STYLE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Archeologists and historians have explored many fascinating facts about Ancient Egypt, thanks to survived artifacts left by this extraordinary civilization.
The ubiquity and abundance of beauty products bring a big question. On the one hand, it is likely that the Egyptians had a strong admiration for a superficial look, much as most of us today. Possibly, they even set the standards for our modern perception of beauty. On the other hand, many of those “beauty products” had important practical qualities. Most of the jewelry pieces carried religious significance. Moreover, indulgent finery, makeup, wigs, and jewelry represented the owner’s social status.
“The more I try to understand what the Egyptians themselves understood as ‘beautiful’”, says Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, “the more confusing it becomes because everything seems to have a double purpose. When it comes to ancient Egypt, I don’t know if ‘beauty’ is the right word to use.”
Whether you want to derive an inspiration for your next designs, explore fashion history or develop your personal fashion sense, exploring Ancient Egyptian style will give you a lasting feeling of sensual and exotic sense. Learn about the ancient Egyptian clothing and see how modern trends continuously draw inspiration from the Egyptians.
Herodotus called the robes worn by both genders in Ancient Egypt kalasiris. Material and cut changed over time, though the fabric of choice was mainly linen.
The women’s kalasiris covered one or both shoulders. The top had different lengths from below the breasts up to the neck, the bottom usually reached the calves or even the ankles. Some had short sleeves or women wore short robes or shawls over their shoulders. Some dresses were sleeveless. They were made from a rectangular piece of linen twice the desired dress length. An opening for the head then was cut at the center. The fabric then was folded in half and its sides were stitched leaving openings for the arms. They were often worn with a belt which held together the folds of cloth.
A robe that ended below the breasts had two shoulder straps that held the dress up and covered chest. The straps were knotted or fastened with a pin or buckle.
It must be noted that the Ancient Egyptians did not regard a bare breast as immodest. Bare-breasted clothing was common for both reach and poor women. There are various pieces of Ancient Egyptian art with party scenes depicting women, probably dancers, wearing nothing but panties and jewelry. In the Old Kingdom, there were circular capes designed to cover and decorate breasts.
Majority of daily garments were not embellished, though pleating was used since the Old Kingdom when some gowns of rich Egyptians had horizontal pleats. Sometimes women’s dresses were embroidered with beads.
The fashion of Ancient Egypt changed in the period of the Middle Kingdom when patterned colorful collars became fashionable making the overall style more elaborate.
New Kingdom women’s fashion changed due to the introduction of new dye fixatives that allowed to produce more colorful linen. The basic tube dress remained but dresses were decorated by an elaborate pleated and fringed robe which was worn over the gown.
Wealthy Egyptian women also decorated their dress with embroidery, sequins, feather and different types of stones. The fine, almost transparent linen was accompanied by pieces of jewelry which covered different parts of their body.
During the time of the New Kingdom, when Egypt spread its political power east into Asia, Egyptian fashion changed dramatically. With the influence of trade and ideas from the East, Egyptian style became more diverse; it started changing more frequently and received some notes of an eastern flavor.
Members of the upper classes wore layers of fine, almost sheer kilts and long- and short-sleeved shirts that tied at the neck. They also draped themselves in billowing robes of fine linen that stretched from neck to ankle and were tied at the waist by a sash. The better quality garments were heavily pleated, and some were ornamented with colored fringe.
Scientists are quick to admit that this splendid civilization was the pioneer of high fashion. One example of this is the bead-net dress,👇🏽 an opulent garment that the wealthy Egyptian women wore during festivities. As its name suggests, the gown was made with several thousand faience beads of different colors attached in a variety of geometrical patterns. The dress was worn along with beaded collars (usekh) and headdresses.
Dresses made of beads were traditionally worn over kalasiris. This one of survived masterpieces of Ancient Egyptian fashion design. So far, arachaelogists have found twenty such dresses, all of which are kept in museums around the globe.
One of such dresses (below) was unearthed in 1923/24 inside 5th/6th Dynasty tomb near the city of Qau. The dress is currently kept in Petrie Musem of Egyptian Archaeology in London.
The discovery of these types of Egyptian gowns and Egyptomania present at that time highly influenced Art Deco fashion in 1920s.
The oldest garment worn by men was a kilt called shendyt, that was made of a rectangular piece of cloth (usually linen) wrapped loosely around the hips, leaving the knees open. As a rule, it was wrapped around the body from right to left so that the edge of the skirt would be in the front. The kilt was knotted, or fastened with a buckle at the waist.
This garment was the typical male clothing for all classes from royalty to peasants, though the quality of the fabric and the specific style differed according to one’s purchasing capabilities. Some of the more expensive kilts had bias-cut edges, pleated panels, or fringed edges, and were made of softer and thinner linen.
The length of those kilts varied, being short (above knees) during the Old Kingdom and reaching the calf in the period of the Middle Kingdom when it was often supplemented with a sleeveless shirt or a long robe. By that time, it became fashionable to have the kilt longer and wider or to wear it with an inverted stiffened box pleat that appeared as an erect triangular front piece. Long cloaks were also worn by the men during cool weather. Even though fashion changed over time, the basic kilt stayed the standard garb for scribes, servants, and peasants.
Clothing was not cheap and in the hot Egyptian climate, people tried to wear as little as possible. Poor men and ones doing physical labor wore a loincloth or, if they were working in the river, nothing at all. A loincloth was also used as an underwear worn under kilts.
Children usually did not wear clothing during the summertime and wore wraps and cloaks in winter. After reaching 6 years of age, they began dressing the same way as adults.
In the New Kingdom, the pleats were mostly vertical, but the arrangement of pleating could be complex. For example, a Middle Kingdom piece of clothing displays three different types of pleating: one part is pleated with pleats that were a few centimeters apart from each other, another one is with very narrow pleats and a third part is chevron-patterned, with horizontal and vertical pleats crossing each other. How the pleats were made is unknown, but it is generally believed to have been very labor intensive.
Tutankhamun’s tomb kept various pieces of clothing: kilts, tunics, shirts, aprons, sashes, socks, head-dresses, scarves, caps, gauntlets and gloves, some of them with soft linen linings, others with separate index and middle fingers and an opening for the thumb. Underwear in the form of a triangular loincloth was also found.
The gods would have to be dressed as well. This was the duty of a few servants that were allowed to enter the temple, where the god’s statue was. Nesuhor, commander of the fortress at Elephantine under Apries, took care that the temple of Khnum had all the priests necessary to serve the needs of the god:
I appointed weavers, maid-servants, and launderers for the August wardrobe of the great god and his divine ennead.
– Statue of Nesuhor, Louvre
Egyptians were skilled at the art of weaving. In fact, today the world’s oldest woven dress is the Tarkhan Dress, originally made in 3,482 BC in Egypt.
Egyptian fashion depended on the materials that were available in Egypt at that time. Cotton was not grown in Egyptian climate. It was introduced only in the Roman period as an import from India. There were no wool-bearing sheep either.
The weather was often hot and dry and fabrics used to sew clothing had to reflect this. Most outfits were made of linen – a fabric woven from the fibers of the flax stem. Different grades were produced based on the desired end product. The finest and softest thread was produced from the youngest plant.
Small amounts of silk were brought by trade to the eastern Mediterranean probably as early as the second half of the second millennium BCE. The fragments of silk have been discovered in Egyptian tombs.
Some of the rich also wore animal fibers, but animal materials were not popular. The Egyptians believed that those fabrics weren’t clean. They were a taboo in sanctuaries and temples. Pharaohs and some priests, as servants of gods, were the only exceptions that were allowed to wear these and have been depicted on the walls of tombs wearing leopard skins and lions’ tails.
After the weaving was done, linen could be left with its natural color. It could also be sun bleached to produce a beautiful white cloth that was very popular in Egyptian fashion. Not only was white a good color to wear in the extreme heat, it also symbolized purity.
Various herbal dyes were occasionally applied before weaving linen to produce red, yellow, brown or blue thread. Since linen didn’t take dye well, The Egyptians harvested green flax and wove green linen from it. Green clothing was a status symbol because the color was strongest when new.
The pigments from the tomb of Perneb (circa 2650 B.C.), which was presented to Metropolitan Museum of New York City in 1913, were examined by Maximilian Toch. The American paint manufacturer and chemist found that the red pigment proved to be iron oxide, hematite; a yellow consisted of clay containing iron or yellow ochre; a blue color was a finely powdered glass; and a pale blue was a copper carbonate, possibly azurite; green was malachite; black was charcoal or boneblack; gray – a limestone mixed with charcoal.
Even though dyeing pigments were known in the Old Kingdom, more elaborate colorful fashion became popular only in the New Kingdom.
Sandals appear on some of the earliest pharaonic images. On both faces of the Narmer palette (c.3100 B.C.E.), for example, the king is depicted barefoot but followed by his sandal-bearer (below image 1).
Besides practical use for protecting feet, sandals were often associated with purity. For example, the Book of the Dead 125 required the deceased to be ‘pure and clean…shod with white sandals’ before they could recite the spell. Hence white sandals were part of a ritual. They were shown on the Tutankhamun’s feet on the wall of his tomb where he was depicted between Anubis and Hathor. (below image 2)
Wealthy people could afford sandals made of leather that had straps between the first and second toes and across the instep. Often the Egyptians walked barefoot and wore sandals on special events or when their feet could possibly get hurt. Some sandals had pointed tips which were turned upwards. The cheapest shoes were affordable for everyone but the very poorest. The common Egyptians’ sandals were made of woven palm or papyrus.
Tutankhamun had at least 42 pairs of sandals with him inside his comb.
The Egyptians were obsessed with cleanliness and believed that hair could make a person less clean. Majority of men shaved their faces and priests were obliged to shave their whole bodies. Upper-class men and women often shaved their heads and wore wigs made of human hair, occasionally supplemented by plant fiber or the wool of sheep.
These wigs were not just black or brown. Blond wigs were also made.They had vegetable-fiber padding on the underside. The wigs were very expensive and time-consuming to create. One of The Ancient Egyptian wig that has survived consists of:
- 120,000 individual hairs
- 300 strands (groups of hairs)
The same with other ancient Egyptian ‘beauty products’ wigs had a practical purpose. They helped to reduce the risk of lice. These heavy wigs might have been worn mostly during festivals and ceremonies, like in 18th century Europe.
The wig would be raised on small pads to let a flow of air between the scalp and the hair and, for sure, they never turned grey or bald.
Kids had their heads shaved too, except for one or two locks at the side of the head. These tresses were referred as “sidelocks of youth”, a hairstyle worn by the god Horus when he was a child.
This traditional style was worn by both boys and girls until they reached puberty. Then the locks were cut off and the young men adopted the same hairstyle as the men – short or shaved.
The young girls kept their hair long, which they dressed as braided ponytails or plaits. Sometimes a fringe was cut. Their hair was carefully curled and at times adorned with jewelry, hair bands, and beads.
Women who kept their own hair would try to enhance its natural color by rubbing in a mixture of oil and the boiled blood of a bull or a black cat.
Both men and women in Ancient Egypt wore eyeshadow, usually blue and green, and black eyeliner, khol. Make-up kits found in tombs were kept inside chests and included highly-polished copper or bronze mirrors, small pots and jars of makeup and a variety of applicators.
To line eyes and eyebrows the Ancient Egyptian used brushes and pencils made of a reed. There are siltstone palettes, carved in the shape of animals, which were used for grinding minerals such as green malachite and kohl.
Eye make-up was not just a fashion, it also protected against eye-infections that were common in Egypt. Recent scientific research suggests that the lead-based mineral at its base had anti-bacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the eyes. In addition, the thick application of kohl around the eyes helped against excessive glare from the sun.
Cosmetic makers used red ochre with oil to make red lip balm. Ochre was used as a blush too. Malachite was used for green paint and galena for dark gray one. They also used henna to redden their lips and nails.
The Egyptians, both men, and women used perfume as a deodorant. They believed that bad odors caused disease and good ones chased them away. There is a theory, that the Ancient Egyptians wore cones of perfume mixed with animal fat on their heads at feasts. When the cones melted, they released fragrances into the air.
At ceremonies, men wore garlands of flower and spread powdered perfume on their beds so their bodies would absorb the scent during the night. Flower petals were scattered on the floor and perfumed water poured from orifices in statues.
Wealthy women used different perfumes for different parts of their anatomy. Cleopatra used an oil of roses and violets on her hands. She anointed her feet with an oil of iris, hyacinth and orange blossoms mixed with honey and cinnamon.
They were highly sensual people, and a cornerstone theme of their religion was fertility and procreation. This sensuality is reflected by two New Kingdom love poems: “Your hand is in my hand, my body trembles with joy, my heart is exalted because we walk together,” and “She is more beautiful than any other girl, she is like a star rising . . . with beautiful eyes for looking and sweet lips for kissing” (after Lichtheim 1976: 182).
Children also wore makeup, including kohl.
In Ancient Egypt, tattoos had a decorative and protective function. There is an evidence that, during the period of the New Kingdom, dancers and prostitutes used to tattoo their thighs with images of the dwarf deity Bes, who warded off evil, as a precaution against venereal disease.
Many blue faience figurines from the Middle Kingdom display dotted geometric patterns across their stomachs and thighs, suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians also took up tattooing.
Today, studies of Egyptian mummies found that they also had similar tattoos. The best known is that of Amunet, priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes. She was found at Deir el-Bahari in 1891. The priestess has diamond shapes made of small dots tattooed on her right thigh, as well as tattoos on her arms and all over her stomach. Egyptologists believe that those tattoos relate to fertility and honor of the goddess Hathor.
The pectoral was a piece of jewelry worn on the chest. It masked the hollow between the breasts – which often took the shapes of falcons and scarabs.
The usekh was a large collar which partially hid the shoulders and chest.
Jewelry was made of gold and silver and inlaid with precious gems.