Although exact dates will differ from source to source, the ancient Egyptian Empire is generally believed to have begun around 3000 BC and lasted until 300 BC. Unlike later civilizations, which can be considered certifiably daft for their fashion choices, the clothing of ancient Egypt was largely determined by the climate of the region and styles changed very little over the 2700-odd years. For lack of better words, Egypt was HOT and in the winters, chilly at best. As a result, linen—made by spinning and weaving fibers of the Flax plant, was largely used in most forms of clothing because it was readily available and more importantly, it was light and breathable. During colder periods woolen coats would be worn. Leather were also featured but received less use and privileged individuals sometimes purchased silk, cotton, and other textiles from foreign merchants.
The Caste System in ancient Egypt not only defined the costumes of the various social groups but also served as rough historical guide to the evolution of clothing in Egypt. Slaves were generally naked as were children in summer months, while the commoner class wore loin cloths made from animal skin and linen. A linen kilt or tunic called a ‘c(k)alasaris’ was also often part of the ensemble for everyone from this social class upwards. In the Old Kingdom, calasaris were short, only reaching down to the knees. The Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt saw them extend slightly further until they cut off at the calf as well as pleating of the material in some cases.
Women normally had linen calasaris that extended to their ankles, featuring shoulder straps and decorative collars for those who could afford it. Most of the time their breasts were covered but once in a while, hanging out came back into fashion. At times, women may also wear circular capes around their shoulders and in the later New Kingdom, shawls. Clothing for both sexes was usually secured by a belt. Footwear was avoided whenever possible and the ancient Egyptians preferred to move about barefoot, carrying their sandals in case of situations when they truly might need them. These situations predominantly consisted of A) Cases where they might injure their feet and B) Parties. The sandals in question were made thong-style with upturned toes. Materials varied from palm fiber to leather.
Upper class Egyptians frequently preferred thinner, transparent linens, the degree of transparency indicating how finely woven the linen was and thus, the wealth and status of the wearer. Needless to say, the Pharaoh stood atop this fashion pyramid with his clothes being the most see-through. Curiously, although it is featured in many paintings and films, it is unknown if the Pharaoh actually wore an ornate headdress frequently or if it was only meant for special occasions. Gold was also worn as a status symbol, with more indicating a greater position of power, though jewelry in general knew no social boundaries and were frequently worn by even the poor lower class. Besides gold, said jewelry featured blue lapis lazuli stones, beads, and turquoise. The most common forms of jewelry were ear studs, rings, and necklaces.
During religious ceremonies, priests of certain sects would wear leopard skins, but otherwise had very little with the exception of the standard linen calasari. The reason for this being that as a link to the gods, they were required to be cleanest of the Egyptians, meaning frequent baths a day, no body hair whatsoever, and aside from the afore-mentioned leopard robes, no animal parts as things such as leather or wool were considered unclean.
Second to the priests in cleanliness were the women who washed every time prior to dressing themselves, but overall all Egyptians prided themselves on frequent washing as well as scented oils which they rubbed upon their skin. At parties, a particular favor of women was a cone of scented FAT, which melted over the course of the evening, eventually lathering her hair in lard-laden goodness. Makeup was a staple for both sexes and all classes, it was common to see heavy amounts of the stuff on their eyes and lips. The famous black eyeliner was called kohl and came in the form of a black powder, which ochre reddened their cheeks and henna did the same for nails and hair.
Wigs were also the big thing throughout Egypt and each day called for a different wig, made from either wool, vegetable fibers, or human hair. Both sexes wore wigs, which were usually straight, but special occasions called for curly ones; the only individuals who didn’t were the priests, again for the sake of cleanliness. Bald was never a preferred look, but the reason being that wigs were favored was that in such a hot climate, it helped to take your hair off to get cool. During the times that actual hair was in fashion, it was usually worn straight and short, though curling was not unheard of. Women tended to have their hair a bit longer than men so that they could be intricately braided with more jewelry, in some cases, the sheer quantity of which would have made them appear to be wearing entire headdresses.. As previously mentioned, priests stayed hairless regardless and were actually required to shave themselves every three days to avoid risking lice and uncleanliness in the temples. Little Egyptian girls had their hair worn in pigtails until they were older and boys had their heads shaven with the exception of a small lock of hair. Often, they also had beads or pendants to decorate their scalps.
- Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- Wilkinson, John Gardner, Sir. A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Crescent
- Houston, Mary G. and Hornblower, Florence S. Ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian Costumes. And Decorations. New York: Macmillan Co. 1920
- Digital Egypt for Universities. Grajetzki, Wolfram. Quirke, Stephen. Shiode, Narushige. 2000-2003. University College of London. 13 Sept. 2008. < http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/>
- Magnus, Hirschfeld. Women east and west: impressions of a sex expert. London: W. Heinemann (medical books), 1935. ACLS Humanities e-book