type leg bindings (hose-bendas, winingas).

Women’s costume in Kent, where settlement seems to have been mainly by Jutes and Frisians from the Frankish areas, seems to have been different from the Germanic norm, at least amongst the upper classes. Apart from the gold brocaded fillets mentioned above (which may have been restricted to those of royal birth), it appears they may also have worn an open fronted robe, fastened with brooches at the chest and/or waist over, or in place of, the peplos gown. It seems that a pair of brooches may also have sometimes been used to pin the two sides of the robe open, revealing the garment beneath. From the lowest brooch a silver caged crystal ball, often with a perforated silver spoon, would hang, in addition to the items normally found hanging from the belt. The exact purpose of this ball and spoon is uncertain, and it is usually ascribed ritual significance. A buckled belt and abundance of jewellery are also common features of Kentish costume. The veil was also a common part of Kentish costume, and it is very likely to have covered the ears since ear-rings have been found, but worn on necklaces rather than in the ears. This style of head-dress may have come from the continent, where Christianity was influencing dress and lifestyle. This costume is more typical of Frankish than English styles, and has its ultimate source in Byzantium. The strong Frankish influence is probably caused by a combination of the Kentish Jutes Frankish origin and their closeness to the Frankish Empire. However, differences between the Kentish and Frankish costumes show that Kentish costume was not a slavish following of Frankish fashion, just that a number of Frankish, ultimately Byzantine, trends influenced Kentish women in the upper strata of society.

Typical female Anglo-Saxon dress in the pagan period

Shoes would generally be round-toed, flat soled and reach to the ankle or just below. Probably sandals of the Iron Age and late Roman type were still being used, although enclosed shoes of one piece construction seem to make their first appearance in this period. Shoes were stitched or laced together with leather thongs, not nailed as with some Roman examples. Shoes would be of leather or rawhide. There are many words for footwear, some of which seem to describe a particular type, but it is now unclear exactly which words represent which type of footwear. These words include scoh ('shoe', a low ankle-boot, shoe or slipper), swiftlere (a rawhide shoe), hemming, rifeling, the bag-like socc and a thonged sandal called a crinc (perhaps similar to the open topped Iron Age footwear). As far as we know these shoe types could be worn by either sex.

Women's hair was worn long (but not necessarily un cut and unstyled), sometimes loose but often plaited. Some representations show the hair drawn back from the face, presumably into a plait or pony-tail. It is uncertain whether a pony tail would be tied back with some kind of fastening, or whether it would be knotted as was done in Scandinavia. Some continental sculptures show quite elegant coiffures and ringlets on Germanic women, and a pair of pony-tails fastened behind each ear are also often represented.

Main References

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England - Gale Owen Crocker

Ancient Danish Textiles From Bogs and Burials - Margarethe Hald

The Bog People - P.V. Glob

North European Textiles until AD 1000 - Lise Bender Jorgensen

On Britain and Germany - Tacitus

Many Volumes of Archaeologia Cantiana, Archaeologia, Antiquaries Journal, etc.


We have little information on the appearance of the early Germanic settlers, but we do have quite a lot about their continental counterparts who were quite similar. Tacitus who is generally considered reliable) tells us:

'For clothing all wear a cloak, fastened with a clasp, or in its absence, a thorn: they spend whole days on a hearth round the fire with no other covering. The richest men are distinguished by the wearing of under-clothes; not loose like those of the Parthians and Sarmatians, but drawn tight, throwing each limb into relief.

They wear also the skins of wild beasts, the tribes adjoining the river-bank in a casual fashion, the further tribes with more attention, since they cannot depend on traders for clothing. The beasts for this purpose are selected, and the hides so taken are chequered with the pied skins of the creatures native to the outer ocean and its unknown waters. The women have the same dress as the men, except that very often trailing linen garments, striped with purple, are in use for women: the upper part of this costume does not widen into sleeves: their arms and shoulders are therefore bare, as is the adjoining portion of the breast.'

It seems that men's hairstyles, at least amongst the warriors, varied from tribe to tribe. Tacitus tells us that warriors of the Chatti, a western tribe, allowed their hair and beard to grow until they killed an enemy. The Swabians tied their hair up in a knot at the side of the head, a hairstyle well attested from both Roman sculptures and archaeology. Tacitus tells us that the style was the mark of the freeman. He observed that young men who were not Swabian were also copying the style. This variety of hairstyles is also shown on many Roman sculptures showing Germanic tribesmen. Sidonius, writing in the fifth century, confirms that the Swabian style was still in use by then, and suggests it had spread to other classes as well as other tribes (it is interesting to note that even in Anglo-Saxon England closely cropped hair was the sign of a slave). Sidonius also adds to Tacitus' observations:

'Here in Bordeaux we see the blue-eyed Saxon afraid of the land, accustomed as he is to the sea; along the extreme edges of his pate the razor, refusing to restrain its bite, pushes back the frontier of his hair and, with the growth thus clipped to the skin, his head is reduced and his face enlarged.'

Sidonius also describes Frankish warriors:

'... on the crown of whose red pates lies the hair that has been drawn towards the front, whilst the neck, exposed by the loss of its covering, shows bright. Their eyes are faint and pale, with a glimmer of greyish blue. Their faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin moustaches which they run through with a comb. Close fitting garments confine the tall limbs of the men, they are drawn up high so as to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow middle.'

Sidonius also writes of Frankish servants with 'oily top knots', perhaps similar to the Swabian knot. Evidence of early Anglo-Saxon hairstyles being extremely rare, Sidonius' and Tacitus' observations are interesting. Also of interest is the similarity of Sidonius' description of the Frankish warrior's hairstyle with the 'Norman' styles shown on the Bayeux Tapestry some six centuries later!

The many combs found in Anglo-Saxon contexts (mainly settlements, not burials) suggest that care of the hair was important, and the many tweezers, shears, etc. found in burials show that personal grooming was also valued. Since most of the settlers were intending to devote themselves to agriculture and colonisation, it is probable that the more extravagant hairstyles of their kinsmen were left behind, except, perhaps, by some of the warriors. The uncropped wildness of the Chatti and the knots of the Swabians were after all, as Tacitus tells us, largely designed to frighten the enemy. Probably the Anglo-Saxons cut their hair fairly short, as the Franks did; by the sixth century long hair seems to have been a style confined to the Merovingian kings in Frankia. Our only direct evidence for the early Anglo-Saxons comes from highly stylised faces and figures on jewellery. Luxuriant moustaches are suggested on some faces, occasionally with a beard, but most are clean shaven. Hair is occasionally shoulder length, but is usually collar length or shorter (hardly the hairy barbarians many Victorian scholars would have us believe!)