Whither the Chainmail Bikini?

If misleading headlines are to be believed–and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be–then you all owe Boris Vallejo, the makers of Viking Barbie, and the websites that hawk Sexy Viking Costumes* (pictured above) an apology.** As I have always kept an open mind about the possibility of sexy Viking women, I am under no such obligation. But shame on you, judgmental readers, for denying the sexiness of the medieval Scandinavians.

I’ve arranged the misleading headlines that led me to shame you so terribly below in order of sexiness:

The International Herald Tribune: Researcher Says Fashion Counted for Some Vikings
Australia’s The Age: Dig Supports Theory Viking Women Were First to Use Bras
The Sun (UK): Viking’s Gals Had First Bras
LiveScience.com: Viking Women Dressed Provocatively
NationalGeographic.com: Viking Women Wore “Sexy” Outfits
The Local (Sweden’s news in English): Viking Women Had Sexy Style***
About.com: Sexy Viking Women on Display in Sweden
Glasgow’s Daily Record: Viking Women Had Bra Fashion Shows
The Scotsman: Uplifting Evidence for Viking Lingerie range

American papers don’t seem to have picked up the news story yet, but give them time. Also, by my calculations, the story seems to get sexier the further north it moves. The Australian paper is clinically historical, while the Scotsman‘s unfortunately punny headline is well on the way to “Viking Strippers Bare All!!!” which, if the trend holds, is how they’ll label the story when it reaches those racy Alaskan tabloids.

The story behind these headlines concerns the work of Uppsala University archaeologist Annika Larsson, who has been re-evaluating evidence, apparently from digs done in the 1800’s near Birka, concerning what Viking women wore (or more accurately, what the female relatives of the Swedish Vikings who raided Byzantium and Russia circa 750-1050 wore). The substance of Larsson’s new claim is that 1) the fabrics these Viking women wore were much more colorful than previously thought, 2) the dowdy, concealing fabric smock associated with Viking women was actually worn as a long train, and 3) metallic brooches that were thought to have been worn at collarbone-level, holding up the smock, were actually worn pinned centrally over the breasts.

Since I know very little about medieval Scandinavian fashions, I have no reason to doubt Dr. Larsson on the physical details. Certainly, she gives a better explanation for why these metal brooches are found down around breast-height in the grave sites than was previously given. Larsson dismisses these “prudish reconstructions” that claim that shoulder-pieces or collarbone-pieces “migrated” as the bodies decomposed.

I’m less convinced about the sexiness of said brooches, migrated or no, misleading headlines notwithstanding. Either Dr. Larsson is being misquoted or she is enjoying media attention perhaps a bit too much when she says things like…

The garments had an aesthetic lingerie effect as well as providing support. I think Viking women would have chatted about clothing styles and designs in simple fashion shows while their men were away marauding.


One might imagine that the Christian church had some misgivings about a style of dress which emphasized the breast and in addition revealed the front of the linen blouse underneath.

The first quote is half-“duh!” and half-“huh?!?” Of course Viking women chatted about clothing styles! Anybody who has ever worn clothing ever has, at one time or another, talked about the style of the clothing they’re wearing. I’m sure that, from time to time, even women who wear burqas that cover them from head to toe find themselves discussing whether the mesh that they wear over their eyes is too lacy or not lacy enough and how Susan in HR is such a tramp because you can so totally see her cheek bones.

But the “simple fashion shows” that so caught the attention of the Daily Record are just so much random vague speculation. As for the “aesthetic lingerie effect” and the Church’s imagined misgivings over emphasizing the breasts or revealing linen blouses, I just don’t buy it. Below, on the left, you can see the old stodgy Viking clothes, and on the right, the new, sexy Viking clothing with specially formulated “aesthetic lingerie effect.”

Were you momentarily confused there, thinking that I’d included before and after screen shots of Laney Boggs from the movie She’s All That?****

I didn’t think so. That’s because the difference in sexiness between exhibits A and B is roughly 6 femtohelgas.

Sorry to dip into specialist jargon there. As I said earlier, I don’t know much about Viking clothing, but I have done pioneering research on Viking sexiness, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that I’m writing mostly to non-specialists. The medievalists who read my blog are no doubt familiar with my groundbreaking Viking Sexiness Metric (VSM), which has become the standard measure of the degree of sexiness of all things Viking, but for the non-specialists out there, here is a brief recap. Through consulting documents not unlike the Flateyjarbók, the Codex Regius, and the other Codex Regius, I developed a simple scale that allows researchers from various fields to arrive at a precise definition of the level of Vikingsexiness in a given artifact.

The standard unit of Vikingsexiness measure is, of course, the now famous millihelga, defined as the amount of sexiness found in Helga, the wife of King Features Syndicate’s Hägar the Horrible. The scale proceeds exponentially from there both up and down, so that something that rates as one helga’s worth of vikingsexy is one thousand thousand (one million) times as sexy Helga herself, and something that is 1000 helgas, or one hectohelga, is precisely one million million times as sexy as Helga. Once the scale reaches megahelgas, gigahelgas, and so on, it gets a little harder to follow, so I made this chart to explain things to my layfans:

Helga Honi (Hägar’s daughter) Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?” Viking Barbie
1 millihelga
1 helga
2.5 helgas
.7 decahelgas
The girl in the Viking Woman YouTube video D&D cover illustrations Marvel Comics’ Valkyrie Fevered imaginings of Internet costume sellers
8.2 kilohelgas

17 megahelgas

17.123 megahelgas
.137 zetahelgas

I hope that clears things up for everybody.

*You may purchase these costumes here, here, and here.
**As one of those geeks who came of age staring longingly at D&D cover art illustrations, the Chainmail bikini has always seemed like a perfectly reasonable clothing option for medieval women, and not at all impractical, even in the frozen north.
***I am pretty sure this is a translation of what I take to be the first version of the story, Vikingakvinnor klädde sig mer vågat.
****For members of Generations other than X, please replace the dated reference to the Rachel Leigh Cook movie with a dated reference to your own generation’s movie that featured a very attractive girl made up to look slightly less attractive so that she could miraculously be transformed into a very attractive girl by someone on a bet who really falls for her, and then it’s awkward because it was like a bet at first, but now it’s something more than that, it’s real, and he loves her just like she really is, though it doesn’t hurt that she was always pretty hot, but she’s not sure he loves her, because of the bet, but he’s pretty hot, too… and they all live happily ever after and Eliza gets him his damned slippers or they go to the prom or something, I forget.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Liza

    Hi there, temporarily delurking to say that I love — love — that in your system of measurement Helga herself does not measure up to one helga. Something about how strange that is really appeals to me.


  • Raven

    While I’m admittedly not a Viking womens clothes scholar either, here’s a couple of quick points that I noticed about this latest “theory”. 1. A train would be quite troublesome unless you have loads of money and don’t have to do anything. 2. Metal broaches right there? Ow. Double ow if you’re out in the sun at all.

  • boinky


    But it says a lot about the writers that they assume that the clip allowing the breasts to peak was assumed to be “sexy”, and not the obvious reason: Because before the days of birth control, women were either pregnant or breastfeeding from age 15 to 45…so why the clip? she had to feed the kid.

  • Sigivald

    Boinky: Ah, but the “standard” (ie, normal interpretation) apron dress allows breastfeeding plenty well enough anyway.

    Done right, it’s also plenty sexy (since it’s meant to be form-fitting); opinion is almost unanimous that this “revised” interpretation is Not Hot At All to modern eyes.

  • songstress1973

    Also I’d like to point out:
    If this is suppose to be a “bra” support structure, why then is the “model” wearing a bra underneath?… at least it sure looks like a bra underneath her tunic…
    This is just bad reserach anyway… and the person who proposed this retarded theory is merely riding the wave of media attention for the moment. Hopefully she’ll go away soon and we can get back to some really useful archeological findings.
    Ridiculous hogwash.

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  • Harald

    You are far too young to know this, but the book The Joy of Lex included a word, the milihelen, defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. 

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