In general, clothing of pharaonic Egypt has escaped the close study that was applied to European costume of more recent millennia. This lack is gradually being rectified by textile specialists, but many misconceptions and gaps in knowledge are still obvious. One of the chief problems in the interpretation of artistic evidence is the extreme stylization of personal appearance in ancient Egyptian sculpture, painting, and relief. People, especially those of the upper classes, are often shown in clothing that is archaic, or at least entirely unlike the actual garments found in tombs. For example, women's dresses almost always appear to hug the body, revealing the line of hip and pubic area; by contrast, surviving ancient dresses tend to be loose. Artists were also anxious to “code” representations so that the subject's age, status, and function were immediately apparent. To this end, they relied on visual clichés of nudity versus clothing, elaboration versus simplicity, and archaic versus contemporary. Upper-class Egyptians are usually represented in their finest clothing, even when it is not suitable for the task at hand. For example, in the New Kingdom, a tomb owner might be shown plowing and harvesting in elaborate court clothing. This was a convention designed to indicate the subject's status and wealth. In addition, the artistic treatment of clothing was often influenced by the desire to create harmonious patterns of regular curving or straight lines; thus, folds or creases in garments were sometimes represented as if they were geometrically perfect pleats.
Clothing as an Indicator of Social Status and Profession.
In Egyptian art, generally speaking, the more elaborate is the clothing, the higher is the social status of the wearer. Restrictive, bulky, or elaborate clothing was the hallmark of the supervisory class. Scribes are often depicted in ornate garments, the neatness of which would have been difficult to maintain, especially in the heat of summer; however, their pleated, enveloping garments are badges of rank and function, just as certain grades of priests might wear leopard skins over their shoulders.
Servants, entertainers, and those involved in vigorous activities are often shown naked, or wearing only a girdle (belt) or loincloth. For example, laborers of the Old Kingdom might wear only a sash around the waist or a loincloth. Boatmen and acrobats, to name just two professions, also wore loincloths. The sailors would have worn an additional, outer loincloth made of soft leather, with slashes for coolness; a square patch was left beneath the buttocks. Various types of leather, including gazelle skin, were used to make these garments. Clothing of pierced leather has been excavated in Nubia (where pierced leather girdles were worn by women until very recently), and it has been suggested that this type of garment was imported into Egypt with Nubian soldiers. In pharaonic times there is, however, little evidence that these garments were worn by women, though it is possible that some acrobats, such as the young woman depicted on a Turin ostracon, are meant to be wearing a leather rather than a cloth wrap. More frequently, girdles (i.e., bands of beads around the hips) were worn by dancing girls and female musicians. Dancers might also wear bead dresses, similar in construction to beaded shrouds, with the beads arranged in a pattern of large, open squares. The dress worn by the dancers is intended to accentuate rather than conceal their nudity, and to maximize their erotic potential.
With the exception of certain garments worn only by a pharaoh, there are relatively few distinctions between royal and nonroyal clothing, except in the subtleties of folds and knots (Simpson 1988). By the New Kingdom, both kings and queens are sometimes shown wearing relatively contemporary clothing. Queens begin to appear in the draped gowns popular in the New Kingdom by the reign of Amenhotpe II, while kings in similar male garments do not occur in art until the reign of Amenhotpe III. Kings are far less likely to be depicted on temples in “private” garb, however elaborate this might be. Small objects of furniture and representations of the king from the tombs of high officials comprise the great majority of images of the king dressed in the elaborate clothes of a commoner. Some of the best examples of royal persons in upper-class fashion come from the tomb of Tutankhamun. On the small golden shrine, on the back of the throne, on lamps, buckles, and other small items, the king and queen can be glimpsed in the flowing, draped garments popular at the end of the eighteenth dynasty. The queen wears variations on the wrapped gown, while the king wears a variety of garments, including a calflength kilt.
Official artistic representations of the king make it clear that some garments were reserved for certain rituals. During the king's sed-festival (the jubilee), for example, he was required to wear an enveloping cloak. An ivory statuette from Abydos shows the cloak as being decorated with a pattern of very large diamond shapes, a detail not visible in other representations. These patterns could have been rendered in beads, tapestry work, or painting; examples of all of these decorative techniques have survived in garments from Tutankhamun's tomb. The tomb also contained imitation leopard skins, perhaps for his use as sem-priest. The kingly wardrobe also contained beaded aprons, belts, and tails, to be worn during various offering ceremonies and rituals.
Clothing for Children.
Egyptian artists represented both slaves and children without clothes, but they are easily distinguished because children are often shown wearing jewelry and may have their heads shaved, except for the sidelock of youth. The artistic convention of nudity seems to have been an indicator that the person represented had not yet reached puberty; however, we should not regard this as a reflection of reality. Children certainly must have worn clothing at least part of the time—probably smaller versions of the garments worn by adults, as shown by surviving examples. In New Kingdom tomb paintings, children, especially young girls, are shown in long, elaborate gowns like their mothers. It is not certain whether this is meant to indicate that these are nubile daughters, as seems most likely. The daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, for example, are depicted wearing adult pleated gowns from their earliest appearances on the monuments of their parents, although they may still be shown as naked children elsewhere. The representation of nubile naked girls on the handles of ointment spoons, mirrors, and similar objects was intended to be erotic, rather than a reference to age.
We do not know if women wore anything analogous to a brassiere, although such a garment might have existed. In the laundry lists there are mentions of sashes and bands, the uses of which we do not know. The British Museum contains a very simple garment consisting of a square of material, with a fringe on the bottom, which has been folded in half and sewn up both sides, leaving a keyhole neckopening. Miriam Stead in Egyptian Life (British Museum Series, Cambridge, 1986) has suggested that this was worn as an undergarment. A triangular loincloth was the basic item of underclothing, worn by all classes and both sexes. It was put on much as a diaper might be, with the base of the triangle across the back and the long end pulled between the legs and tied in front. These cloths, both laundered and previously worn, were sometimes included among the burial goods in both royal and private tombs.
The garment worn by Egyptian men of all classes and throughout every time period was a wraparound skirt, usually called a “kilt” by modern scholars. It consisted of a rectangular piece of linen wrapped around the body and tied at the waist with a knot or fastened with a sort of buckle. The resultant garment went from the waist to the knee or below. The style could be varied with a squared end, a rounded end, pleating, or a starched piece forming an apron. Aprons might be rectangular, pointed, or bifurcated, or might consist of a large triangular piece of fabric, often elaborately pleated. Men certainly also wore cloaks, although these are not shown often in art. At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, King Narmer is shown in an archaic form of dress, consisting of the usual kilt with the rectangle of cloth made longer than usual, so that the ends could be pulled across the torso and knotted on one shoulder. A popular form of garb in the Old Kingdom was a kilt with a large triangular apron of stiffened fabric attached. Both kilt and apron might be covered in horizontal pleats.
In the Middle Kingdom, men began to wear longer and more voluminous outfits which stretched from the diaphragm to mid-calf. Some representations show a pattern of squares decorating these garments; the squares depicted are the creases left by the folding of the fabric for storage. By the end of this period, the “bag tunic” had been introduced. This was virtually identical to the women's long tunic discussed below: a rectangle of cloth folded and sewn up the side to form a sleeveless garment. Upperclass men might also be shown wearing fringed or unfringed cloaks wrapped tightly around their bodies.
It was in the New Kingdom that the great revolution in men's clothing came about. Male attire became more and more ornate, involving layers of draped or pleated garments, with additional pleating on aprons or sashes and sleeves. Men still wore kilts, but often with a “bag tunic” and elaborately draped cloak or shawl. The “sash-kilt,” introduced at this time, consists of a length of linen wrapped around the hips and tied so that the ends hang decoratively in front, forming a sort of apron. It was generally worn over other clothing, especially the bag tunic. Certain older forms of clothing were still worn, including a type of kilt that wraps from the chest to mid-calf; this is the official garment of the vizier of Thebes in the New Kingdom. As is evident from the tomb paintings, fashionable men's clothing of the later New Kingdom often exceeded women's in complexity. A wealthy man might be shown wearing a long or short sash kilt with voluminous pleating, and a bag tunic with pleated sleeves.
Of the various styles of women's costume depicted in Egyptian art, the type of dress often referred to by modern scholars as the “sheath dress” is ubiquitous from the Old Kingdom to Ptolemaic times. Over those millennia, however, the symbolism of the dress changed. In earlier periods, it was worn by women of all classes, including queens and goddesses. The dress was long and tubular, with shoulder straps. The straps were sometimes represented as if they went between the breasts; however, elsewhere they were depicted as quite broad and covering both breasts. The dress was also represented as if it were quite form-fitting, revealing the outlines of the hip and legs, but the real examples that have been excavated are much looser. The extant versions of those gowns usually have long sleeves, although one actually found on a mummy was sleeveless. That example is a “false dress,” which forms part of the mummy wrappings; the limbs, and even fingers and toes, of this woman were individually wrapped to preserve the natural shape of the body, and the “dress” (front part only) was sewn on to complete the illusion. Other mummies have been found with these imitation garments, but the dresses on those bodies have long sleeves. The construction of these dresses was also discussed by Rita E. Freed in the 1982 catalog of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition called “Egypt's Golden Age.” In her opinion, these dresses were probably made by folding a single piece of linen in half and stitching up the side, then sewing on shoulder straps at the bustline to hold it in place. Yet the textile expert Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (1992, 1993) believes that the type of dress most often seen in tomb reliefs and paintings should be distinguished from the V-necked dresses found in tombs, and that it is to be interpreted as a wraparound garment, the straps of which are independent of the rest of the garment.
Goddesses in paintings and reliefs from all Egyptian periods continue to wear patterned sheath dresses of this type. The patterns are probably overdresses made of beads, like those believed to have been worn by dancers; however, it is certainly possible that the colored dresses were constructed of patterned fabric. The patterns and bright colors of the cloth could be achieved by painting or embroidery, or by tapestry weave. Bead overdresses that have survived are made of faience, usually strung in a large, roughly diamond-shaped net pattern. Although similar dresses are worn by “servant figures” in Middle Kingdom tombs, by the eighteenth dynasty only deities are represented wearing patterned dresses. In the New Kingdom, both male and female divinities are shown in brightly colored archaic dress.
From the early Old Kingdom onward, women frequently wore a dress consisting of a rectangle of fabric wrapped once around the body, with an additional halfturn to bring the corner up to be tied with its fellow at the shoulder. This dress may have become the breast-baring garment worn by widows at funerals and by professional mourners. These “mourning dresses” are tied below the breasts and are shown with gray streaks, representing the ashes that mourners smeared on themselves. The single-shouldered wraparound is used as a everyday garment, until it develops into the elegant eighteenth dynasty draped party gowns worn by queens and commoners alike.
This wrapped gown with sleeves became popular around 1350 BCE. It is one of the types of ancient Egyptian women's garments that were created by draping a large rectangle of linen around the body. This garment is essentially a rectangle of linen, with a self-fringe along one of the short sides. It was often made of diaphanous linen of the highest quality, but because it was wound twice around the body, it was not as revealing as might be expected. It was wrapped around the body and self-tied in front, leaving one shoulder bare. Judging from ancient depictions on statues and in tomb paintings, this garment seems to have been reserved for special occasions, such as parties and banquets. A few actual examples of this garment have been found. A piece formerly identified as the “shawl” of an eleventh dynasty princess in the Royal Ontario Museum (906.18.41) may have been a dress of this kind. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there are a number of eighteenth dynasty fringed robes of this type. Their fringes, as in all extant fringed garments from ancient Egypt, are formed from the loose threads at the edge at the fabric. The fact that these garments from the tomb of Senenmut's parents have survived in several thicknesses and weights of linen may reflect either seasonal wear or distinctions between “everyday” and “best.” Vogelsang-Eastwood (1992, 1993) believes that there were not one but many versions of the complex wraparound dress, made from one or two lengths of cloth. In all cases, the garment consisted of a large rectangle of linen, with a fringe along one side. It might be draped over one or both of the wearer's shoulders and held in place with a self-knot or a sash. Examples of this type of gown are shown on statues of Nefertiti, on a few depictions of Tutankhamun's queen, and in numerous tomb paintings of the New Kingdom.
Another type of woman's gown worn in the New Kingdom seems to be a combination of the sleeveless sheath or short-sleeved tunic and a fringed, draped cloak or long shawl that covers one shoulder. The sheath/tunic is usually regarded as a variation on the “bag-tunic.” Yet Vogelsang-Eastwood (1992, 1993) interprets the construction and wearing of these New Kingdom gowns quite differently. She believes it to have developed from the draped gowns of the eighteenth dynasty. This gown was especially popular in the Ramessid period, worn by queens and women of rank in reliefs and tomb paintings, while goddesses were shown in the archaic sheath dress. From the New Kingdom onward, depictions of goddesses and mortal women were kept distinct by skin color (yellow for goddesses) as well as by costume.
Seasonal Variations in Clothing.
In art, there are few indicators of the changes in seasons and the variations in clothing these necessitated. The temperature of dry desert air drops quickly in the evening, and warmer clothing was undoubtedly necessary for night as well. Certainly, shawls and cloaks were worn by both sexes. The Museo Egizio in Turin has a great portion of the wardrobe of a man called Kha, which was found around 1900. Among the thinner garments was found a heavy-weight “bag-tunic” with tapestry bands along its side and neckhole; presumably, it was for winter wear. Although Kha's New Kingdom wardrobe may not be typical of all Egyptian periods, it does indicate that different types of garments were created for different seasons or travel to other climates. Samples of wool were found in burials from the earliest pharaonic periods, but until the Coptic period few woolen garments are attested. The exceptions are the woolen cloaks depicted in a few tombs. Presumably wool was not used for other types of garments because it was not suitable for creating the pleating effects that were popular in elite clothing.
During pharaonic times, the primary fabric for clothing was linen. It was woven in numerous weights, from “royal,” through “fine thin,” “thin cloth,” and “smooth [ordinary] cloth.” Spinning and weaving were recognized as specific professions, and Tayet (Tait) was the patron deity of clothmaking. Artistic evidence suggests that in the Old and Middle Kingdoms the professions of spinning and weaving were dominated by women, but by the later New Kingdom, males are shown weaving at the vertical and mat looms, which were probably introduced, along with new techniques of tapestry weaving, from the Egyptian empire. Women are depicted only using the older horizontal ground loom. Men are also shown beating flax stems or twining spun thread; both sexes are depicted spinning thread. The differentiation of labor and tools along gender lines may represent changes in both society and technology over time, but these distinctions appear in artistic representations that may not reflect reality. Both types of looms continued in use throughout Egyptian history; the horizontal loom presumably was used by those weaving at home, and the vertical loom in temple and palace ateliers, where larger bolts of cloth might be made.
In a satirical passage in the Sallier Papyrus, the author writes that the launderer's whole body is weak from washing and bleaching clothes. The strenous regime for cleaning linen clothing called for rolling the fabric into a ball, wetting it, rubbing natron (sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) into the cloth, and beating it against a rock with clubs. Excess water was then wrung out by tying the cloth around a stick and twisting it. The garments were then spread out to dry and bleach. Pleating was done while the cloth was wet, using a wooden crimping board. No hot irons or heavy weights were used in the process, nor, according to some authorities, any sort of starch. (This last point is debated: Miriam Stead (1986) thinks that there must have been a fixative, but Rosalind Hall (1986) feels that one would not have been necessary.) These pleats were so much a part of upper-class costume that they formed an element of the “uniform” of prestige and wealth. Although washermen are mentioned in satires on the trades and in the Story of the Two Brothers, women undoubtedly did much of the washing at home.
Artists generally represented only the finest type of linen in tomb paintings and reliefs, to emphasize the wealth and high social status of the wearer. Similarly, elaborate clothing which also emphasized wealth and status was depicted. Until the eighteenth dynasty, the clothes that the deceased were shown wearing often seem to have been archaic or stylized fashions. By the reign of Thutmose IV, there was a dramatic shift in the styles of coiffure and clothing shown in the tomb paintings. The new styles of draped, crimped, and fringed linen and of braided, curled, and layered wigs became the indicators of the wealthy of both sexes.
Many Egyptians would have gone barefoot much of the time; in fact, it is sometimes said that they preferred to do so. Quarrymen and other workmen, however, received sandals as part of their pay; travelers certainly needed footwear; and the rules of etiquette stated that sandals were to be removed in the presence of one of superior rank. Footwear was thus another indicator of wealth and rank. Examples of sandals made from woven grass or reeds, rawhide, or leather have survived. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is a pair of rawhide sandals consisting of a sole of thick hide, cut to the approximate size and shape of each foot. Two loops of hide project upward on either side of the ankle and a third loop passes upward between the first two toes. A leather strap that passes behind the heel and over the instep runs through the loops. In the New Kingdom, upturned toes were fashionable; occasionally the toe was even attached to the strap. Solid gold sandals were found on the body of at least one pharaoh, but these were probably intended only for funerary use. In the Middle Kingdom, model sandals or painted wooden reproductions of them were put in coffins with the mummy. The most expensive and ornate kind of footwear worn by the living were those of leather, which might be decorated with painting, gilding, or beading. Tutankhamun owned a pair of sandals with the figures of the enemies of Egypt painted on the soles, so that he could crush his enemies with every step.
Since most clothing was probably white (or off-white), color might be added to an outfit with jewelry of various types. Beads might also be sewn onto a garment or worn as a separate overdress. The patterns of beaded garments are generally geometric rather than floral or representational. Jewelry, however, often had a symbolic or apotropaic value and thus contained hieroglyphs and images of various deities. Both sexes and all classes of society wore necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets, and, from the eighteenth dynasty onward, earrings. Excavations at the workmen's village at Tell el-Amarna have uncovered many thousands of small disc-shaped beads of blue faience, obviously the most popular material for jewelry at the time; these were probably arranged in simple strands, unlike the elaborate imitation floral collars depicted in art. Examples of the collars, composed of faience beads shaped like flower petals, leaves, and fruit, have also been found. Anklets and bracelets came in various types, from single-piece bangles to flexible bands composed of rows of beads. Anklets were more commonly worn by women, and some have a small claw-shaped pendant at the back. Bead belts or girdles were also commonly worn by women, especially dancers; however, these were worn under diaphanous clothing, or as the only garment. Men, including the king, were shown with belts that might be beaded. By the early eighteenth dynasty, there are the first representations of upper-class Egyptians wearing earrings, and by the time of Tutankhamun the fashion was obviously universal. During the late eighteenth dynasty, earrings of many varieties were widely represented, although they were much more commonly worn by women.
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York and London, 1994. A popular version of Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (Princeton, 1991), the author's earlier scholarly work on ancient textiles.
- Egypt's Golden Age: the Art of Living in the New Kingdom, 1558–1085 B.C. A Catalogue of the Exhibition held 2/3–5/2/82, Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Boston, 1982. The catalog of this exhibit (which contained objects from dozens of museums) includes some excellent summaries and examples of ancient Egyptian clothing and textiles.
- Green, L. “Seeing through Ancient Egyptian Clothes.” KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 6.4 (Winter 1995–1996), 28–40, 76–77. A general article, lavishly illustrated, on Egyptian clothing and textiles.
- Hall, Rosalind. Egyptian Textiles. Shire Egyptology Series, 4. Princes Risborough, Bucks, England, 1986. A most useful book on ancient Egyptian fabric and clothing, and one that provides much information on how clothes were to be worn.
- Hayes, William C. The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pt. 2: The Hyksos Period and the New Kingdom (1675–1080 B.C.) Cambridge, Mass., 1959. A most useful book, with references to fabric and clothing throughout.
- Janssen, Rosalind. “Ancient Egyptian Erotic Fashion: Fishnet Dresses.” KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 6.4 (Winter 1995–1996), 41–47. This article describes the reconstruction of the dress in the Petrie Museum collection and proposes an interpretation for the specialized uses for garments of this type.
- Robins, Gay. “Problems in Interpreting Egyptian Art.” Discussions in Egyptology 17 (1990), 46. Discusses the issues behind the manner in which women's clothes were treated in ancient Egyptian art.
- Simpson, W. K. “A Protocol of Dress: The Royal and Private Fold of the Kilt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaelogy 74 (1988), 203–204.
- Vandier, Jacques. Manuel d'archéologie égyptienne, vol. 3, Les Grandes Époques: La Statuaire. Paris, 1958. An important book that offers several sections on clothing.
- Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. Patterns for Ancient Egyptian Clothing. Leiden, 1992. Offers practical suggestions on how to make and drape ancient Egyptian clothing.
- Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing. Leiden, 1993. Destined to be the major sourcebook for studies of ancient Egyptian clothing and textiles.