Ancient Egyptian Clothing

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Ancient Egyptian Clothing

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1JimThomson
sep 29, 2010, 2:03pm

I have been fascinated for a long time by the clothing styles shown on tomb paintings from ancient Egypt. One of the more intriguing things is that almost all the close-fitting ankle-length 'sleeve' dresses shown stop (or start) below the woman's bust, leaving only two shoulder straps to cover the the bust. Some of the paintings show the sleeve dress with a single shoulder strap which attaches to the center of the dress between the breasts. These dresses are the ones worn by the aristocracy. The peasant women apparently only a skirt most of the year.
This was at about the time (2000 B.C.) that a similar style of women's dress was common on the island of Crete. The Minoan civilization on Crete was the earliest advanced European civilization. They carried the style to elaborate lengths, covering the woman's entire body, arms, shoulders and neck included, but leaving the bust fully exposed. And I have no doubt that berry juice was used to darken and redden the nipples and aureolae.
Most people have not noticed that virtually all the clothing worn by the Egyptians was a single color, cotton White. Only the aristocracy could afford fabric woven with dyed thread.
But even more intriguing was the clothing styles of the royal princesses. Apparently they spent their entire lives before marriage all but totally nude, with their nudity accentuated by elaborate hair styles, pectoral collars, arm, wrist and ankle bracelets and ear-rings. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to become familiar with the nude physique of slim adolescent girls knows that they have the most beautiful bodies of any human beings. This beauty also gave them no small power over men and boys. The tomb paintings show that the princesses remained nude even after puberty, although it is difficult to know at exactly what age this might have taken place forty centuries ago in Egypt.
Other tomb paintings show the nobles fully covered with a gauzy translucent fabric which would not have fully concealed the woman's form, or pubis, or bust. Even more intriguing are the paintings which show the Queen wearing the gauzy dress cinched in front just under the bust, but open in front all the way to the floor, thus exposing the Queen's pubis to the gaze of all and sundry. None of the paintings show the Queen as having any pubic hair, which is often seen on the princesses, slave girls, and female dancers.
The dancing girls also were almost entirely nude as well, wearing only elaborate headdresses, pectoral collars, ear-rings, bracelets and a beaded belt (often called a girdle) around their hips such that it touched the top of the buttock cleft and the top of the pubic hair of the girl. This was probably intended to focus the eye on these parts. The erotic power of the young female form was not neglected in those days, and was apparently a feast for the eyes of the men and boys.

2setnahkt
sep 29, 2010, 4:43pm

One of the more intriguing things is that almost all the close-fitting ankle-length 'sleeve' dresses shown stop (or start) below the woman's bust, leaving only two shoulder straps to cover the the bust.

I believe there is some debate about whether the early female dresses actually exposed the breasts, or whether it was an artistic convention (like showing the eyes in frontal view but the head in profile). See Patterns for Ancient Egyptian Clothing and Costume of Ancient Egypt

And I have no doubt that berry juice was used to darken and redden the nipples and aureolae.

There are New Kingdom depictions of ladies painting their lips, but I am unaware of painting other areas. I believe the paint used was red ocher rather than berry juice, possibly in an oil or animal fat base. Not much different from modern lipstick, actually. See Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries

Most people have not noticed that virtually all the clothing worn by the Egyptians was a single color, cotton White

Nothing was "cotton white" - no cotton in Egypt until much later. Linen white instead.

Even more intriguing are the paintings which show the Queen wearing the gauzy dress cinched in front just under the bust, but open in front all the way to the floor, thus exposing the Queen's pubis to the gaze of all and sundry.

Again, I think things like this are almost certainly artisitic convention. I beleive Mark Twain said "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little influence in society".

3Cynara
sep 30, 2010, 7:32am

Yeah - all those pictures of ancient Egyptian women in linen so sheer you could see their bits - I've heard doubt expressed that it's realistic. Off the top of my head, I'd mention that it often seems to be in a funerary context, and I've heard it suggested that it has a kind of fertility magic significance. The pubic triangle is often indicated even when nothing else is (or could be) visible.

I don't recall frequently having seen pubic hair on depictions of ancient Egyptian women, actually - I wonder how the rules of politeness around art functioned there.

I'd also suggest that the depictions of the royal princesses as running around the court in the altogether were due to them being depicted as children; Egyptian kids of either gender didn't seem to wear much of anything, and even if you were thirty you might be depicted as a child in your dad's tomb.

Anyway, it's easy enough to eroticize them from a distance of 3,000 years or so, but they were just people - some of them attractive, many less so (especially without modern dentistry, antibiotics, and grooming methods).

4timspalding
okt 3, 2010, 4:37am

Testing.

5setnahkt
okt 3, 2010, 10:36pm

>3 Cynara: Off the top of my head, I'd mention that it often seems to be in a funerary context, and I've heard it suggested that it has a kind of fertility magic significance.

I've read that, too. Apparently at an elaborate funeral you propped the mummy up and had it watch a mock combat, to remind it what it was supposed to do in case it had to fight in the underworld. Then you had it watch a troop of exotic dancers, to remind it what to do in case it had to - well, whatever.

I don't know what you did if the deceased was female.

6Cynara
okt 4, 2010, 3:28pm

That's interesting! Do you remember the source?

7Tom47
dec 1, 2012, 12:15pm

I came across this discussion when I was looking for information on the Ancient Egyptians. My initial impression is that some of the comments are influenced by what our culture is like. For example, the Mark Twain quote is not evidence that paintings of what the Queen wore or did not wear are “. . . almost certainly artistic convention.” Also, it could be said that almost anything depicted in Ancient Egyptian art work could be artistic convention, but that does not make it so.

If Egyptians felt that the mummy, female or male, had to be remained what it was supposed to do when having sexual intercourse then they would have propped the mummy up to watch a couple having sex and not a “troop of exotic dancers.”

I also understand that “Egyptian kids of either gender didn’t seem to wear much of anything . . .” For example, Nathaniel Harris in his book “History of Ancient Egypt” writes “In Egyptian art, children are usually shown as naked; this may have been artistic convention, but given the climate they probably did dispense with clothes for much of the time” (page 72).

Currently, in the United States, we have a strong taboo against public nudity (in most places in the United States it is against the law for a person to simply be naked in public), but that does not mean that other societies, such as that of the Ancient Egyptians had as strong taboos or even any such taboos. I’ve seen pictures of women living in the Nile valley who casually expose their breasts in what appears to be an everyday manner, so I feel it is possible that the women of Ancient Egypt would bare their breasts as is shown in the art of Ancient Egypt.

Tom,

8setnahkt
dec 1, 2012, 11:04pm

7

I came across this discussion when I was looking for information on the Ancient Egyptians. My initial impression is that some of the comments are influenced by what our culture is like.

"What our culture is like" is all we have to go on, there being no ancient Egyptians around to interview. It's parsimonious to assume others think and act the same way we do - until there's evidence to the contrary.

You are quite correct, of course, that all cultures tend to see other cultures in the light of their own beliefs. I remember reading a book about Cleopatra that showed representations of her over time; in Renaissance paintings, she was shown wearing clothes appropriate to an Italian noblewoman; in a Victorian play, she wore a corset and crinoline (and yet reviewers commented on how "authentic" her costume was).

For example, the Mark Twain quote is not evidence that paintings of what the Queen wore or did not wear are “. . . almost certainly artistic convention.”

That wasn't really intended to be "evidence", just a comment. Apparently not a very cogent or relevant one. Sorry.

Also, it could be said that almost anything depicted in Ancient Egyptian art work could be artistic convention, but that does not make it so.

Well, real people do not have eyes on the sides of their heads, as shown in Egyptian painting. The paintings of women with dresses that expose their breasts is probably similar. The evidence is Egyptian sculpture does not show women this way; instead the dress straps usually cover the breasts. The suggestion I've read is that Egyptian painters hadn't mastered - or ever really attempted - perspective drawing. Thus they adopted a "convention" about the way the body was shown - the shoulders and one eye as if the subject was face-on, but the face, arms, legs and (on women) one breast in profile.

If Egyptians felt that the mummy, female or male, had to be remained what it was supposed to do when having sexual intercourse then they would have propped the mummy up to watch a couple having sex and not a “troop of exotic dancers.”

They would? Is that comment perhaps influenced by what someone in our culture would do? To be fair, the "exotic dancers" don't seem all that common, and apparently are limited to the Old Kingdom. The depictions I'm thinking of show women doing high-kicking dancing (well, they're wall reliefs, so maybe they aren't dancing at all, just standing with one leg in the air). They are naked to the waist and wearing short kilts. The hair is in a single long braid with a ball of something at the end, the idea presumably that the braid would swing around during the dance. Here's a picture:

http://www.touregypt.net/images/touregypt/partytime1.jpg

The suggestion that this has something to do with awakening desire in the deceased is, of course, an assumption and could be completely mistaken, but there's some evidence from the various Egyptian funerary documents (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Book of the Dead) where various spells and rituals are used to restore function to the mummy - to get the heart to beat again, the lungs to breathe again, and so on. It's not terribly unreasonable to expect spells, rituals, etc., to restore other functions. I think I've read this suggested in either Ancient Egyptian Dances by Irena Lexova or Performance and Drama in Ancient Egypt by Robyn Gillam, but I don't have either book handy so I can't check.

I also understand that “Egyptian kids of either gender didn’t seem to wear much of anything . . .” For example, Nathaniel Harris in his book “History of Ancient Egypt” writes “In Egyptian art, children are usually shown as naked; this may have been artistic convention, but given the climate they probably did dispense with clothes for much of the time” (page 72).

That certainly seems to be the case from my reading as well.

Currently, in the United States, we have a strong taboo against public nudity (in most places in the United States it is against the law for a person to simply be naked in public), but that does not mean that other societies, such as that of the Ancient Egyptians had as strong taboos or even any such taboos. I’ve seen pictures of women living in the Nile valley who casually expose their breasts in what appears to be an everyday manner, so I feel it is possible that the women of Ancient Egypt would bare their breasts as is shown in the art of Ancient Egypt.

Certainly possible. Most of the depictions of this I've seen seem to be relatively specialized situations. Probably the most famous is the painting from the Tomb of Nakht (this painting was apparently pretty popular as a tomb decoration and variants appear in other tombs):

http://www.touregypt.net/images/touregypt/dance6.jpg

I once stayed at the Sheraton Gezira in Cairo; this painting was used as a wall mural in my room. Apropos of your comment on cultural attitudes toward nudity, the two dancers had been repainted with clothing. I also note that this is one of the few cases in ancient Egyptian art where people (two of the musicians) are shown face-on, such that you can see both eyes. It's also the only ancient Egyptian painting I know of where the soles of someone's feet are shown.

9Tom47
dec 2, 2012, 12:10pm

Setnahky, I disagree with your statement that “’What our culture is like’ is all we have to go on.” There are the images left by the Egyptians and there are Egyptian writings. The dust cover of Nathaniel Harris’s book, “History of Ancient Egypt” clearly shows a woman in a dress that exposes at least one breast. Also, there are other cultures, for example the current cultures living in the upper Nile Valley where the women appear to expose their breast as a matter of course and other cultures where that happens. This does not prove that Ancient Egyptian women, at least during part of the history of Ancient Egyptian, casually exposed their breast in public, but it does raise the possibility of that happening. Also, none of my comments were “. . . influenced by what someone in our culture would do.”

Thank you for replying. I would also like to hear from others.

Tom,

10Nicole_VanK
dec 2, 2012, 12:29pm

You're right. Egyptian women may have done so. We will never know for sure, but nudity (partial or otherwise) may not have been a problem in their culture.

The point, as I see it, is: we pretty much only have the evidence from their own visual arts - and, as setnahkt correctly points out: it's at least partially contradictive. We will never know for sure how ancient Egypitans actually dressed.

It's also a mistake to lump all ancient Egyptian art, as I'm sure setnahkt and many others would agree. Yes, it tended to conservatism, but there are still huge differences from period to period. "Ancient Egypt", though pretty much the same from our p.o.v. maybe, existed for thousands of years and things did have their development.

> setnahkt: You might be interested in obtaining a copy of Arrest and movement : An essay on space and time in the representational art of the ancient Near East. It's not just about Egyptian art, but enlightening.

11Cynara
Redigerat: dec 2, 2012, 1:18pm

The only actual breast-exposing dresses worn by adult non-performing women I can remember are the ones worn by women in mourning scenes (where they may be "normal" dresses retied)- the wide-strap variety doesn't really show breasts.



It's also likely that nudity was (as it often is) connected to status - most of the examples we've cited are not titled or wealthy (or even mature) people.

12Tom47
dec 3, 2012, 10:04am

I have not written that the women of Ancient Egypt casually exposed their breasts, what I wrote was that “. . . I feel it is possible that the women of Ancient Egypt would bare their breasts as is shown in the art of Ancient Egypt” and nothing in this discussion has change my opinion.

I am not an expert on Egyptian Culture, but I feel I know quite a bit about different cultures and in particular historical cultures. My main source of information on Ancient Egypt has been Nathaniel Harris’ book. Based on that source it seems to me that the Ancient Egyptians were much more comfortable about public nudity than we are now.

For example, on page 58 there is a depiction of a tomb relief that shows a completely naked man fishing from a small boat. On page 61 there is a depiction of a naked or nearly woman carrying on her shoulders a large jug. The caption to this image states: ”Left: A servant girl carrying a large jar and a bag; her nakedness conveys her low status, rather contradicted by her wig and large, elaborate collar. The object is actually a wooden cosmetic spoon.” Further, on page 82 there is a depiction of a banquet scene the caption reads: “A banqueting scene in which the seated guests are being attended to by servants. Clothing, or lack of it, makes class differences immediately obvious, although even some of the servant girls have been provided with cooling incense cones for their heads.” The seated “guests” in the banquet scene are all women and are clothed. The standing women are clearly serving the seated guests. These standing women are not performing and are for the most part naked. One breast of at least two of the standing women is clearly visible and there is nothing to show that the breasts of the other two are covered. These women are not wearing dresses. It may be that the “servant girls” are wearing what might be a form of g-string or this may just be a low belt. They are not wearing anything else below the top of their breasts. On page 85 there is an image of three female musicians one is mostly naked in a way similar to the standing women on page 82. The caption reads: “Female musicians display their charms while performing on the double oboe, lute and harp. This is one of a number of well-preserved wall paintings from the tomb of Nakht, several of which are reproduced in this book.”

In all of the images described above the bodies of the people are depicted in three quarter views and in none of the cases is there any indication of eroticism. Further it appears to me that in each case the people in the pictures are engaged in normal everyday activities. Then there are the images which show naked children.

Cynara, I agree with your statement that nudity was likely to be connected to status and maturity.

BarkingMatt, science involves the accumulation of evidence. I feel that a great deal of evidence showing the way Egyptians dressed has been accumulated and that more will be, so I would not say we will never know for sure.”

Tom,

13orsolina
Redigerat: dec 5, 2012, 2:03am

We do have a very good idea of how Egyptians dressed--although that argument about whether the sheath straps covered a woman's breasts will probably go on indefinitely. Evidence comes not only from statuary and wall paintings, but also from actual examples preserved in tombs and from documents--lists and receipts, for example. So there were the classic sheath dresses for women and kilts of varying length for men, but also long robes, shawls (sometimes with a fringe), the basic tunic (worn by both sexes, rather like today's tee shirt), and the voluminous wrap-around garment worn by women in the Ramesside period. Underwear is preserved from the tomb of Kha and Meryt at Deir el-Medina; this middle-class couple from the time of Amenhotep III were well-prepared for their long journey with many triangular loincloths. (You can see their possessions--including cosmetic equipment, wig, and standard lamp--in the Egyptian Museum, Turin. The Turin Museum is one of the world's best and well worth at least a full day.) Quality varied from very light, fine fabric to fabric with a thick pile. (Fishermen and herdsmen, in the paintings and reliefs, often went without any clothing at all when they were on the job.)

Dynastic Egyptians wore linen, which does not readily take the dyes that were available at the time, so in paintings we usually see clothing painted white. (Some goddesses, however, are wearing red sheaths.) For color, a woman could wear a bead net over her white sheath, and there were plenty of semiprecious stones and faience and glass imitations for colorful jewelry. As for makeup, besides the black or green eyepaint (worn by both sexes), there is one depiction of a woman painting her lips. But there is no basis for the novelist Pauline Gedge's assumption that affluent women painted themselves yellow all over (Gedge has a mania about makeup).

Fashions changed, too, with imported customs such as the wearing of earrings and perhaps the fringed shawl mentioned above. (The young man, "Mr. E," whose mummy from the Deir el-Bahri cache has caused such consternation, had had his ears pierced, which will mean he probably lived after the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty at the earliest.) The more elaborate, pleated gowns for women (as seen in the photo above) are popular in the later Eighteenth Dynasty and the Ramesside period. In an earlier Eighteenth Dynasty tomb chapel, women might be shown wearing sheath dresses or even skimpier clothing; when such a tomb was reused during the Nineteenth or Twentieth Dynasty, the new owner might have these figures painted over with the Ramesside fashion. Was it a matter of modesty--or just a preference for current fashion?

Those women doing the high kicks on Old Kingdom tomb walls are dancing--there are musicians pictured nearby. Music and dance (including very acrobatic dance) were vital components of ancient Egyptian religion, in daily temple ritual and in big festivals. What looks like an elaborate party on the wall of a tomb would indeed have significance not just for the deceased's jollification in the next life, but would help create an atmosphere conducive to his (or her--this kind of fertility symbolism applied to women as well as to men) rebirth.

It's worth noting that wool clothing became very common in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

14Tom47
dec 6, 2012, 10:30am

Orsolina, thank you for your informative comments. One thing that I was struck with was that both you and Jim Thomson implied that these “sleeve” dresses were attached to straps. The definition of a strap is “a narrow strip of flexible material . . .” I also think of a strap as being flat. If these were really flat straps and that can be demonstrated by preserved examples of these dresses, then they would not be very effective in covering a woman’s nipples and aureoles, let alone covering the breasts themselves. It could be that a “strap” could be situated in such a way as to cover a woman’s nipples and aureoles if she remained still, but it appears to me that normal movements would quickly uncover the nipples and aureoles. It also seems to me that if the women wanted to ensure that the nipples and aureoles were covered that they would have worn fabric that was more cupped than that suggested by the word strap. If these “straps” were really flat strips then it appears to me that would be strong evidence that they were meant to hold up the dress and not cover the nipples and aureoles. Orsolina, perhaps you could provide more evidence or insight into this.

Tom,