Fashion amongst the ancient Egyptians tended to be straightforward, practical and uniformly unisex. Egyptian society viewed men and women as equals. Hence, both sexes for the majority of Egypt’s population wore similar styled clothes.
In Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) upper-class women tended to adopt flowing dresses, which effectively concealed their breasts. However, lower class women usually wore similar simple kilts to those worn by their fathers, husbands, and sons.
Facts About Ancient Egyptian Fashion
- Ancient Egyptians fashion was practical and mostly unisex
- Egyptian clothing was woven from linen and later cotton
- Women wore ankle-length, sheath dresses.
- Early Dynastic Period c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE lower class men and women wore simple knee-length kilts
- Upper-class women’s dresses began below their breasts and fell to her ankles
- In the Middle Kingdom, women began wearing flowing cotton dresses and adopted a new hairstyle
- New Kingdom c. 1570-1069 BCE introduced sweeping changes in fashion featuring flowing ankle-length dresses with winged sleeves and a wide collar
- During this time, the professions began to differentiate themselves by adopting distinctive modes of dress
- Slippers and sandals were popular amongst the wealthy while the lower classes went barefoot.
Fashion In Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period And Old Kingdom
Surviving images and tomb wall paintings dating from Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE) portray men and women from Egypt’s poorer classes wearing a similar form of dress. This consisted of a plain kilt falling to roughly around the knee. Egyptologists speculate this kilt was a light colour or possibly white.
Materials ranged from cotton, byssus a type of flax or linen. The kilt was fastened at the waist with a cloth, leather or papyrus rope belt.
Around this time Egyptians from the upper class dressed similarly, the main difference being the amount of ornamentation incorporated in their clothes. Men drawn from the more affluent classes could only be differentiated from artisans and farmers by their jewellery.
Fashions, which bared a women’s breasts, were common. An upper-class women’s dress could begin below her breasts and fall to her ankles. These dresses were figure-fitting and came with either with sleeves or sleeveless. Their dress was secured by straps running across the shoulders and occasionally completed with a sheer tunic thrown over the dress. Working-class women’s skirts were worn without a top. They started at the waist and dropped to the knees. This created a greater degree of differentiation between upper class and lower-class women than was the case for men. Children commonly went naked from birth until they hit puberty.
Fashion In Egypt’s First Intermediate Period And Middle Kingdom
While the transition to Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2040 BCE) triggered seismic changes in Egyptian culture, fashion remained comparatively unchanged. Only with the advent of the Middle Kingdom did Egyptian fashion change. Women begin wearing flowing cotton dresses and adopted a new hairstyle.
Gone was the fashion for women to wear their hair cropped slightly below their ears. Now women began wearing their hair down onto their shoulders. Most clothing during this time was made from cotton. While their dresses, remained form-fitting, sleeves appeared more frequently and many dresses featured a deeply plunging neckline with a highly ornamental necklace worn around their throat. Constructed from a length of cotton cloth, the woman wrapped herself in her dress before completed her look with a belt and a blouse over the top of the dress.
We also have some evidence that upper-class women wore dresses, which fell ankle length from the waist and were secured by narrow straps running over the breasts and shoulders before fastening at the back. Men continued wearing their simple kilts but added pleats to their kilts front.
Amongst upper-class men, a triangular apron in the form of a richly embellished highly starched kilt, which stopped above the knees and was fastened with a sash proved to be very popular.
Fashion In Egypt’s New Kingdom
With the emergence of Egypt’s New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE) came the most sweeping changes in fashion during the entire sweep of Egyptian history. These fashions are the ones we are familiar with from countless movie and television treatments.
New Kingdom fashion styles grew increasingly elaborate. Ahmose-Nefertari (c. 1562-1495 BCE), Ahmose I’s wife, is shown wearing a dress, which flows to ankle length and features winged sleeves together with a wide collar. Dresses embellished with jewels and ornately beaded gowns begin appearing amongst the upper classes in Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom but became far more common during the New Kingdom. Elaborate wigs embellished with jewels and beads were also worn more frequently.
Perhaps the major innovation in fashions during the New Kingdom was the capelet. Made from sheer linen, this shawl type cape, formed a linen rectangle folded, twisted or cut, fastened to a richly ornate collar. It was worn over a gown, which usually either fell from below the breast or from the waist. It quickly became a massively popular fashion statement amongst Egypt’s upper classes.
The New Kingdom also saw changes take shape in men’s fashion. Kilts were now below knee-length, featured elaborate embroidery, and were often augmented with a loose fitting, sheer blouse with complex pleated sleeves.
Large panels of intricately pleated woven fabric hung from around their waist. These pleats showed through the translucent overskirts, which accompanied them. This fashion trend was popular amongst royalty and the upper classes, which were able to afford the lavish amount of material required for the look.
Both sexes amongst Egypt’s poor and working-class still wore their simple traditional kilts. However, now more working class women are being depicted with their tops covered. In the New Kingdom, many servants are depicted as completely clothed and wearing elaborate dresses. By contrast, previously, Egyptian servants had been shown as naked in tomb art.
Underwear also evolved during this time from a rough, triangle-shaped loincloth to a more refined item of fabric either tied around the hips or tailored to fit the waist size. Affluent New Kingdom men’s fashion was for underwear to be worn underneath the traditional loincloth, which was covered with a flowing transparent shirt falling to just above the knee. This attire was complemented by amongst the nobility with a broad neckpiece; bracelets and finally, sandals completed the ensemble.
Egyptian women and men frequently shaved their heads to combat lice infestations and save the time needed to groom their natural hair. Both sexes wore wigs during ceremonial occasions and to protect their scalp. In the New Kingdom wigs, especially women’s became elaborate and ostentatious. We see images of fringes, pleats, and layered hairstyles frequently tumbling down around the shoulders or even longer.
During this time, the professions began to differentiate themselves by adopting distinctive modes of dress. Priests wore white linen robes as white symbolized purity and the divine. Viziers preferred a long embroidered skirt, which fell to the ankles and closed under the arms. They paired their skirt with slippers or sandals. Scribes opted for a simple kilt with an optional sheer blouse. Soldiers were also clothed in a kilt with wrist guards and sandals completing their uniform.
Cloaks, coats and jackets were common were necessary to ward off the chill of desert temperatures, particularly during the cold nights and during Egypt’s rainy season.
Egyptian Footwear Fashions
Footwear was to all intents and purposes non-existent amongst Egypt’s lower classes. However, when crossing rough terrain or during spells of cold weather they appear to have simply bound their feet in rags. Slippers and sandals were popular amongst the wealthy although many opted to go barefoot as did the working classes and the poor.
Sandals were typically fashioned from leather, papyrus, wood or some mixture of materials and were comparatively expensive. Some of the best examples we have today of Egyptian slippers come from Tutankhamun‘s tomb. It held 93 pairs of sandals demonstrating a range of styles with one notable pair being made from gold. Fashioned from papyrus rushes braided tightly together slippers could be given cloth interiors for added comfort.
Egyptologists have uncovered some evidence that the New Kingdom nobility wore shoes. They similarly found evidence supporting the presence of silk fabric, however, this appears to have been extremely rare. Some historians speculate shoes were adopted from the Hittites who wore boots and shoes around this time. Shoes never gained popular acceptance amongst Egyptian as they were seen as an unnecessary effort, given that even the Egyptian gods walked barefoot.
Reflecting On The Past
Fashion in ancient Egypt was shockingly skimpy and unisex than their modern contemporaries. Utilitarian design and simple fabrics reflect the effect climate had on Egyptian fashion choices.
Header image courtesy: by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons