After taking a deep dive into Viking culture, storytelling, and the arduous craft of garment making, costume designer Linda Muir was ready to become the medieval Coco Chanel of director Robert Eggers’ “The Northman.” In fact, one of the first things she did was construct an enormous chart to plot all of the scenes and character beats in this “Hamlet” riff on power and vengeance, rooted in the same 12th century Danish historical text adapted by Shakespeare.
“Robert provides me with an incredible amount of information and takes great care in answering my questions and filling me in not just on the backstory of the characters but then how that backstory relates to the sagas, relates to the culture,” Muir told IndieWire. “Then I did my master’s chart so I can look at it all in one go as a game plan. Then, when I understand where those changes should be seated, I go to Robert and suggest what I’m thinking.”
Muir was tasked with creating a multitude of wardrobes for three distinct worlds with different classes and cultures: the island kingdom of Viking royalty, where young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is forced to flee after witnessing the assassination of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang); the Slav village of Rus, where Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) roams 10 years later as a marauding berserker; and the Icelandic farm, where Amleth seeks revenge on Fjölnir, who has settled down with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and their family after being deposed. Overall, it amounted to nearly a thousand individual hand-sewn principal garments.
Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features
Muir’s creative journey wasn’t easy. After immersing herself in the sagas — medieval literature about the Norse people who first settled in Iceland around the year 870 — Muir realized that the costumes she needed to research didn’t exist because the sagas were written 200 years after “The Northman” takes place. Still, she checked out the British Museum, studied online lectures from Viking scholar Neil Price, and learned all about the cut and construction of early medieval clothing and accessories (especially the intricate weaving and dye-making), before finding weavers for twill and plain-weave woolens and other appropriate garments and accessories.
“Reading the sagas was a great help [for understanding] how people really lived and believed the larger-than-life, fantastical characters,” Muir said. “It was much more rooted in who they were. One, in particular, had a protagonist sneak up on a group of women and watches them weaving, which at the time was done on a vertical loom. They were using guts and intestines and the rocks were replaced by skulls. And you think: That’s the culture. I had no idea how resourceful, intelligent, and beautiful Viking culture was.”
The best way to understand and appreciate Muir’s creative accomplishments is by breaking down the principal characters of “The Northman”:
©Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
We first see Amleth as a child, when he displays all the benchmarks of wealth: He wears woolen garments that are woven with very intricate patterns, which was very time consuming. “He has very specific bands of tablet weaving, a dragon band on his chest, embroidery of shields and spears around the bottom of his cloak,” Muir said. “These are intended to promote learning, success later in battle, all calls to the gods as someone to watch. He’s a little prince with a beautiful hat trimmed in fur, gold, silver craft buckles, garters.”
But then all that is taken away from Amleth, and we next see him in the Slav village where he’s a fierce berserker warrior played by Skarsgård, dulled and deadened to his surroundings. “Amleth is wearing a garment that is unique in that his first linen shirt has buttons up the front and he’s got a more Eastern pair of trousers,” Muir continued. “He loses that quickly and changes into the berserker skin, which is both a wolf and a bear. He channels the spirits of both of those creatures.”
After the raid, when he hears Gudrún and Fjölnir are living in Iceland, he changes into the clothing of a slave. “He has a few different versions of slave wear as he becomes more elevated with privileges,” added Muir. “We are encountering all of these different cultures through his eyes, and then we see him when he returns to being a Viking again in stolen clothing that Olga [the Slavic sorceress, played by Anya Taylor-Joy] has provided him. That was a delicate line to draw because you try to bring out what is thought to be an accurate depiction of these classes that he is pretending to be in.”
Historical license was taken with Aurvandil in that these period kings didn’t wear crowns, but Eggers thought viewers would expect a crown, so he and Muir settled on a coronet style with ornaments fixed on a metal ring. “For that, I took some of the fine stamped motifs from the Sutton Hoo [medieval] collection,” Muir said. “From the waist up, he’s a king: the fur for the interior of the cloak was done in Rome and there was an excessive amount of red marten on the inside of his cloak, which was made of intricate woven wool and jewelry. And I gave him practical trousers and workday boots, appropriate for conducting raids.”
Gudrún was made up to be the true trophy wife and wears 20 long shifts of the same design, each serving different purposes, courtesy of everything that Aurvandil has raided and plundered and brought back. “The high status for the symbols are colored and all plant-based dyes: Madder red, blue, green, marigold,” said Muir. “It took a lot of time and money to re-dye back then. It’s all about layers and excess. If you’ve got a train on your dress and it’s pleated linen, that takes a lot of [effort]. She had an apron dress with big gold brass brooches, and we added a forecloth done with decorative braid, and some of it has gold threads embedded in it. And she has strands of glass beads.”
Later, in Iceland, Gudrún becomes a happy, down to earth farm wife. “Her clothing is very well made, solid wool, and has beautiful tablet weaving, which not only elevates the beauty of the piece but also prolongs the life of the garment,” Muir added. “She only really does the display — the brass brooches and glass beads — when they do the trip to the knattleikr game.”
When Amleth first meets Olga, the Slavic slave, she displays the typical motifs of an unmarried woman. “She wears a zapona [a tunic overpiece] whereas married women had skirts,” Muir said. “She has a little linen pouch, which has herbs and ways of calming her fellow village women on a ship. Her connection to the earth is less in the clothing once she becomes a slave, obviously. She’s very simply dressed [in a distressed garment made of hemp and wool] and wears barefoot shoes, which were really successful because of shooting in the rain and cold in Ireland. When they reunite at the end, she’s a Viking woman in a blue dress and cloak with tablet weaving.”
As a berserker, Amleth encounters The Seeress, or prophet (played by Björk), who predicts that he will get revenge on Fjölnir. Her nighttime sequence was shot monochromatically by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke to evoke moonlight with the aid of special filters. “I had to actually go through quite a little dance in figuring out things on my iPhone in black-and-white because we’ve already established what the Slav villagers are wearing: raw colored linen with red and black embroidery,” Muir continued.
“All the motifs mean something as a call to the gods for prosperity or health. The Seeress would be covered in embroidery [supplied by the wealthier villagers for private readings] and it had to read, it couldn’t go to black, so we ended up with pinks and grays and did silk screening. And then her barley headdress is the natural color of barley. And she had large golden temporal rings and many necklaces. Her eyes had been removed by the opposing militia, and over the blackness there are the cowrie shells and bells hanging from her headband to ward off evil spirits. It was such a hoot doing those.”
However, the night before shooting, Björk called Muir and requested chicken feet, a request the prop department was able to fulfill with rubber facsimiles. “Björk was amazing: She was loaded with every Slav cultural connection,” Muir added. “As a performer, she’s very used to wearing [such elaborate costumes and head gear].”