The Latest Fashions in Ancient Egypt
by Ilene Springer
Here's a surprise to many. The high-quality Egyptian cotton that is so popular the world over was not even available ancient Egypt. It was only until the Christian period that cotton trees growing half-wild in Nubia (southern Egypt) started being used. And finally, in the 19th century, an American variety of cotton started flourishing in Egypt. So what did the ancient Egyptians wear? Linen. Most everything men, women and children wore was made from linen. In fact, the ancient Egyptians believed the Gods wore linen. Linen is made from flax-a winter crop--and there are many tomb and relief scenes showing men and women pulling the flax from the ground. The ancient people also donned wool capes on cold evenings. Silk first came to Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period; the famed Cleopatra VII wore silk.
Simple and elegant
In today's world, fashions come and go on a seasonal or yearly basis; in Egypt, fashion changed very little in its 3000-year history. For the most part, the people wore a draped style of dress, the garments consisting of pieces of material wrapped around the body and held in place by knots tied in the fabric and by waist belts, sashes and collars. The Egyptians were lucky that these kinds of clothes did not require much sewing-just along the sides and later on for armholes. And the men-another surprise-were supposedly more fashion conscious than the women. From reliefs and tomb drawings, it has been estimated that men had over forty different types of garments of various shapes, lengths and fullness.
Over the centuries there were some gradual changes in dress as clothing styles became more intricate. During the Old Kingdom (which lasted until about 2130 BC), men and women wore simple garments. Men wore a short skirt--belted at the waist--that in time became pleated or gathered. Important men often wore a shoulder cape or corselet to cover their bare torso. Women wore the sheathlike gown that has been so often depicted in ancient Egyptian art. The gown covered the body from the ankles to just underneath the breasts, and was held up by decorative shoulder straps. Sometimes we see paintings of men wearing animal skins, such as that of the leopard. This often signified high status; animal skins were also used in some religious ceremonies or festivals. The Egyptians became quite adept at tanning hides, and they used the leather for straps and various types of footwear, including sandals. Sandals were also made from papyrus or palm leaves. During the Middle Kingdom, which
prospered until around 1600 BC (the capital had moved from Memphis to Thebes), more material was used in the masculine skirt, making it longer-sometimes down to the ankles-and fuller. The men also wore elaborate and ornamental pendants which were attached to their belts. Late during this time period, a double skirt was introduced-a triangular loincloth was worn under a skirt. The women continued with their simple sheer gowns until the New Kingdom-from about 1539 BC until 30 BC when the ancient civilization was finally conquered by Rome. Both men and women still wore the same type of garments but they were composed of larger pieces of material and draping was more intricate and more richly decorated. Important persons of both sexes wore robes that were draped and pleated and held in place by pins and belts, creating wide, elbow-length sleeves. At this point, the Egyptians were influenced by the fashions brought by Assyrians, Persians Greeks who successively conquered them until the final vanquishing by Rome.
She wore white
And so did he in ancient Egypt. The process of dyeing material came very slowly to Egypt. Although garments were mostly white, there was no lack of color. Men and women wore decorative collars-tightly hued bands made of embroidered materials and beads and set around the neck and shoulders on the bare skin or on top of a white cape or gown. Bracelets, earrings, pendants, rings, ankle bracelets-all made from semi-precious stones and faience (the first ceramic material invented)-also set off the white garments in a beautiful contrast of blues, greens and browns and golds. In the New Kingdom, embroidery, influenced by Syrian culture, made its debut. A certain group of decorative motifs show up in embroidery on collars, belts and sashes--the lotus flower, papyrus bundle, birds in flight and many geometric forms. Sacred emblems, such as the scarab beetle and the asp were worn by priests and royalty. But even poor Egyptians found ways of adorning themselves. Isn't it intriguing that with all of today's fashions, when someone wants a an entertaining costume, he or she will look to ancient Egyptian for something special to wear? Ilene Springer (Sennuwy) writes on ancient Egypt and is a student of museum studies at Harvard University. She will be in Egypt in mid-January.
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011