But by now, just weeks away from the bow of the second half of Season 5, which starts Nov. 28 (a year after the first half of the season began), audiences have been schooled: The real story behind all the whiskers and warfare is the Viking women, as told by the women in the crew who helped bring them to life.
It’s only fitting: In Scandinavia during the Viking age, which historians date from the late 700s to the mid-1000s, women had equality and power not found in other societies of the period, including the right to divorce, inherit property — and even become warriors.
“I’ve done ‘The Tudors,’ for instance, with Henry VIII (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and six wives, all subservient with no say,” says Jil Turner, “Vikings” set decorator. “This was very different. There was nothing fluffy at all here with the women.”
Indeed, frivolity has been pretty much nonexistent in the “Vikings” world. From stunt performers to set decorators, costume supervisors and designers to the hair and makeup department, women have been a key part of the mix that brings fresh focus on a society most viewers have known only through cartoon stereotypes.
“The main thread [on the series] is about brothers, but it’s really about women being at the head of the thing all along,” says costume supervisor Helen McCusker. “It was fascinating to me to work on such a bloodthirsty, macho show — and that was the women!”
Costumes were an important element in making a culture that most viewers weren’t deeply familiar with look realistic, which meant nearly every item had to be handmade and/or hand-dyed. Coming up with a workable armor for women was a particular challenge.
“We molded wet leather onto [the actors’] bodies, then dried it,” explains McCusker. “When you look at female armor, you’re looking at the shape of their bodies being reflected. We didn’t want them to look like superheroes — it was based on how they would have done it at the time.”
Hair was also critical to lending a tough feminine look to the women — an answer to the fierce beards of the men. “We just wanted to give the women an edgier look, especially for Lagertha [Katheryn Winnick],” says hair designer Dee Corcoran. “Her braids became her signature look as a shield maiden.”
Of course, it’s not all been leather armor and braids over the years; designers have been able to dip into fur capes, gowns, extensive jewelry and even one glorious wedding gown, replete with a hand-painted gold pattern, worn by Princess Gisla (Morgane Polanski) when she married Rollo (Clive Standen). It took more than three weeks to construct the gown, and ultimately it made just a brief appearance on the show.
Additionally, costumes often had to be relocated on short notice from the production’s home base in Dublin to locations as far-flung as Iceland or Morocco, with very little time allotted to accommodate different climates and cultures. “We’ve often been finishing late in the night, preparing armor to go on set the next day,” says costume designer Susan O’Connor Cave. “It’s all hands on deck at those times.’
Some of the below-the-line women on the show are hired to put the various looks into action. Stunt performer Jordan Coombes has both fought as a character on the “Vikings” battlefield and stood in for Winnick on some of the trickier stunts. She says teaching the actors to look natural in their often heavy equipment was an early challenge. “There’s a lot of leather and tight-fitting costumes, and when you have to carry a heavy shield in one hand and a sword in another and then remember intricate [battle] choreography, it’s a lot,” she says. “But it’s so rewarding, and it brings a lot of women out of their comfort zone.”
In addition, putting more women on the battlefield has led to one unexpected consequence for Ireland’s small stunt community — an increased need for female stunt actors. “When the show started, there were probably only a couple of women stunt performers in the country,” Coombes says. “Suddenly, there was this need for up to 20 women at a time who could battle.”
Ultimately, it would be hard to imagine that Vikings — and “Vikings” — could have prospered without the strength of the women on the team — both out front and behind the scenes.
Quips McCusker: “If anyone ever doubted the fact of actual Viking women in battle, they can just look at the wardrobe department. [You’ll] get a glimpse at the strength and resourcefulness of the fairer sex.”
Vikings Season 5, Part I is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.