The Egyptians originally came from the area known today as Ethiopia. They referred to the fertile Nile valley as ‘kemet’, or ‘the black land’ and called themselves ‘remet-en-kemet’ or the ‘people of the black land.
Early Egypt was composed of two kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt. Its people lived in the countryside, using towns and temples as service centers and dwelling places. There were a few large cult areas, the principal being Memphis and Thebes, but for the most part, the country contained scattered villages and markets.
It was in 3100 B.C. that Menes, a king of Upper Egypt, conquered the north and unified the country. This was the beginning of a civilization that was to survive into the age of Classical Greece and Rome. Today historians distinguish five historic periods: the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, each a time of success or consolidated government, and the intervening First and Second Intermediate periods, which were marked by weakness and disruption from external and internal causes.
It was under the Old Kingdom – ca. 2685-2186 B.C. – that the pharaoh came to be viewed as the absolute lord of the land. Conceived not just as king but as god, he controlled every aspect of society, including art and dress. Visual proof of pharaonic power can be found in the great pyramids at Giza, testaments to an unsurpassed social and administrative concentration of human labor, including slavery.
Pyramids had immense symbolic significance: their shape represented the sun’s rays slanting to earth and functioned as ‘stairway to heaven’ for the pharaoh’s soul. Their internal structure was highly descriptive as well, as were some of the paintings on the walls, which portrayed aspects of the occupants’ daily lives, and illustrated how they would spend their afterlife. Everyday scenes decorated the walls of tombs, temples, and palaces, and it is from these that archeologists have gleaned much of their knowledge about Egyptian clothes.
For centuries Egyptian culture has been a source of inspiration for art and architecture, and so has been Egyptian dress. Yet, when we think of ancient Egyptian attire, we conjure images of the stunning, elaborate costumes from some of the Hollywood classic movies, such as the 1963 epic Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The lavish guise has overshadowed the actual simplicity of the white linen schenti – a man’s loincloth, or kilt – and the kalasiris – the long, close-fitting sheath dress worn mainly by women.
The dry, hot climate and the environmental conditions at many burial sites have helped preserve very well the clothing, jewelry, and artifacts, than historians have used to study Egyptians’ attire and lifestyle.
Fashion changed little throughout the history of ancient Egypt, and when new garments or styles were introduced, they were worn alongside the old ones. Initially, most garments were simple in shape, and roughly triangular. Because of the extreme heat, clothes were roomy, light, and spare. Complete nakedness, however, was not acceptable; it was considered immoral for anyone other than children, slaves, or commoners to appear naked.
Both men and women could keep their upper body bare, although women covered themselves more than men. The proportions of clothing lines were similar, however the female dress had a high waistline, while men’s clothing emphasized the hips. Women’s clothing was far more restrictive than that worn by men, perhaps an indication of men having a more active lifestyle
Clothes reflected the strictly hierarchical nature of Egyptian society and distinguished social rank. The quality of cloth denoted a person’s position. The higher a person’s rank, the better the cloth he wore. The Pharaoh’s kilt would be made of fine linen, possibly enriched with gold, whereas the commoner’s loincloth was made of vegetable fibers or leather.
Textiles and colors
The most commonly used fabric for clothes was linen for it was light, fine, and easily draped over the body. Initially, linen was woven from vegetable fibers – a technique invented in Egypt – but, as irrigation techniques improved, vegetable fibers were replaced by flax. Textile production and fabric quality improved with the Syrian weavers who imported their sophisticated weaving techniques.
Linen was indeed the most commonly used cloth, but it was not the only one: the simple slave’s garments were made from reeds; byblus and papyrus were used for aprons; wool was woven into shawls and outer garments; cotton was fashioned into tunics and robes that could be embroidered with gold. Battle dress, such as soldiers’ aprons, was made of leather. Silk was introduced in Egypt by the Greeks and the Romans c. 323 BC. Wool and leather were forbidden in the temples because it was considered profane to worship the gods in any garment made from animal fibers.
Colors were symbolic. Green symbolized life and youth and yellow was the symbol of gold, the flesh of the immortal gods. While black was used exclusively for wigs, white, the symbol of happiness, was commonly found in the Egyptian wardrobe. The technique of dyeing with natural, indigenous ingredients technique had been developed in Egypt, but it was not evolved enough and dyeing linen was hard. Clothes were normally made from natural, bleached linen.
Egyptians did dye some cloth. Slaves were often dressed in blue linen, for instance. Red dye was extracted from plants including Alkanna tinctoria, Rubia tinctorum and flowers such as Cathamus tinctorius (safflower). Thread was dyed gold and used as weave for royal tunics and gloves. Leather was also dyed red, yellow and green.
Next: Women’s clothing in Ancient Greece
The author is the founder and owner of Adriana Allen LLC – a European fashion brand offering handmade and one-of-a-kind handbags and fashion accessories. You can learn more about world fashion, fashion’s history, and how to buy fashion accessories at our official blog
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