In ancient Egypt, hairstyles changed through time, although deities and occasionally kings and queens were shown with archaic coiffures. Hair was worn at varying lengths and in various styles during the same time period, reflecting changes in fashion as well as differences in sex, age, and social status. In the past, the chief sources of information on hair have been artistic, although some archaeological evidence has been utilized. The hair of mummies, which provides the most immediate source of information on ancient coiffures, has now been studied by the scholar Joanne Fletcher.
The large number of items relating to hairdressing that have been excavated in tombs and at other sites reflects the importance of a well-kept head of hair in ancient Egyptian society. These artifacts include bone, ivory, or metal hairpins, combs, and scissor-shaped metal implements used either for curling or braiding the hair. Upperclass persons would have worn wigs of human hair; occasionally the wigs were padded with vegetable fibers. A New Kingdom nobleman's wig (now in the British Museum) consists of a mesh covered with tightly braided tresses that were attached with beeswax and resin and by looping the strands over the matrix. A portion of the braided tress was then wrapped around this loop. Judging by reliefs on the Middle Kingdom sarcophagi of the wives of Montuhotep I, artificial curls could be added singly, serving to augment fullness in the coiffure, although for one queen they were necessary to cover up a bald spot. Individual braids of human hair have been found at el-Lisht (presently in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It has been suggested that the mysterious scissor-like toilet implements might have been used to weave those locks into the hair. The implements, which are included in burials from the end of the Old Kingdom to the Late period, consist of two elements: the upper blade was often decoratively shaped and ended in a papyriform element; the lower blade was straight, with a point at one end and a slot at the other.
Jars of beeswax and resin, which the scholar Lise Manniche suggests could have been used as setting lotion, have also been excavated. Depictions of gray hair are almost unknown, except for a few representations in a funerary context. According to surviving recipes, graying hair could be concealed by coloring it with a paste made of juniper berries and other plants. Dye from the henna plant is not mentioned in the recipes. From the eighteenth dynasty onward, cone-shaped objects were depicted resting atop the coiffures of both male and female party-goers in tomb reliefs and paintings. These objects, often called “cosmetic cones,” were impregnated with perfume of myrrh. Although scholars have suggested that these were made of wax, they were probably made of tallow or other fat, and could have been used to condition wigs or natural hair, both of which no doubt suffered from dryness caused by the arid climate and the sun.
Priests often shaved (or otherwise depilated) their heads, and probably their entire bodies, as a part of their ritual purification. Numerous razors and tweezers have been found in archaeological contents and texts preserve several recipes for concoctions which were supposed to remove hair. Razors came in a variety of shapes: the two most common were the symmetrical blade with a cutting edge at the end and a slender blade-like variety with a cutting edge that curves into the handle to form a hook. Other ancient Egyptians may have cropped their hair short for coolness or to fit under a wig. Another reason for cropped hair might have been to get rid of lice, the eggs and adults of which have been found in the hair of mummies. Lice may have been the reason that children were also often (but not always) depicted with shaved heads. Sometimes a single thick tress of hair, the “sidelock of youth,” was left uncut near one temple in depictions of young children. This braided and curled lock of hair came to have symbolic significance, as a reference to youthful gods, such as Khonsu, and to the reborn and rejuvenated pharaoh. Amulets and other small representations of a crouching figure wearing a sidelock have survived from the Amarna period.
Among the amulets or ornaments depicted in the hair are fish pendants and ball-shaped attachments worn by female dancers. In the Middle Kingdom, small fish-shaped ornaments were occasionally shown attached to a girl's plait of hair. It is believed by scholars that these were amulets against drowning, as indicated by their mention in the story of King Snefru's girl sailors in Papyrus West-car, rather than purely decorative elements. A number of other hair ornaments have been dated to the Middle Kingdom. These include small gold tubes that fit over plaits of hair, and small cornflowers of gold foil that were also apparently attached to the hair. The single, thick tress of the sidelock worn by preadolescents was also held in place by a clasp or ring. From the Old Kingdom forward, female dancers were shown with their hair pulled back in a long tail, that terminated in a ball-shaped element. Dancers with this hairstyle were characteristically shown performing energetic dances and wearing only brief garments around the hips. A Middle Kingdom relief from the tomb of Queen Neferu depicts performers with a single string of ornaments in their hair; according to the scholar, Cyril Aldred, these were large silver disks. By analogy with other African hairstyles, however, the ornaments might be strands of large beads that were woven into a braid of hair. During the New Kingdom, frontal bands woven from leaves and flower petals were often shown in party scenes, along with cosmetic cones. In addition, men and women were depicted with strips of cloth tied around their heads, especially in the context of funerals. Fillets of flowers, or their imitations in precious metals, were depicted in art from the Old Kingdom forward. Both dancers and boatmen were shown with lotus blossom fillets in festival scenes from Old Kingdom tombs. An Old Kingdom burial from Giza contained a plaster and copper imitation of such a fillet. Later burials of queens and princesses occasionally included circlets that owe their inspiration to the floral headgear. Excavation of the twelfth dynasty burial of the king's daughter Khnumet revealed delicate and beautiful golden circlets utilizing the floral forms of cornflowers and papyrus. Headcloths or wig-covers figure prominently in the headgear of mortals and gods, from the kingly nemes-headcloth to the khat or afnet (also known as the bag-wig) that derives from the kerchiefs covering the heads of winnowers.
In ancient Egypt, most men were shown clean-shaven, but noblemen occasionally grew a short goatee; kings and male deities were depicted with false beards; the straps that hold on the beard were often represented along the side of the face, passing over the ears. In the case of living pharaohs the beards are long and cut straight across at the end. Anthropomorphic gods and deceased pharaohs wore false beards that were braided and curled up at the ends. Eventually this type of beard would be represented on the coffins of many ordinary Egyptians, indicating that those deceased citizens had attained immortality. Amulets in the shape of the divine beard have been found in jewelry from some burials, but their exact significance is difficult to determine. (It has also been suggested that the amulets represent the “sidelock of youth” and they are a reference to rejuvenation, but a list of amulets in the Mac-Gregor Papyrus makes it clear that beard amulets did exist.)
Hairdressers and cosmeticians in ancient Egypt were of both sexes although few examples exist from extant records. The army, temples, wealthy households, and the king's entourage contained men known as “shavers.” Among the most famous depictions of hairdressing are those from the sarcophagi belonging to the two minor wives of Montuhotep I. In both examples, the hairdresser is shown attaching a false curl to the hair of the deceased. The coiffeuses typically stand behind their clients, who are often depicted looking into a mirror. Interestingly, combs are not shown in use by hairdressers; they seem to use hairpins exclusively. Those were made of many materials and often terminated in tiny decorative sculptures of animals.
The typical wigs of Old Kingdom noblemen were thick, straight, and shoulder-length. In three-dimensional representations, they typically were swept back in wing shapes. It was not uncommon, however, for elite men of that period to be shown with their natural, short-cropped hair exposed. During the Old Kingdom, small, closely-clipped moustaches and chinbeards were also popular. Middle Kingdom men's wigs were similar to those of the preceding period, but were often longer and were worn pushed behind the ears. Men were less likely to be shown with facial hair; elite men were rarely depicted with their natural hair exposed. Judging by the wigs for both sexes, which tend to come far down on the brow, a low forehead may have been a mark of attractiveness at this time. In the Archaic period, and until the end of the fourth dynasty, women were often shown with very thick, long hairstyles that consisted of heavy ringlets and braids of hair. During that time, the most popular wigs for women were shoulder-length or longer, although short hairstyles were also worn. For example, the mother of Djoser was represented with a short-cropped hairstyle; in the fourth dynasty women of the royal family were also often represented with this cropped hairstyle. A very popular coiffure among women of the upper classes was a very thick wig that touched the shoulders. A few locks of the woman's real hair may sometimes be seen underneath. The most popular type of long wig was often depicted with straight hair and divided into three sections; it is designated by modern scholars as tripartite. It is impossible to say that any one hairstyle worn by women was characteristic of only one class of women at that time, although by the New Kingdom the long, straight wig was often shown on goddesses.
During the Middle Kingdom, short, curled wigs or hairstyles were also worn by women. A wig similar to the tripartite wig of the Old Kingdom was developed for use by royal women. It consisted of thick and wavy hair that came forward over their shoulders in two curled tresses, but that allowed their real hair to be seen in back. The curled tresses often terminated in ball-like elements. This coiffure, called the Hathoric wig, was often seen on that goddess. It was worn by a few queens of the Middle Kingdom and the early eighteenth dynasty, together with the vulture cap. This hairstyle, which was so intimately connected with a goddess, is, in fact, absent from most two- and three-dimensional images of Hathor. This goddess was often represented in much the same coiffure and clothing as other female deities, with the eponymous hairstyle shown only in certain full-face representations of her, such as those on the pillars of the temple at Dendera.
The long, straight wig for women was often depicted in the New Kingdom and later, although by that time it was an archaic coiffure worn by queens and goddesses. Although it was often represented in painting and relief without indications of curl or braid, it is apparent from other reliefs and sculptures that this hairstyle could be arranged in vertical rows of short ringlets. These elaborations, however, are rarely seen when the wig was shown on deities such as Isis or Hathor. Ordinary upper-class women wore massive wigs of human hair, elaborately braided, curled, and frizzed. These wigs, which generally cover the wearer as far as her shoulder blades, have been dubbed enveloping wigs because they are shown without divisions and with the ears covered. This distinguishes the coiffure from the Hathoric and tripartite wigs that are pushed behind the ears.
During the latter half of the eighteenth dynasty, the distinction between male and female hairstyles blurred when coiffures such the Nubian wig became popular. This hairstyle consisted of tapering rows of tightly rolled ringlets in successive layers. Similar hairstyles are worn in sub-Saharan Africa today; the pharaonic hairstyle is believed to have been influenced by contemporaneous Nubian styles. Another hairstyle worn by both sexes, and influenced by Nubian styles consisted of a rounded wig that reached to the nape of the neck and was often set in ringlets. By the late eighteenth dynasty, men of the upper classes often wore shoulder-length wigs cut in two layers; the bottom layer was be arranged in overlapping ringlets or in loose, flowing hair.
These coiffures were worn both by private individuals and by the king and queen. Often, the only distinguishing factor was the complexity of the arrangement of curls in the wig. For example, on the back of the throne of Tutankhamun, he is represented in a “round” wig with three descending layers of overlapping curls at the bottom. His queen is shown in a multilayered Nubian wig. By contrast, the lesser women and men of the court at Amarna were often depicted without indications of this elaborate layering. Young women, including princesses, were sometimes shown wearing wigs similar to the Nubian type, but cut straight across the bottom, with the addition of an elaborately braided sidelock that hung down as far as the shoulder. The added hairpiece may have been intended to imitate the curled “sidelock of youth” traditionally worn by children. At the end of the dynasty, representations of elderly male courtiers showed a wig of loose, wavy hair flowing over both shoulder blades, unlike the intricately curled hairstyles of younger men.
In the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties the “unisex” coiffures of the Amarna period went out of use and both men and women were shown in very long wigs. Among upper-class women the wigs sometimes reached to their waists, falling in three locks over the shoulders and down their backs. The hairstyles of men were often more than shoulder-length. The divided wigs of the late eighteenth dynasty were still in evidence during the reigns of Sety I and Ramesses II, but the men at the artists' village of Deir el-Medina were shown with hair (wigs) to their shoulder blades. At Deir el-Medina, young children of both sexes were depicted with their heads partially shaved. The daughters of Sennedjem, for example, appeared with several small locks of hair on their otherwise clean-shaven heads. Elsewhere in the tomb, another daughter, depicted wearing a long gown, was represented with a long, thick, braided sidelock of hair on the right side of her shaven skull. The long dress, and probably the long sidelock, are indicators that she was to be regarded as an adult.
In the twenty-fifth dynasty and later, when Nubian influence was once again strong, men and women were shown in short, tightly-curled hairstyles; the “round” wig returned for women as well. The extreme stylization of details of personal appearance in Egyptian art at any time, and the tendency to archaize during this period, make it difficult to say what fashions in hairstyle actually were.
Throughout Egyptian history, menials of both sexes and all types were represented with hairstyles not seen elsewhere. For example, male pattern baldness was primarily depicted on herdsmen and other low-status workers. The young girls who are used as models for the handles of mirrors and cosmetic spoons, however, were shown with thick, elaborate wigs, probably because of the erotic connotations of hair and wigs in ancient Egypt. Certain stories, such as the Story of the Two Brothers, which dates to the late eighteenth dynasty, refer to the role of hair in sexual attraction. A lock of hair from a beautiful woman becomes entangled in pharaoh's laundry, and its scent—perhaps suggestive to the ancient Egyptian audience of the myrrh fragrance of the cosmetic cones—fills him with such desire that he is willing to kill her husband in order to possess her. It is the unique perfume of her hair, reminiscent of the special scent that signals the presence of gods that attracts the king (Hollis 1990). In art, hair, in the form of the “sidelock of youth,” is one of the significations of childhood. It can also be a method of indicating wealth and status, of signaling erotic potential, and of connecting a person with a particular role or profession.
- Aldred, Cyril. Jewels of the Pharaohs. New York, 1971.
- Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Egypt's Golden Age: the Art of Living in the New Kingdom, 1558–1085 B.C. A Catalogue of the Exhibition held 3/2–5/2/82. Boston, 1982. This exhibition catalog includes several sections on Egyptian clothing and personal adornment; they are “Mirrors,” “Razors,” “Toilette Implements,” “Wigs and Hair Accessories,” and “Cosmetic Arts.”
- Capel, Anne K., and Glenn E. Markoe, eds. Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt. New York, 1996; Hudson Hills Press, New York, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum. Another exhibition catalog which includes a number of items relating to personal adornment.
- Cox, J. Stevens. “The Construction of an Ancient Egyptian (c, 1400 B.C.) Wig in the British Museum.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63 (1977), 67–70.
- Fletcher, Joanne. “Cosmetics and Bodycare.” In Clothing of the Pharaohs, edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood. Leiden, 1994.
- Fletcher, Joanne. “A Tale of Hair, Wigs and Lice,” Egyptian Archaeology: Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society, no. 5 (1994), 31–33.
- Hollis, S. The Ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers, Norman, Okla., and London, 1990.
- Vandier, Jacques. Manuel d'archéologie égyptienne, vol. 3: Les Grandes Époques: La Statuaire. Paris, 1958. See “Coiffure, Costume et parure” (Ancient empire), pp. 106–115; “Costumes et Coiffures” (Moyen empire), pp. 248–250, 252–253; (Nouvel Empire) 347–352, 408–413, 493–500.