The ancient Egyptians were the first human society to have an identifiable sense of style in clothing. From Egypt's earliest beginnings around 3100 b.c.e. to its eventual decline around 332 b.c.e., Egypt's kings and queens, called pharaohs, and its many noble men and women placed great emphasis on the appearances of their clothes, jewelry, the wigs they wore in place of natural hair, and their skin. The Egyptians idolized the human body, and the clothes they wore complimented the lines of the slender bodies that were most appreciated in Egyptian society.
Dressing for a warm climate
Egypt's climate was very warm, as it is today, and Egyptian dress provided the perfect complement to this warm weather. Both men and women tended to dress very lightly. For nearly 1,500 years it was very rare for men to wear anything on their torso, or upper body. For the upper class and the pharaohs, the main form of dress was the schenti, a simple kilt that tied around the waist and hung about to the knees. Working men wore first a loincloth, a very small garment that covered just the private parts, and later the loin skirt, which was somewhat more modest and covered from the waist to the mid thigh. In about 1500 b.c.e. Egyptian men began to wear simple tunics on their upper bodies. They adopted the custom from the neighboring region of Syria, which Egypt had recently conquered.
Women also dressed lightly, and they too often bared much of their upper body. The basic form of female clothing was a simple dress called a kalasiris. It was a tube of cloth, sewn along one side, with one or two shoulder straps. In many cases the straps extended to mid torso, leaving the breasts exposed. Less common were several other items of female clothing. Some women wore wide skirts that they combined with a close-fitting wrap with long sleeves. During the reign of King Akhenaten, from about 1379 to about 1362 b.c.e., women like the king's wife, Nefertiti, adopted long, flowing, pleated linen dresses.
The importance of linen
The single most important fabric in Egypt was linen. Linen was made from the fibers of a plant called flax. Egypt had well-developed weaving techniques, and many Egyptian workers were involved in producing linen fabrics. It was a light fabric, which made it comfortable in hot weather. It was also easy to starch, or stiffen, into pleats and folds, which decorated the clothing of both men and women, especially beginning in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–c. 1500 b.c.e.).
Egyptians used a variety of colors in their clothing, and these colors had symbolic meanings. Blue, for example, stood for Amon, god of air; green represented life and youth; and yellow was the symbol of gold. Red, which symbolized violence, was seldom used, and black was reserved for the wigs worn by both men and women. By far the most revered color was white. White was a sacred color among the Egyptians, symbolizing purity. Luckily, white was the natural color of flax.
Another quality of linen that was particularly appealing was its thinness. Linen could be made so thin, or sheer, that it was transparent. Egyptians were not modest and enjoyed showing off their bodies. Women and men are frequently depicted in hieroglyphs, or picture stories, wearing see-through garments.
Ideal or reality?
Our knowledge of Egyptian clothing has come almost entirely from studying the many hieroglyphs left in the tombs of kings and nobles. This has led some historians to question whether our knowledge of Egyptian clothing is based on reality or on idealized images. It seems likely that hieroglyphs would offer the best possible picture of clothing, making the colors brighter and the fit more pleasing—like photos in a fashion magazine do today. The few physical remnants of clothes that have been found are in fact heavier and more clumsy in their construction than those depicted in the hieroglyphs.
One of the facts about Egyptian clothing that has most intrigued historians is the lack of change seen in the clothing over many centuries. Basic garments such as the schenti and the kalasiris were virtually unchanged for more than twenty centuries. This lack of change has led historians Michael and Ariane Batterberry to conclude, in their book Fashion: The Mirror of History, that the Egyptians' costume habits shouldn't be considered fashion, which refers to styles of clothing that frequently change, but rather a symbol of this culture's consistently simple, beautiful, and enduring sense of style.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Watson, Philip J. Costume of Ancient Egypt. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.Kalasiris
Loincloth and Loin Skirt