500 AD and all that - Female Saxon Dress

Published by King Arthur in the blog King Arthur's blog. Views: 493


(This is very close to stream of consciousness, I have not edited or redrafted it. I wanted it to be
raw. And it is. Raw, rough, unrefined, crass, silly, hopefully somewhat amusing at times, and

PART 1: Generally General Butt-Naked (real guy, look him up)
This is the first layer of clothing they’d have: nothing. That’s right, people have had naked
bodies for like... a long time. For the sake of all hypercardiac old women and curious young
boys I have censored out the sensitive bits. Except breasts, since according to Game of Thrones
apparently they don’t count as nudity (YMMV).
(If you really want to see a 1500 year old woman’s vagina, it can be arranged for a small fee of
I have not attempted to draw the face, but know I envisioned her as having blue hair. Saxons
dyed their hair all sorts of wild colours, blue being considered the most regal. In their
representations of the Garden of Eden, God, Adam, Eve and the other chick all have blue hair.
God also has a blue beard, which literally makes him Bluebeard, minus the dead wives.
Interestingly, Gilles de Rais was also called Bluebeard and inspired the tale. He was a
paedophile, serial child killer and he really liked Jeanne d’Arc. His other nickname is Jimmy

PART 2: Underwear
Though unlike the other elements of clothing, we don’t have a physical surviving piece of
female underwear, we know Saxon men and women wore them. We do have a surviving male
loincloth. We know women wore them from graves: after you bury a body with the clothes still
on (as they would have), even though the materials decompose, fragments of them stay stuck
to the more durable pieces, like metal. A lot of metal buckles around the belt area have three
layers underneath and one above, which suggests underwear, and undergown, a gown and a
cloak above the belt. Statues of Saxon women show only the last three, so we can assume they
had something underneath he undergown. Another tunic would be a bit overkill, so this is the
most logical thing. I chose what Roman women would be wearing, which was essentially a linen
bikini (wool for poorer people, and leather when playing sports). Nothing is worn on the chest.
Roman women wore a sort of tube top to make their breasts smaller/flatter, but there’s no
evidence Saxon women did this. Historians think either the word “ham” or “heathe” denoted
this undergarment based on similar norse words. Stockings were also worn, wool for poor
women and linen for richer women. I conjecture that these undergarments are the sort of thing
women would prioritise on buying made of linen (more expensive), as otherwise it would be
quite uncomfortable.

PART III: Undergown
The material of the undergown was woven, usually in a twill or diamond twill style, sometimes
chevron. It would be made of white or off-white linen for nobles, rarely ever dyed or decorated
(it was largely not visible anyway). If it was, it was on the arms, one of the few visible parts of
the undergown (unless you were getting friendly with a Saxon girl, in which case you probably
wouldn’t be looking to closely at if her undergown is embroidered). Poorer women would have
to wear a wool undergown.
We know that most undergowns had a slit that went down the chest and was fastened with a
brooch, as represented.
We do not know what they were called, but historians seem to like to attribute it to the Old
English word “kyrtel” of unknown meaning, based on similar Norse words denoting
It is thought to have been pleated. Iit’s length could be anything from groin-level to ankle-low,
we don’t know (the hem is not visible in representations of Saxon women of the 5th
th century.
In the 7th
-11th century the gown got shorter so it was visible: ankle-length. By this point the
gown had become obsolete though, so the undertunic was probably far longer than a few
centuries prior. I have chosen to represent it as on the hip to the mid-hip, as it seems less
For a noblewoman it would be flattering and well-fitting, and for a poor woman, unflattering in
form and shape because of the lack of tailoring and seams.
While working, Saxon women would roll up the arms. This is based entirely on what I’ve learned
from reenactors, who made exact replicas of undergowns found and found it far easier to move
with the sleeves rolled up, especially when wearing bracelets and such.

Also called the Peplos after the similar Greek garment, or just gown. historians suggest the term
smoc (smo-tch) in Old English could be referring to this gown.
As usual, it would usually be undyed wool for poor women, and dyed linen for women,
sometimes wool as now there is no longer the problem of contact with the skin. It was fastened
at the shoulders with brooches. It is unknown but unlikely that sometimes it was fastened only
at one shoulder.
Pale yellow and light blue were seen as feminine colours.

PART V: Jewellery and Accessories
The main part beyond this would be the cloak: either made of roughspun wool or of fur, with
the fur turned inwards and the skin outwards. Fur would be more expensive.
Every Saxon freeman and freewoman would carry a small sword called a Seax (more of a dagger
really, depending on how wealthy you were the blade would be shorter, seemingly ranging
from about 40cm for a very poor man to ~20cm for a wealthy man). They were single edged like
the Roman Spatha, which in fact seem to be too similar to be coincidence. They were an
everyday tool but also a weapon in combat. Women at home would use it for cooking, wittling,
carving, etc...
Women fought, of course. It’s unknown how many, though going only on grave statistics (which
will invariably be very WRONG as they are gross statistics), it seems 1 in 10 warriors would be
women. Even those who were not warriors would defend their village/town/fort with their life
in the event of a siege/attack, even if it was just grabbing a knife off the wall (tools were hung
on the wall, they had little concept of proper storage).
Even women who did not fight would probably own swords. Indeed, swords were VERY
expensive. Most people would own one, it’s been found, but it would be the most expensive
thing in their household. In one story (I’m afraid I forget which) a man basically gives all his
other possessions, including his wife and daughter, just to get his sword back.
While this is probably poetic “exaggeration” (read as silly hyperbole), it’s not far off from the
Saxon men proposed to women by bringing them a dowry, usually a few animals, their own
sword (or spear if they were too poor for a sword) and an ox or two (more if they had them).
They’d then “give” them to the woman. Really, they just said “Do you want my stuff?”. If the
woman said no, she’d declined his offer of marriage. If she said yes, she legally became owner
of the property but “gifted” them back to her new husband. I like this tradition myself, I’ll
probably try it. Bring my cat, a spoon and a few empty packets of Pringles TM to my future wife,
give them to her, ask for them back, and then go on a honeymoon (paid for by her of course).
Seems like a flawless plan.
Anyway, I think calling that going off on a tangent would be the biggest understatement in
history. Back to the subject of accessories and jewellery, the brooches seem to have been
culturally different. Indeed, Jutes seem to have favoured round brooches, while Saxons
preferred them in different shapes, especially cruciform shapes like Thor’s hammer. The
intermarriage of both cultures by 500 AD would invalidate that concept though, so I’ve
portrayed this woman as wearing a round “Jutish-Style” brooch.
It’s probably a good point to define “Anglo-Saxon”. It’s a big generalisation, as the invaders
were: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Norsemen, Frisians, Geats, Goths, Franks, Longobards, Visigoths,
and time-travelling Syrian Refugees (Doctor Who fucked up his mission to bring them to New
New York in 4000 AD). I’m guilty of using the generalisation myself.
I find it curious how the term persists, given our isles were then invaded by Danes, Normans,
the French, the Dutch and finally Germans (who are still there, the queen’s real name is
Elizabeth Gotham Säxe-Coburg. Her husband is called Phillip Mountbatten. Not very English
what what?)
Patterns and designs would include very, very, very abstract animals (we’re talking how your
five-year-old nephew draws a few lines and says “it’s a dragon” and you have to go “oh it’s very
nice” when really it’s just a few squiggles), indo-european/aryan symbols (yes, a lot of
swastikas. Where did you think Hitler got the idea?). One man’s tunic found near modern-day
Munich from around the 4th century had about four dozen swastikas embroidered on it. Time-
travelling Neo-Nazis really are a bane to our society. These are usually called Tetraskellions,
especially if the branches of the cross are curved.
Hanging from their belts would be tools: bowls, combs, pouches/purses, their seax, anything
related to the tasks they might have to do or are planning to do (spindling). They could also
hang charms or beads, or wear these elsewhere such as around their neck. Pendants were
often worn around the neck. I have portrayed mine as wearing a pendant, and with some beads
and a pendant/charm of thor’s hammer on her belt. They believed representations of Godly
things or carving runes automatically brought magic or made the object magic. Often, instead
of beads, small rocks with runes carved on them were worn dangling from the belt or the neck.
matwoolf, LinnyV and Oscar Leigh like this.
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