How the Costume Designer Behind ‘The Northman’ Brought the Viking World to Bold, Breathtaking Life
I used the information that was available to form the baseline, and then I tried to channel a Viking sensibility, I suppose. The ceremonial wear is probably the largest area of creation because we know bits and pieces about how the deceased were clothed or what they were surrounded with in the burial mounds, but we don’t really know how the people grieving those loved ones dressed. We do know that there was a lot of blood sacrifice. I also felt very strongly that textiles must have been a huge part of Viking commerce and a commodity and must have been a valuable part of their lives. It would have taken so long to create these textiles, so I couldn’t really see them being disposable.
We also had conversations with Neil Price, who was absolutely amazing at helping fill in these gaps of information with supposition and theory and practical advice. Robert and I spoke to him about ceremonial wear, and I told him that in my research I had gleaned that white wool must have been special because white sheep were rarer, and so I didn’t believe that they would get rid of that clothing. But clearly they weren’t walking around crusted in stinky, dirty blood—that wouldn’t have been a good idea in terms of hygiene or anything else, really. So practically speaking, they must have washed these items, but by that point the blood wouldn’t have come out. So it occurred to me that these wool clothes would be left with stains that would show past sacrifices, past events, past funerals. The clothing would become a sort of canvas of the history of these people, so we ended up staining the multiples to appear the same. Whether that reads on camera or not, I’m not sure, but that was the notion. That’s just one example, but it’s to say that there was invention, yes, but we were still hopefully using the real information that bubbled up all over the place from the research.
There are plenty of standout costumes, but one of the most striking—and one of my personal favorites—is Björk’s costume as the seeress. What was the story there? Was Björk involved in the development of the outfit at all?
It mostly came from research Robert had done, apart from the addition of the pieces hanging in front of the eyes. Björk felt very strongly that because her character’s eyes had been taken by a Viking militia, she should have the cowrie shells for fertility and the bells to ward off evil spirits. Of course, there are the incredible, beautiful headdresses she uses in her own work, that she makes with James Merry, so I think there was a link there with her performance in that one area. But the design equally came from the research we did into Slavic cultures. Obviously, there was the Viking research, but the Slavic research was equally massive. In that period, there were many, many tribes and each had its own culture. I realized quite early on that we had to be very specific about exactly where we were placing this village within that landmass and that it had to correspond to what Craig was doing in the set design, the way the village was constructed, and the carvings and the language used there.
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