Egypt: Ancient Egypt Dress, Adornment and Body Care

The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Dress, Adornment and Body Car

See Also Tour Egypt Monthly Ancient Beauty Secrets

Like Egyptian women today, their forebears colored their nails, palms, soles and sometimes hair also with a paste containing the yellowish-red pigment of henna leaves.

Tattooing was also used to enhance feminine charms. The patterns on some predynastic and archaic statues are usually regarded as the earliest examples.

The erotic overtones of the art emerge clearly from the figures of 'brides of the dead' laid in tombs from the New Kingdom onwards; these were decorated with the familiar tattoo motifs.

Even in ancient Egypt a gorgeous complexion did not last for ever. To treat wrinkles (and freckles) oil of fenugreek was recommended, a plant freely available because of its use as animal fodder.

No sooner had they stepped outside the dim seclusion of their homes than the Egyptians were exposed to the full impact of the sun. The deep blue sky was seldom hidden by clouds blowing in from the Mediterranean, to be dissipated later over middle Egypt and only rarely reaching into Upper Egypt.

The low humidity of the Sahara, the world's largest desert, affected the Nile valley too, so that human body temperature was regulated by the evaporation of sweat even at a time of great physical exertion.

From prehistoric times the climate of the country had forced people to wear light, airy clothes. Heavy perspiration led them to take care of their skin and hair not merely by washing, but by a quite elaborate cosmetic routine.

The pioneers in dress and hygiene alike were understandably the women, who learned to enhance the natural beauty of their dark-haired, dark-eyed Mediterranean kind and the charm of their graceful movements by the tasteful lines of their costume, striking coiffure, relative cleanliness and the use of alluring perfumes.

Textile manufacture and dressmaking were indeed the only areas of the economy that remained predominantly in female hands. These were activities pursued in every household, and women were also for a long time paramount in the spinning and weaving shops incorporated in aristocratic houses.

The most common material for garments was linen, with wool coming second and cotton added in old times. The dressmaking tools were knives (or scissors) and needles. In predynastic times the knives were made of dressed stone and the needles of bone; in the Old Kingdom both were made of copper, gradually replaced by bronze from the Middle Kingdom on.

The eyes of needles, remarkably, were not bored but scratched out with a hard pointed instrument, probably of stone. Thread was made by twisting flax yarn. Men's skins had since time immemorial been so accustomed to the sun through continual exposure that it represented no problem: they had adapted biologically by increased pigmentation of the lower layer of the skin, acquiring the reddish-brown complexion that became darker further south.

The skin color of the men is faithfully reproduced in tomb paintings. On some predynastic palettes men are shown naked except for a belt round the loins from which hung either a strip of cloth forming a penis sheath, or else a kilt with a thick fringe made of some plant material.

These were probably worn not out of modesty but simply to protect the organs from the elements. Even in historical times unmarried men still walked around in this garb.

The well-known palette of King Narmer, who created a unified Egypt, is the earliest depiction of a king wearing the short kilt with its two ends crossed over and tucked in at the hips under a belt that is tied into a bow at the front. This was to become standard male wear for thousands of years.

It was at first very short and remained so among the common people, but in higher circles it gradually lengthened to halfway down the calves and in the Middle Kingdom dropped to the ankles. The upper edge sometimes stood out. The kilt was occasionally supplemented by a Strip of linen draped loosely over the shoulder, which in course of time acquired first short, and then long, sleeves. Diaphanous cloaks with short, wide sleeves made of special fine linen imported from Syria, became fashionable in the New Kingdom.

For working in the fields villagers wore a simple apron, made as a plain triangle of material with a wedge-shaped opening in front and the point hanging down behind over the rump. Boatmen, fishermen and papyrus and reed gatherers wore nothing at all. Villagers only donned the kilt when they were bringing their produce to the granaries or to town, or visiting relatives or temples.

They are usually portrayed with kilts, again, when they were bringing funerary offerings. In the course of the Middle Kingdom the kilt became the universal garment in the countryside as elsewhere. During the New Kingdom standard man's dress included a sort
of shirt or tunic, very loose-fitting and less easy to see in a picture, but attested by finds and texts.

Aristocrats of the Old Kingdom wore along with the kilt sundry ornaments such as necklaces and breast-pendants of wood or metal, and sometimes also an official badge of office - the vizier, for example, spurted a picture of the goddess Maat.

Even in this period the kings sometimes had their kdts starched and pleated. The sem priests, and aristocrats entrusted with priestly functions, carried slung over their shoulders a leopard skin, dressed but not sewn, including all four legs and the tall.

In the New Kingdom dignitaries of the highest ranks, such as the vizier Rekhmire, the overseer of the physicians Nebamun and the royal herald Intef, sometimes wore a distinctive costume not unlike women's dress - a tunic fitting under the arms, held up by a narrow ribbon round the neck, and reaching to the ankles.

Other aristocrats under the New Kingdom and later affected either a pleated kilt or an unpleated one with a folded apron over it, and a pleated shirt as well. Both the sleeved tunic and the shirt grew gradually longer, the tunic wider, looser and more comfortable. A further garment was also added now - a short, wide sleeveless cloak with free-hanging edges.

Great attention was paid at this time to colored ornaments and broad inlaid belts. It was naturally the ceremonial costume of the kings that had the most elaborate cut; it was also covered with small symbolic motifs.

Women's dress was less austere than men's and even in predynastic times, though evidence is scanty, probably covered almost the whole body. Presumably women, unlike men, spent most of their time indoors or under the shade in garden or courtyard; even village women only came out onto the fields at harvest-time or to lend a hand with other short-term tasks. Less exposed than the men to intense sunlight, their complexions remained much lighter; tomb paintings depict them in tones ranging from ochre to yellowish.

By the Old and Middle Kingdoms a long, white, smooth and fitting tunic held up with wide shoulder straps had become standard feminine garb. The upper edge came over, or just below, the bust while the bottom normally reached to the ankles.

It allowed ample freedom of movement and, since the arms were unencumbered, women could dance in it or even execute simple gymnastic figures.

A more convenient costume for dancers, however, was a brief apron usually secured by narrow bands across the bust. Servant girls, too, went about their work as a rule clad only in a skirt or apron.

On cool mornings and evenings women of the wealthier sort covered themselves in a long-sleeved gown that hung in folds.

For festive occasions upper-class women would wear nets of red, blue or green cylindrical faience beads across the middle third of their tunics. These restricted movement and made it difficult to sit down. But even in those days, dressing fashionably was important enough to warrant putting up with a little discomfort. Poorer women had to be content with a string of beads round the waist, or a ribbon with colored stripes to imitate it. One idiosyncratic choice was a tunic painted with a pattern of colored feathers.

In the course of the New Kingdom feminine fashion became ever more varied and sophisticated. This has been put down to influences from areas of the Near East occupied by Egypt at that time. White remained the most popular color, only occasionally varied with pastel shades, but dresses were now made of two pieces or more.

The outer garments were sometimes smooth, sometimes pleated, made from the finest linen with short sleeves and either pinned together over the bust or tied in decorative folds. They were sheer enough to show off feminine curves, but in fact most ladies still wore the traditional tunic underneath. This was also in many cases diaphanous and skin-tight.

It was modestly trimmed with colored braid, ribbons, edging and other embellishments, while metal decorations, embroidery or painted details were added in the Late Period.

The neckline was either deep and wide, or narrow, converging down to the waist. Some dresses covered only one shoulder, the other shoulder and breast remaining bare, except when concealed behind a light veil or the edge of wrap or cloak.

The shoulder-wrap or hip-length cloak ended in a fringe tied into little knots. Feminine clothing was becoming subtler and unquestionably sexy during this period, while dancing-girls, singers and musicians, like the young waitresses who served at banquets, walked around with no more to cover them than a string of beads round the buttocks and across the pubis, or perhaps a scanty kerchief for modesty.

It would be hard to enumerate all the fashionable accessories that adorned the clothes not only of women, but of men, especially in affluent circles.

Queen Hetepheres, mother of Cheops, was accompanied to her grave by silver and ivory bracelets decorated with butterflies of carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli. Simpler folk had to rest content with ceramic of faience beads in white, red and aquamarine.

Women showed more originality in their hair-styles. In their case too the basic preference was for a smooth, close coiffure; only occasionally do we find a natural wave or long ringlets. This applied to all classes insofar as they dispensed with wigs. However, even in Old Kingdom statues and reliefs we find, mainly on noblewomen (but from the 5th dynasty on their maids too) wigs that were usually of moderate length, the hair running from a central parting over the ears down to the chin or to shoulder level.

Egyptian beauties used to darken their brows, eyelids and lashes with the aid of little splints or miniature spoons made of stone, metal, wood or bone, usually tracing lines from the outer corners of the eyes and eyebrows toward the front of the earlobes, where they met.

It might seem from all this that the Egyptians had achieved high standards of bodily care and hygiene all those thousands of years ago. Alas, this did not apply to the common folk, especially the very poor.

Back Home Next