'The Vikings' Costume Designer Joan Bergin Dispels Norse Myths

Vikings TV Review - H 2013
Jonathan Hession/History

Vikings TV Review - H 2013

Turns out that Vikings were way into their hygiene and hair and always brought extra clothes on raids — could they have been the world's first metrosexuals?

Costume designer Joan Bergin has three Emmys under her belt for her elaborate period work on Michael Hirst’s Showtime series, The Tudors.

And she’s poised for another nomination for her authentic, yet imaginative, costumes in Hirst’s latest project, The Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted series, that ends Sunday April 28 but has already been renewed for a second season.

The show stars Australian actor Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, Katheryn Winnick as his wife, Lagertha, Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson, George Blagden as Athelstan. Lothbrok was a real man, the first Viking to emerge from misty Norse legends and secure his place in European history

Hirst, who admits a childhood fascination with Vikings, sought to dispel the myth of bands of plundering, bloodthirsty unwashed barbarians. Instead he reveals a complex, highly democratic and feminist society."We wanted to show the real world and culture of the Vikings from their own eyes." 

 "They were a much more open society and their attitude towards women was that women could rule, they were warriors and fought alongside their husbands in battle. We have a character -- Lagertha -- who embodies this and no one can believe that in the Dark Ages you could have such an empowered woman. They have a fearsome, cartoonish, image and reputation. but they were actually a very advanced culture."

And they changed the world.  “At one stage, they ruled most of England. They founded the Irish city of Dublin and ruled York in England. They took what they wanted from other cultures but they also gave the world a legal system, brought democracy to other cultures. They started out as raiders, became colonizers and were eventually assimilated.".

While there was vast portraiture to guide Bergin's process during The Tudors, she found scant images of what 8th century Vikings looked like and what they wore.

She was flummoxed until she started digging around in their homeland, Scandinavia, where the Viking culture has been lovingly preserved and maintained and displayed in museums. “I only wish the Irish had preserved our Viking heritage as well,” says Bergin, speaking from set of A Little Chaos, her next film project that stars Kate Winslet. 

Bergin visited museums such as the Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg, Norway,  the Birka Museum in Stockholm, Sweden and met with Viking scholars, only to find out that our perceptions of Vikings are wildly inaccurate.

 “The cliché is that they were all savages," says Bergin. "They were not. They were Pagans, a religion far older than Christianity. They worshipped many gods of nature and like the American Indian, they wore the skins – fur and leather -- of many animals. But there was so much detail and hand stitching  and decoration that there was a couture quality to Viking garments.”

Turns out Viking men were also a bit metrosexual. “Irish women loved the Vikings because they were so clean," explains Hirst. "They always took a change of clothes on raids and they were so meticulous about their hair that combs were routinely found buried in Viking graves. 

Their jewelry and designs also infiltrated the lands they conquered and settled, such as Ireland, Scotland and England. When Bergin first brought in Viking designs, symbols and adornment, her costume team was in disbelief. “They said, “That’s a Celtic  design!”. But in fact, we have absorbed many things that came originally from the Vikings.”

Another surprising aspect of Viking culture that  Bergin uncovered is that they loved to wear color. “They knew how to dye their woven cloth, leather and fur with natural berries,  including the bilberry (a Swedish blueberry.) So we used many of the same berries and it gave the fabrics a  unique mottled appearance. We had had all our fabric made – some in India, some in Irish mills where they still make rough hewn fabrics the old way.”

Bergin's  couture coup de gras: “The final thing I did was to work every single garment with threads, silver lines, metal, strange twists that look like hair and a buildup of fabric. This tactile texture in the clothing suggested the complexity of these people’s lives. They had a very fascinating culture and I wanted to express that."

To see -- and read -- more about the costumes, check out  THR's Vikings photo gallery.