The single most distinctive and important garment worn by women throughout the history of ancient Egypt was the kalasiris, a long linen dress. From the earliest depictions of women at the beginning of the Old Kingdom in around 2700 b.c.e. to those at the end of the New Kingdom in around 750 b.c.e., the kalasiris was the uniform of the Egyptian woman. In its earliest form, the kalasiris was a very close-fitting tube dress, sewn at the side, that was held up by two straps that attached behind the neck. The straps came together at the front and the breasts were exposed. Other versions of the dress had a single strap that went over one shoulder but were still nearly formfitting.
Costume historians caution that the depictions of the kalasiris may be idealized images, not accurate pictures of real dresses. Historians doubt whether Egyptian dressmakers would have been able to sew garments that fit bodies so perfectly. To tailor such close-fitting garments would have required great skill, and little evidence exists to prove that Egyptians possessed the knowledge needed to create such garments.
Egyptian women's garments underwent fewer changes over time than the clothes men wore. The major change with the kalasiris was that the top of the dress was extended further up the women's torso to cover her breasts. The typical kalasiris was white; however, depictions found in hieroglyphs, pictures of Egyptian life that have been preserved in tombs and on other relics that have survived to modern day, reveal that women often dyed their kalasirises in bright colors and, especially during the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750), covered them with detailed patterns. Wealthy women wore kalasirises of finely woven fabric, some so thin that the dresses became transparent. When the weather grew cool they might throw a shawl over the top of their dress. Poorer women likely wore a kalasiris made from heavier, coarser fabric, and its cut was likely not as close. Kalasirises typically extended down the leg to between mid-calf and ankle length.
Interestingly, no actual examples of the kalasiris have ever been found. The depictions of the dress, however, indicate that they were made from linen, a fine-textured fabric made from the fibers of the flax plant. The ancient Egyptians used almost no other fabric to make their garments for thousands of years. Linen had many advantages for ancient Egyptians, who lived in a hot, sunny climate. It could be woven very finely, creating a light, cool fabric. Linen was also easy to wash, and in ancient Egyptian culture cleanliness was considered more important to the appearance than decoration.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Balkwill, Richard. Clothes and Crafts in Ancient Egypt. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1998.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.