Fashions and clothing in Ancient Egyptian Civilization

The Egyptian climate with its hot summers and mild winters favoured light clothing made from plant fibers, predominantly linen and in Roman times occasionally cotton, an import from India Wool was used to a lesser extent , and seldom by Egyptians proper.
Ancient Egyptian Fashion

    Small amounts of silk were traded to the eastern Mediterranean possibly as early as the second half of the second millennium BCE and traces of silk have been found in Egyptian tombs .
    Animal skins, above all leopard skins, were sometimes worn by priests and by pharaohs in their role as first servants of the god. Such outfits were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and were depicted quite frequently on the walls of tombs. At times kings and queens wore decorative ceremonial clothing adorned with feathers.

Their fashions of mourning and of burial are these: Whenever any household has lost a man who is of any regard amongst them, the whole number of women of that house forthwith plaster over their heads or even their faces with mud.
Then leaving the corpse within the house they go themselves to and fro about the city and beat themselves, with their garments bound up by a girdle and their breasts
exposed, and with them go all the women who are related to the dead man, and on the other side the men beat themselves, they too having their garments bound up by a girdle; and when they have done this, they then convey the body to the embalming. In this occupation certain persons employ themselves regularly and inherit this as a craft. These, whenever a corpse is conveyed to them, show to those who brought it wooden models of corpses made like reality by painting, and the best of the ways of embalming they say is that of him whose name I think it impiety to mention when speaking of a matter of such a kind; the second whichthey show is less good than this and also less expensive; and the third is the least expensive of all.

Having told them about this, they inquire of them in which way they desire the corpse of their friend to be prepared. Then they after they have agreed for a certain price depart out of the way, and the others being left behind in the buildings embalm according to the best of these ways thus: First with the crooked iron tool they draw out the brain through the nostrils, extracting it partly thus and partly by pouring in drugs; and after this with a sharp stone of Ethiopia they make a cut along the side and take out the whole contents of the belly, and when they have cleared out the cavity and cleansed it with palm-wine they cleanse it again with spices pounded up: then they fill the belly with pure myrrh pounded up and with cassia and other spices except frankincense, and sew it together again. Having so done they keep it for embalming covered up in natron for seventy days, but for a longer time than this it is not permitted to embalm it; and when the seventy days are past, they wash the corpse and roll its whole body up in fine linen cut into bands, smearing these beneath with gum, which the Egyptians use generally instead of glue. Then the kinsfolk receive it from them and have a wooden figure made in the shape of man, and when they have had this made they enclose the corpse, and having shut it up within, they store it then in a sepulchral chamber, setting it to stand upright against the wall.

Thus they deal with the corpses which are prepared in the most costly way; but for those who desire the middle way and wish to avoid great cost they prepare the corpse as follows: having filled their syringes with the oil which is got from cedar-wood, with this they forthwith fill the belly of the corpse, and this they do without having either cut it open or taken out the bowels, but they inject the oil by the breech, and having stopped the drench from returning back they keep it then the appointed number of days for embalming, and on the last of the days they let the cedar oil come out from the belly, which they before put in; and it has such power that it brings out with
it the bowels and interior organs of the body dissolved; and the natron dissolves the flesh, so that there is left of the corpse only the skin and the bones.

When they have done this they give back the corpse at once in that ondition without working upon it any more. The third kind of embalming, by which are prepared the bodies of those who have less means, is as follows: they cleanse out the belly with a purge and then keep the body for embalming during he seventy days, and at once after that they give it back to the bringers to carry away.

The wives of men of rank when they die are not given at once to be mbalmed, nor such women as are very beautiful or of greater regard than others, but on the third or fourth day after their death (and not before) they are delivered to the embalmers.

They do so about this matter in order that the embalmers may not abuse their women, for they say that one of them was taken once doing so to the corpse of a woman lately dead, and his fellow-craftsman gave information. Whenever any one, either of the Egyptians themselves or of strangers, is found to have been carried off by a crocodile or brought to his death by the river itself, the people of any city by which he may have been cast up on land must embalm him and lay him out in the fairest way they can and bury him in a sacred burial-place, nor may any of his relations or friends besides touch him, but the priests of the Nile themselves handle the corpse and bury it as that of one who was something more than man.

 The clothes were generally made of linen and kept simple: a short loincloth resembling a kilt for men, a dress with straps for women. These basic garments with minor variations accounting for fashion, social status and wealth did not change fundamentally throughout Egypt’s history.

Men's clothing
Old Kingdom Middle Kingdom New Kingdom Late Period

    Very little sewing was done. The cloth was wrapped round the body and held in place by a belt. Its colour was generally whitish, in contrast to the colourful clothes foreigners wore in Egyptian depictions, although dyed cloth was not unknown.

    Everyday clothing was mostly undecorated, though pleating was known since the Old Kingdom, when some dresses of upper class Egyptians were pleated horizontally. In the New Kingdom the pleats were often vertical, but pleating could be quite intricate. A Middle Kingdom piece of clothing displays three different types of pleating: one part is pleated with pleats a few centimetres apart, another with very narrow pleats and a third part is chevron-patterned, with horizontal and vertical pleats crossing each other. How the pleating was done is not known, but it is generally supposed to have been very labour intensive.

    The length of the the kilts varied, being short during the the Old Kingdom and reaching the calf in the Middle Kingdom, when it was often supplemented with a sleeveless shirt or a long robe.

    The kalasiris women wore might cover one [3] or both shoulders or be worn with shoulder straps. While the top could reach anywhere from below the breast up to the neck, the bottom hem generally touched the calves or even the ankles. Some had short sleeves, others were sleeveless. The fit might be very tight or quite loose. They were often worn with a belt which held together the folds of cloth.

Source of the kalasiris picture on the right: University of Indiana website [1]

    They were sewn from a rectangular piece of cloth twice the desired garment length. An opening for the head was cut at the centre of the cloth, which was then folded in half. The lower parts of the sides were stitched together leaving openings for the arms.

Women's clothes, Source: the two pictures to the right are excerpts from 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson, Time-Life Books, 1975
Selket wearing a pleated dress Servant wearing panties and collar Ankle long dress with straps, leaving breasts half bare

Source: the two pictures to the right are excerpts from Ancient Egypt by Lionel Casson

    Women’s dresses were at times ornamented with beads. They covered the breasts most of the time, though there were periods when fashion left them bare .
    Circular capes date back as far as the Old Kingdom. They were generally made of linen and had an opening for the head cut at the centre. They were often dyed, painted or otherwise decorated and covered little more than the shoulders. Shawls were sometimes worn during the New Kingdom.

Laundry, Source:? Cleanliness was apparently next to godliness in ancient Egypt. And who was closer to the gods than the pharaohs themselves. Since earliest historic times the titles of “chief washer of the palace” and “washer to the pharaoh” are known, and keeping the royal clothes lily white was the duty of the “chief bleacher.”
    Manually washing clothes was hard work. Soap was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, so lye, made of castor-oil and saltpetre or some such substances , or detergents made of soapwort or asphodil  were used. The laundry was beaten, rinsed and wrung by pairs of workers. By 1200 BCE there were fire-proof boilers in the wash-houses, and the hot water lightened the workload.
    Many, above all the poorer people had no access to facilities and had to do their laundry under at times difficult conditions. Washing on the shore of the river or the bank of a canal, which had the advantage of not having to carry a lot of water in heavy earthen pots, could be dangerous:

The washerman launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile. I shall go away, father, from the flowing water, said his son and his daughter, to a more satisfactory profession, one more distinguished than any other profession.

The Instructions of Dua-Khety

    In the eyes of Kheti at least, washing women’s clothing was not really work a man should be doing. He says disparagingly of the washerman:

He cleans the clothes of a woman in menstruation.

The Instructions of Dua-Khety

    Before the advent of industrial production techniques, cheap overseas transportation and a Third World population with little choice but to work for peanuts, clothes made up a considerable part of one’s living expenses. Even though the clothes of the Egyptians were lighter than those of Europeans and less critical to survival, they were careful not to ruin them, and when a garment got torn, it was probably the ancient Egyptian housewife who got her favorite needle out of her needle box, a knife and a piece of thread and settled down to mend it. Garments have been found which were mended a number of times and finally recycled and turned into something else.    If depictions are anything to go by, then ordinary Egyptians did not wear any headdress as a rule, similar to African peoples further south. The better-off put on wigs – perhaps just on special occasions. These grew to a remarkable size during the New Kingdom.
    The pharaohs are always represented wearing crowns, but whether this is a pictorial convention or whether they did so in every day life can not be decided.


Sandals, Photo: mfa Boston- Plaited reed sandals
New Kingdom
Picture source: mfa Boston website
    People living around the Mediterranean had little need for elaborate footwear, with exceptions like the Hittites in their Anatolian highlands who wore shoes with turned up toes, though in Egyptian reliefs Hittites are depicted unshod. The Egyptians went barefoot much of the time, but wore sandals on special occasions or when their feet were likely to get hurt. The sandals were tied with two thongs and, if they had a pointed tip this was often turned upwards. They were made of leather  or rush woven or stitched together, and often had leather soles and straps.
    The cheapest kind of sandals were affordable to all but the very poorest. Ipuwer in his Admonitions used the lack of sandals to describe the destitute who, in the topsy-turvy world of chaos he warned from, attained great wealth: He who could not afford sandals owns riches .

Sandal of Ramses III, excerpt
Source: L. Cassell Ancient Egypt

    Sandals made of gold have been found which cannot have been very comfortable to their wearers if they were worn at all. Among Tutankhamen’s equipment there were 93 pieces of footwear. There were sandals made of wood with depictions of enemies on their soles, on which the king would tread with every step and another pair which was fastened with buttons.
    One of the changes in daily life which occurred during the Middle and New Kingdoms was the increasing use of sandals, above all where soldiers [10] or travellers were concerned. In the story of The Two Brothers Anpu set out on a journey:

Then he took his staff and his sandals, as well as his clothes and his weapons, and he started to journey to the Valley of the Pine.

M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, p.208

    Sandals seem to have had an importance which mostly escapes us nowadays, symbolizing prosperity and authority. Thutmose III speaks of the countries he conquered, and possibly of the rest of the world as well, as all lands were under my sandals .
    Among the oldest images of the dynastic period are depictions of the sandal-bearer of the pharaoh, and for the sixth dynasty official Weni this post was seemingly an important stage in a splendid career, mentioned twice in his autobiography.

Sandals were very closely and beautifully stitched up of rush, and usually soled with leather. A small bundle of rush was wound round by a rush thread, which at every turn pierced through the edge of a previous bundle. Thus these successive bundles were bound together edge to edge, and a flat surface built up. This was edged round in the same way. In basket making exactly the same principle was followed, with great neatness. The rush sandals soled with leather, leather sandals alone, and leather shoes, were all used. The shoes seem to have been just originating at that period; two or three examples are known, but all of them have the leather sandal strap between the toes, and joining to the sides of the heel, to retain the sole on the foot ; the upper leather being stitched on merely as a covering without its being intended to hold the shoe on the foot. These soles are compound, of three or four thicknesses.

W.M.F.Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, p.28
Rush slippers, Late Period, Source: cesras website

    Early Middle Kingdom shoes were little more than sandals with straps between the toes and joined to the sides at the heel with the upper leather just covering the foot without being fastened to the foot itself. During the New Kingdom there were times when some Egyptians seem to have taken to occasionally wearing shoes, as in a depiction of Queen Nutmose at Karnak. This may have come about as an influence of the Hittites, with whom they came into contact at this time.

Rush slippers
Late Period
Source: Cesras website

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