The final layer of my elevation outfit is an orange caftan. The garment consists of four panels and two side gores, plus simple rectangular sleeves with gussets under the arm.
I have seen a lot of discussion about the neckline shape of the woman’s caftan, so I will include my thoughts on the topic. I have seen two general ideas – one is that the caftan was cut with a open neckline to show off the paired brooches and swags of beads, the second is that the garment had a high neckline that could be folded back to show off the jewelry. The fragments of this garment type from Birka are very small so there is very little archeological evidence to support either idea.
Evidence from Birka
Much of the information available on the Birka caftan is available in Inga Hägg’s article “Viking Women’s Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archeological Methods” in Cloth & Clothing in Medieval Europe. This is an older book (published in 1983) but the pictures of the extant fragments are still very useful.
Fig. 17.24 is a diagram of a round brooch with loops of silk preserved around the pin and Fig. 17.21 is a picture of an extant silk fragment the contains a small loop attached to the front opening. The fabric in Fig. 17.21 shows the design of the oval brooch impressed from the backside, which indicates that the layer was worn over the brooches. These fragments point to a silk-trimmed outer garment (typically called a caftan by archeologists) that was held together by a brooch at about the same height as the oval brooches, which was pinned through small loops of fabric attached to the garment.
Fig. 17.22b shows a silk fragment with a hemmed edges that sits partially covering an oval brooch. Since the hemmed edge sits on top of the oval brooch, this seems to support the theory of an open neckline. While it is not conclusive, it is interesting that none of these fragments show any evidence of fabric folded back at the neckline.
One argument I have heard against the open neckline is its impracticality in cold weather. This leads to several interesting question – particularly the strength of fashion as an influence on Viking Age clothing and our interpretations of the garment’s purpose. Viking Age women wore jewelry and decorated their clothing so I think it is safe to say that fashion (rather than just practicality) did influence clothing choices. I also feel that we as reenactors need to be very careful when interpreting the role of each garment. For example, this garment has been called a caftan or coat by archeologists, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that the garment was worn primarily for maximal warmth (for modern context, consider the differences between a blazer and a parka – the both fall into the general category of ‘coat’ but each serves a very difference purpose). Since the evidence indicates that the women’s caftan was closed by a single brooch – and therefore hung open for most of the length in front – it doesn’t seem likely that its purpose was maximizing warmth.
Hägg’s article “Mantel och kjortel i vikingatidens dräkt” (Capes and tunics in Viking Age dress), suggests that the caftan layer was worn under the cape or mantle that is generally seen in period depictions of women. This suggests that the open neckline would be covered by an additional layer when needed for warmth.
There may have been foreign influences for this garment, but these influences are not clear cut and do not provide an obvious answer to the likely shape of the neckline. There are several example of women’s front closing garments in various cultures that might have been known to people at Birka, which was a major trading center.
There several example of Frankish women’s front-closing garments. The robe of Arnegundis (6th century) appears to have been closed with a brooch at the throat. This doesn’t really help with our question since the Birka example is fastened by a brooch below the level of the paired brooches. Another Frankish example, the robe of Bathilde (7th century) has a complicated pieced layout with a folded over cowl collar. In the descriptions I have seen, this garment was not closed with a brooch at all, so again the similarities to the Birka examples are limited.
Alternately, the Birka caftan may be evidence of Eastern influences, but this view seems primarily based on assumption that the female garment is associated with a male garment style (also from Birka) that is closed by a row of buttons and is associated with Eastern style belt fittings. Hägg includes line drawings of various Russian and Estonian coats in “Mantel och kjortel i vikingatidens dräkt” but does not specify if they are male or female garments. Again, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence about neckline style for female caftans to provide a conclusive answer.
And so . . .
In my research for my caftan I did not find a conclusive answer to the neckline question, so I went with my personal preference and decided to use an open neckline for my caftan. Maybe I will try a high neckline for the next one and compare 🙂