Ancient History & Civilisation





Women aren’t the only ones who are fashion-conscious. Until relatively recent times men were as fond of bright colors and sparkling ornaments, and spent as much on their attire as did their wives and daughters. It need not be pointed out that fashion is arbitrary; some of the styles of even the recent past look hilariously funny to us, and the haute couture of alien cultures may seem actually grotesque.

By our standards, Egyptian female costume and makeup look just alien enough to be exotic. Essentially the only material used for clothing was linen; cotton and silk were not known until much later, and although wool was sometimes used for clothing, it was uncommon. A lot of variety was possible with linen, however. Egyptian weavers were skillful, and the cloth they produced ranged from a coarse canvas texture to the most delicate, semitransparent gauze.

The Egyptian lady’s version of our “good basic black dress,” suitable for all occasions, was a form-fitting garment which went from below the breasts down to the ankles. Wide straps ran over the shoulders, covering the bosom but leaving a deep décolletage.

This dress is often worn by women in statues and painted reliefs, but the casual observer might not recognize it at once, owing to the conventions of Egyptian drawing, which have trouble with female anatomy. Usually one breast is shown in profile and the other is indicated only by a neat round nipple in some arbitrarily selected spot. The straps of the dress, however, are shown in front view, so that they look like the topless bathing suit straps of a few years ago. We know they weren’t actually worn that way by the statues which show the same garment. In both statues and paintings it is sometimes hard to make out the dress at all, except as a pair of straps and an incised line for the hem. The dress must have been designed to fit the figure as tightly as possible, and it may have been stylish to make it of thin material. A becoming style for the slim and graceful, but I wonder how plump ladies felt about it? They could at least cover themselves with a mantle, which would have been comfortable on cool evenings. It could be draped to suit the fancy of the owner—over one shoulder and under the other arm, or wrapped around the shoulders like a shawl or a stole.


Basic woman’s dress of the Old Kingdom


Elaborate woman’s gown of the New Kingdom

In later periods, coincident with the growing sophistication of society in general, another style came into fashion among the well-to-do. This was a robe made of the sheerest linen obtainable and covered with delicate accordion pleats. Over the shoulders went a capelike affair whose ends were crossed and tied on the breast; it gave the effect of wide, elbow-length sleeves, also narrowly pleated. Alas, there was still no relief for the full-figured female. Not only were these robes transparently thin, but they were open in front from breast to ankle, and they hung free unless confined at the waist by a bright embroidered or gold-ornamented sash. The ends of the sash hung down almost to the floor. Under the robe a modest lady might wear a shift like the older-style dress, but some of them seem to have worn nothing at all.

There has probably never been any period in which formal male attire was so drab as it is today, when changes in fashion are limited to the number of buttons on a coat or the width of a lapel. The modern masculine contempt for fashion as something which should concern only women is uncommon; I suspect that in Egypt men commented approvingly on Setnakhte’s new collar and asked Amenhotep where he got his kilt pleated. The kilt or short skirt was the basic costume for men, but the kilt was capable of fascinating variations. Basically it was just a rectangle of linen, knee-length, which was wrapped around the waist and anchored in front by knots or sashes or by a simple overlap and tuck-in. Then some Egyptian Beau Brummell decided to have his kilt pleated; a rival lengthened the material and arranged the long overlapping end in a series of folds, fastened in front so that it fell like a pleated apron over the front of the thighs. One variant shortened the ends and brought them up in a sharp curve to meet at the waist; the resultant gap in front was filled in by a stiffened piece of material like a phallic sheath. The so-called bag tunic was a piece of cloth folded over and sewed up the sides, leaving open slits for the arms and a hole cut out for the head. Both sexes wore cloaks and mantles. Winter nights in Egypt can be chilly, even in the south.


A man’s kilt—various types

The man’s elaborate robe, corresponding to the later woman’s dress, was like that of his wife: sheer, accordion-pleated, and long. He might also wear a two-piece outfit consisting of a pleated skirt and a plain shirt with wide, pleated sleeves. The shirt was collarless and tied at the neck.

There are many variations in the standard costume, some of them depending on the occupation of the wearer. Field-workers, men and women alike, wore only a loincloth or short kilt. The graceful acrobats and the dainty little serving girls who waited on guests at parties were adorned only with narrow girdles and strings of beads. Men’s working costumes varied even more; some could almost be called uniforms. The vizier affected a straight, unpleated robe which fell from below the armpits to the ankles; it was held up by narrow tapes around the neck. Sailors, and perhaps sportsmen, seem to have preferred an odd nether garment made of leather cut into an openwork, weblike pattern, with a solid patch left on the seat. Priests wore various ornaments to indicate rank; the most picturesque uniform was that of the Sem priest, a leopard skin arranged so that the snarling head lay on his breast.




Costume of a Sem priest

Although most people went barefoot, they did wear sandals when they got dressed up. Even the poorer classes could afford papyrus sandals, but of course they didn’t last long; leather was more practical. The gold and silver shoes, of which a few examples have been found, were probably only for funerary use. They certainly would have been hideously uncomfortable in the hot climate of Egypt—but then, people are notoriously willing to suffer in order to be beautiful.

These descriptions of costume come from painting and sculpture. The marvelous climate of Egypt preserves fragile materials remarkably well, but, as it happens, mummies were usually buried with no covering except the mummy wrappings. However, we do have a surprising number of garments which were actually worn, and these shed some interesting sidelights on the fashion story told by the monuments.

The oldest surviving dress in the world comes from a First Dynasty tomb at Tarkhan. It is almost five thousand years old. Sir William Flinders Petrie, who excavated the mastaba in question, didn’t recognize the garment for what it was, but one of Petrie’s greatest talents was that he saved things other excavators would have thrown away. Years later someone found the dress in a pile of dirty linen rags Petrie had brought back from Tarkhan, and it was carefully restored. (Can you imagine ironing the pleats in a dress five thousand years old?!) Sleeves and yoke were intricately knife-pleated, and the skirt was a separate piece, sewn to the yoke.

Two other garments are somewhat unusual. They consist of a network of colored beads, arranged in symmetrical patterns. Dresses like these are shown in some reliefs and sculptures; they are worn by goddesses and by servant girls. The ones in question had to be painstakingly reconstructed, since the thread holding the beads in place had rotted, and I wish I had the space to describe the expertise and patience necessary for this job. Suffice it to say that they are now on display, one in University College, London, and the other in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Dresses like these, which were more common than was formerly believed, were usually worn over a simple linen sheath. If they were worn without anything under them they would certainly deserve the adjective “erotic,” at least in our terms. I’m not prepared to assert what the ancient Egyptians considered erotic, but there is one text which describes Good King Snefru, bored as kings sometimes get, deciding to take a row around the lake. Naturally he didn’t do the rowing; he ordered his courtier to collect twenty good-looking girls and added, “Give nets to these women in place of their clothes.” Were these “nets” made of open weave linen—there are several examples of such fabric—or were they bead-nets like the ones we have mentioned? In either case, jolly old Snefru must have enjoyed himself a good deal. But the bead dresses would have been hard to sit on.

Perhaps we never realized how extensive and elaborate a royal Egyptian wardrobe could be until Tutankhamon’s tomb was discovered by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter. The gold coffins and mask, the shrines, the jewelry, have obscured some of the less conspicuous but equally important objects. Among these were garments once worn by Tutankhamon and packed carefully into chests and boxes so that he would be just as fashionable in the world of the dead.

One of the first objects to catch the eyes of the excited discoverers of Tutankhamon was a gorgeous painted chest, with scenes of the king hunting and fighting in battle. It is so beautiful that one forgets it was not an object in itself. It was, of course, a container, and it contained many things: four pairs of sandals, a head rest, robes, a glove, an archer’s gauntlet, caps, loincloths, and other pieces of material. Carter’s description of the way this chest was handled, after being tenderly removed from the tomb, is an example of the varieties of expertise necessary to archaeologists, and also an explanation of why it took him years to clear four small rooms.

When he first opened the chest, Carter found a pair of sandals on top and, to the left of them, a crumpled bundle which his expert eye immediately recognized as a royal robe. Its surface was entirely covered with a network of faience beads, arranged in squares with a gold sequin filling in each alternate square. The robe was bordered with bands of tiny colored glass beads, arranged in patterns. The patterns could still be seen, but all the thread which had held the beads in place had rotted away, and the slightest movement was sufficient to jar the loosened beads into a meaningless jumble.

How on earth, Carter wondered, could he get this unique object out of the chest without losing the design of the beads? Tutankhamon’s tomb was not, strictly speaking, untouched; it had been entered by robbers in antiquity, and although they left a lot, they pulled everything out of the chests and boxes in their search for portable loot. This robe had been tossed onto the floor, and when the priestly restorers came to straighten up the tomb they did not fold the garment neatly, but wadded it up and jammed it into the box. The cloth which looked so solid fell apart under Carter’s careful fingers when he touched it. He might have stiffened the cloth and fixed the beads in place by means of wax or some other substance, but then he might not have been able to unstiffen it in order to see what the underneath portions of the robe were like. Something had to go, either cloth or pattern, and Carter decided to sacrifice the cloth. He picked it out, fragment by rotting fragment, and removed the decoration in its original pattern.

Once this tedious task was finished, Carter was not even halfway through with the chest. Luckily the sandals were in good condition and could easily be removed. Under them and the robe was a second layer—three pairs of sandals made of leather elaborately decorated with gold. Two pairs were of the type that some of us still wear during the summer, with one strap coming up between the toes to join a band encircling the instep. In one pair of Tutankhamon’s sandals the thong was made in the shape of a lotus. The stem was inlaid with tiny bits of gem material, and the flower was attached to the wide side straps, which were gracefully curved and beautifully inlaid. The third set of footwear was a pair of slippers; heelless, they had leather toes and sides covered with little golden sequins.

Under the sandals Carter found a sadly decayed mass which was beyond hope of preservation. He thought there were at least seven different garments tangled up in the bundle, all covered with spangles and sequins and rosettes of precious metal.

Two other robes, bundled hastily into another box in the Annex of the tomb, had resisted time and decay somewhat better. Carter believed them to be ceremonial garments. Both were shaped like long, loose vestments, with rich, tapestry-woven decoration and fringe. One had needlework of palmettes, desert flowers and animals in a broad pattern at the hem and at the neck opening. Another was covered with colored rosettes, flowers, and cartouches woven into the fabric, and its neck opening had the shape of a falcon with outspread wings.

So far as I know, there is no relief which shows a king wearing a garment like these robes, or heelless slippers like Tutankhamon’s. Some statues depict men and women wearing embroidered or woven robes, but these are rare. We wonder, therefore, whether the representations tell the whole story. Maybe the colorful woven garments had a specific function (ritual! what else?), and maybe they didn’t. The conventions of Egyptian art limited poses and attitudes, so perhaps they limited clothing styles as well. We can’t even be sure that the paintings are literally accurate; the case of the ladies’ shoulder straps is a case in point. With this in mind, some authorities have suggested that women’s dresses were neither so tight nor so sheer as the paintings suggest. We can’t be sure, of course, but I see no reason why they should not have been both tight and sheer. The Egyptians had no complexes about nakedness. They may not have been the first nudists—as, I believe, some nudist magazine has suggested—because nudism, in the modern sense, implies self-conscious violation of the society’s customs. Normally, the sexual organs of adults, male and female, were covered—Tutanhkamon’s “underwear” consisted of triangular loincloths—but the rest of the body was exposed whenever weather or convenience made this comfortable. Generally speaking, the richer you were, the more clothes you wore, at least in public.


When we talk about hairstyles we are also talking about wigs. They were worn by both men and women. Most were of human hair. Actual wigs have been found, and in some of the statues and paintings you can see the owner’s real hair under the wig if you look closely. Ladies usually wore their black hair long, although some female heads from the earlier dynasties display a “mannish” short haircut. A popular and becoming style was to let the long hair hang loose, thick and waving, from under a fillet or wreath of flowers; the “tripartite” coiffure separated the hair into three sections, two of which were drawn forward over the shoulders, with the rest hanging down the back.

During the New Kingdom, elaboration in clothing was accompanied by increasingly fancy coiffures. Most of the hairdos shown in tombs must have been wigs; it would have taken hours to produce all those curls and braids and ringlets. Some of the styles are enormously puffed, like the bouffant hairdos of today. But the Egyptian lady’s coiffure was all hair, not air. When her own locks were inadequate they were padded out with hairpieces, and when she tired of black or brown hair she could dye it red with henna.


Hairstyles of the Old and Middle Kingdoms

In the “classical” time of the Old Kingdom, men often wore a simple short cut like the one prevalent today. Other popular styles were the long, shoulder-length bob and the short cap of tight curls set in formal rows. The characteristic Middle Kingdom style was the “shawl-shape,” with bangs across the forehead and the long side hair cut to points in front. In the New Kingdom a new coiffure swept the country, at least among noblemen. It was cut in two layers. The top consisted of long, thin sausage curls or tightly crimped locks, and the under layer was made up of rows of shorter curls or marcelled waves hanging to the shoulders.


Hairstyles of the New Kingdom

During the late Eighteenth Dynasty this marcelled men’s wig came in two varieties, long and short. The short “Nubian” type, as it is called, consisted of tight curls that covered the head like a cap. It was also worn by women, including the ladies of Akhenaton’s court. (This is one of the reasons why some of the sculptured heads of the period are very hard to identify.) It has been suggested that the adoption of male styles by women was another of the “degenerate” customs which some scholars like to find in the heretic Akhenaton and his family. We are somewhat degenerate ourselves, so the hairstyles popular with some of our young people may tend to prove this thesis. However, the ladies of the Fourth Dynasty—a period of classic dignity, with no discernibly nasty habits—also favored a mannish haircut upon occasion. Also, while fashions in clothing and hairstyles may be bound up with cultural progress and cultural decline, I have yet to see anyone prove it.

I suspect the reliefs do not tell all there is to be told about hairstyles. This suspicion is based on the mummy of a middle-aged woman who was found among the royal mummies of Deir el Bahri. She has the most extraordinary hairdo for an Egyptian woman. One cannot expect a mummy’s hair to remain perfectly set, but judging from its present condition the lady wore an upswept hairstyle with sausage curls on top and waves over the ears. It is very “un-Egyptian,” and I know of nothing like it in the pictorial representations.

As a rule, facial hair was not cultivated by the Egyptian male—nor, I hardly need say, by the female. At certain periods neat little mustaches were worn, and sometimes beards seem to have been fashionable. But the Egyptian gentleman, and peasant, was usually clean-shaven. The long stiff beards worn by kings for ceremonial reasons were artificial.


Upswept hairdo on the mummy of a woman


Although some robes and dresses were woven in colors, the Egyptians usually preferred to wear white clothing and depended on their ornaments for color. Egyptian jewelry is marvelous; the craftsmen of the earliest periods had attained real excellence. Inlay, embossing, filigree, gilding, and plating—they could do most of the things modern jewelers can do. One of their supreme achievements was granulated gold work, in which tiny spherical grains of gold are fused onto the golden background. They also excelled at a technique which looks like cloisonne: instead of enamel, bits of precious stones, faience, or glass were set into cells outlined by thin gold strips.

The gems used in jewelry were semiprecious stones; except for an isolated case of pearls, none of the precious stones were known to the ancient Egyptians, although emeralds do occur in the eastern desert. Carnelian, turquoise, garnet, feldspar, rock crystal, obsidian, and lapis lazuli were favored. The most useful and ubiquitous material used for jewelry—and other objects—was faience. This is the same name used for the glazed pottery of Renaissance Italy, but it isn’t the same stuff. Egyptian faience is made of ground quartz mixed with various other things, including a colorant, and molded into the desired shape. When the object was fired, the colorant rose to the surface in a brilliant glaze. Blue-green, in imitation of turquoise, was the most popular color, but not the only one.

The main metals used in jewelry were copper and gold—copper for the commoner, gold for the nobly born. Both were readily available to the ancient Egyptians, from desert mines and from Nubia. Silver was not; it is rare in Egyptian jewelry, and possibly more valuable. The gold was used as found, without refining, so it varies in purity; it is for this reason that much ancient gold is colored. The shades range from gray to reddish-brown and owe their coloring to mixtures of silver or copper or iron. The best known of these natural alloys is electrum, a blend of silver and gold, which comes out a pale yellow. Being harder than gold, it was often used for jewelry, and the Egyptians probably got it in its natural state from veins in the desert. There is one variety of colored gold which appears to be deliberate—a handsome rose-pink. This red-gold has been described as the product of one of those “lost Egyptian sciences” which people are fond of discovering; but actually it has been reproduced by modern scientists. The color is due to iron.

Luckily we do not have to depend on pictorial representations for our knowledge of ornaments; it would be very limited if we did. A surprising amount of jewelry has survived from ancient Egypt. Of course there was a lot of it to begin with, and it was made of imperishable materials. On the other hand, it was the most sought-after loot of the tomb robbers. What we have is probably only a tiny percentage of the total, but much of it is incredibly beautiful.

The most common ornament was the wide flexible collar, made of concentric rows of beads, some of which might be shaped like animals or flowers or leaves. It covered the front of the wearer’s body from the base of the neck to the middle of the breast, and since it was made of bright colors, it formed an important part of the overall costume. Instead of a collar, necklaces or pendants might be worn. The simple bead necklaces, strung on cord, which were brought home by tourists before the start of the last century are probably authentic; they had been found in such numbers that it was easier to sell the ancient ones than make fakes. (This is no longer the case; caveat emptor, if you are in Egypt.) The beads are usually of faience. Pendants, hung on cord or gold, depending on the wearer’s income, ranged from faience amulets in the shape of gods or magical hieroglyphs to elaborate cloisonne pieces which had a whole miniature scene done in relief. Then there were bracelets, some flexible rows of beads, some rigid, of copper or gold. Earrings were worn by women and boys and sometimes by men; diadems and fillets held back the hair, and gold ribbons or rings confined long curls. Girdles, anklets, finger rings of all types—the variety is endless.

The prettiest jewelry ever found in Egypt belonged to a princess of the Twelfth Dynasty named Khnumit. The crown is made of gold with insets of lapis blue, orange-red carnelian, red jasper, and green feldspar. Another crown was one of the daintiest ever worn by any princess of any country: it consisted of very fine gold threads, set at random with tiny flowers of red and blue. At intervals the golden strands were caught together by a cruciform shape made up of four papyrus flowers. The designs are exquisitely simple. The princess’s necklaces were plain gold chains with various pendants. Some of the latter, such as the large pendant stars and the butterfly, are covered with the delicate granulated gold work at which Egyptian jewelers excelled. One piece is unusual—a medallion hanging from the open-worked, granulated rosettes. On a pale blue background a miniature white bull with black spots was painted; the picture was then set in a gold frame and covered with a thin piece of rock crystal.

Khnumit’s jewelry has been described as “un-Egyptian,” perhaps because of its very simplicity. But the workmanship is typically Egyptian, exemplifying the high degree of skill which craftsmen had attained by the Twelfth Dynasty, and which was never surpassed. The miniature painting is uncommon; a Cretan origin has been suggested for the little bull, but he reminds me unmistakably of a certain Egyptian hieroglyph. I wonder, though, what was in the princess’s mind when she ordered this piece? Could it have had a personal meaning for her?

There are several other elegant parures of Middle Kingdom princesses in various museums, and later periods are also well represented. The most extensive and most famous personal collection is certainly that of Tutankhamon.

When we view this collection, filling case after case in the Cairo Museum, we ought to remember that according to the excavator it is only a part of what was originally buried with the king. Being small and extremely valuable for its size, jewelry would have been among the first things the thieves who broke into the tomb looked for, and Carter was sure that they had made off with quite a bit of it. Neat dockets written on the storage chests listed the objects which were supposed to be in them, and Carter estimated that some of the jewel boxes had lost at least 60 percent of their contents. He actually found one group of heavy gold rings tied loosely in a cloth and lying on the floor of the Antechamber—mute evidence not only of the robbery but of its interruption, perhaps by necropolis police.

The earrings and pendants and pectorals worn by the young king may strike us as extremely ornate compared with earlier designs. However, similarly crowded designs are found in the Twelfth Dynasty; some of the pectorals owned by the princesses have everything in them but the kitchen sink. And Tutankhamon possessed some pieces of jewelry which compare favorably with the elegant simplicity of earlier designs. The hilts of his daggers, which have to be considered examples of the jeweler’s craft, are beautiful by any standards, and so are some of his rings and one of his diadems. The pectorals and pendants do compensate for their heavy designs by the skill of the workmanship and the lavishness of color and material. The colors may sound garish when we describe them—dark blue lapis, orange-red carnelian, turquoise, amethyst, green feldspar—but they were made up into remarkably harmonious combinations, especially when separated by the thin gold lines of the cloisons, or cells, into which the stones were set. Comparisons are odious, and we can’t really generalize about differences between Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasty jewelry. All I can say is that while I admire Tutankhamon’s jewels, I would wear Princess Khnumit’s if I could get my hands on them.

Although Tutankhamon and the princesses have handed down to us several diadems or simple crowns, none of the formal crowns known from the paintings have survived. The king wore the tall white crown or the basket-shaped Red Crown, which rose to a point in the back, or else he wore the two combined. The blue battle crown may have been a war helmet originally. It seems to have been shaped of stiffened leather. Some of the crowns worn for ceremonial occasions were extremely complex; each element had, of course, a symbolic significance. One does wonder how on earth the unfortunate monarch could keep the thing on his head. Much more comfortable was the nemes headdress, made of striped linen, with lappets hanging down in front. With any or all of these the king would wear a piece of jewelry unique to royalty—the uraeus serpent, symbol of the goddess of Lower Egypt, which was fixed to the brow of the crown. Though we don’t have the crowns, we have a couple of uraei, and they are gorgeous—solid gold, inlaid, and enameled.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the symbolism of Egyptian jewelry.

The queens’ crowns were just as fancy, although once again we know them only from reliefs and statues. Nefertiti’s tall blue crown is well known from her bust; she preferred this type, which covered all of her hair. (I wonder if she had bad hair days?) She was the only queen to have worn it. The most popular type was the vulture crown, made of gold and inlaid with bits of colored stone in the wonderful Egyptian technique which looks like cloisonne. On top of this the queen might wear the tall plumes and moon disk of Hathor, modeled in gold. There were other crowns, some as complicated as those of the king, and probably just as inconvenient to wear.


Crowns of the king

To complete the picture of ravishing beauty, the Egyptian lady had only to make up her face. At her toilet table—which was not a table, but a low chest—she had metal mirrors, pots and jars for cosmetics, tweezers, razors, and combs. Most of her time and attention was lavished on her eyes. Black eye paint, called kohl, is still used in the Near East, but it is now made of soot; the ancient equivalent was green (malachite) or gray (galena). These minerals were ground and made into a paste, which was applied in heavy lines over the eyebrows and around the eyes by means of a little wooden or bone rod or by that handy implement, the finger. Rouge, in the form of red ochre, was used, and there is one picture of a lady applying it to her lips—with a brush. Some of the nice little pots and jars on the lady’s dressing table probably held ointments. The Egyptians were fond of oiling themselves—understandably so, in a climate so hot and dry as theirs—and their perfumes were not true perfume, which has an alcohol base, but scented oils. Myrrh and sweet-smelling resin were used to make the lady smell nice, but she also used flower scents, such as “perfume of lily.” These beauty aids might be kept in a prettily designed and decorated cosmetic box.


Crowns of the queen

It should be added, however, that one of the fanciest of these boxes, complete with a linen-lined cavity for a mirror, belonged to a man.

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