The ancient Egyptians may have created some of the most complex and intricate monuments known to man, but when it came to clothing, they kept it remarkably simple. Traditional ancient Egyptian clothing was made from locally sourced materials and was remarkably egalitarian, with women wearing mostly the same clothes as men. There were exceptions, however, and the most elite members of Egyptian society displayed extraordinary style and fashion.
The genderless fashion of ancient Egyptian clothing
For the ancient Egyptians, they kept their clothing to a minimum. Given the heat of Egypt, this was quite clever. In fact, if you were a child, you didn’t wear any clothes for most of the year. For adults, however, their clothes were made from locally sourced cotton or linen. Some farmers also made their own clothes from the skins of their cattle. Clothing was most often made of linen, given the abundance of flax (used to make linen) that grew along the Nile. Linen is a light, breathable material that is comfortable to wear in intense heat.
For everyday, lower-class Egyptians of the Early Dynastic Period (3150 – 2613 BC) and Old Kingdom (2613 – 2181 BC), men and women wore the same clothing. Descriptions of men and women from this period show a knee-length white dress-like garment held up by a belt. The rest of their bodies remained naked, although some people wore straw sandals. Wealthier men would wear the same clothing, but made of even lighter linen.
For wealthier women, however, dress was a little more complex. Upper-class women of the Old Kingdom wore long, straight dresses that covered their breasts. Like upper-class men’s clothing, these garments were made of lighter linen than that of commoners. These dresses were much more expensive to make than dresses. These dresses were held in place by straps over the shoulders and sometimes a sheer tunic was worn over them. Women also wore dresses made entirely of beads.
Egyptian beaded net dress. (Jennifer Brown/ CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Who used makeup in Ancient Egypt? ALL!
Also common among men and women in Ancient Egypt was the use of makeup. Oils and perfumes, as well as eye and face paints, were used to enhance the appearance of men and women of all social classes. The upper classes could, of course, afford better products. In particular, eye paint was extremely common. A wooden, ivory or stone pencil was used to apply kohl to the eyelids to emphasize their size or shape.
Kohl was made from the mineral galena, which was found in the mountainous regions of Sinai. It was then mixed with malachite and other minerals in oil or fat until a paste or cream was produced. This form of kohl was expensive to make, and therefore only available to the upper classes, but poorer people also had their own alternative form of kohl. It also had a medicinal purpose, in that it helped protect the eyes from infections caused by sunlight, dust or flies. Malachite green powder was often painted under the eyes as well, while a rouge color was applied to the face and lips through the use of red ochre.
Large wig rings of Sithathoryunet, ca. 1887–1813 BC ( Public Domain )
Accessories: Making or Breaking an Outfit Since Ancient Egypt
Wigs and jewelry were also a large part of the traditional clothing of Ancient Egypt. This was especially the case for upper class people. Jewelry and wigs were used to show off their wealth, but also because they believed it made them more attractive to the gods. They wore rings, earrings, bracelets, ornate clasps, necklaces, neck collars and pendants. This jewelry was often made of gold or precious stones. Lower class people also managed to get jewelry, although it was usually made of colored ceramic beads.
Ancient Egyptian jewelry designs often reflected religious themes. Motifs included symbols of gods and goddesses and hieroglyphic symbols, as well as birds, animals and insects that played a role in their creation myth. Commonly seen were the scarab (a type of beetle), the Eye of Ra, lotus and papyrus plants, cobras and symbols such as the Isis knot, the shen ring (symbol of eternity) and the ankh (symbol of life). A person’s jewelry was placed on his or her grave when they died, so it could be used in the afterlife.
Wig Rosette, circa 1479 – 1425 BC, New Kingdom Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III ( Public Domain )
In ancient Egypt, wigs were worn because they were more comfortable in dry climates and made personal hygiene easier. For example, lice prevention became much easier thanks to the use of wigs. Wigs were made from human hair until the Second Intermediate Period (1782-1570 BC) when horses were introduced to Egypt. After that, both horse hair and human hair were used for wigs. They were filled from the inside using vegetable fibers.
Wigs were made in different styles to be worn on different occasions. For example, a family gathering and a party required different wigs. Most wigs were long and heavy and carefully arranged in braids and strands. The rich often decorated their wigs with beads and large jewels. Poorer people had to use wigs made from papyrus plants or simply shave their heads and wear a veil.
Ancient Egyptians took good care of their physical appearance, wearing beautiful clothes, makeup, jewelry, and wigs to make themselves look their best. The main reason for this is because they believed that the main purpose of their existence was to make themselves worthy of eternity, and taking care of their physical appearance and their health was a component of doing this.
Top image: Main: The earliest surviving beaded net dress with a pastiche pattern ( CC from SA 3.0 ). Inside: A beaded dress. Photo source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston .
By Mark Brophy