THROWBACK THURSDAY: Egyptian Fashion
When considering a history of fashion, the origination must be with the Egyptian Dynasties.
In order to understand the origins of Egyptian fashion, we need to first look at their culture and climate. At that time, the dress that people wore was predominantly influenced by the need to adapt to the local climate (like how we wear coats in the winter because it is cold) but their cultures also influenced the styles that they chose to wear (like how I do not wear leggings outside of the house because they are for exercise and that is something I hate doing ... maybe not exactly the same but still influenced by the context of the society in which they lived).
Culturally, the ancient Egyptians divided people's into 4 categories: Egyptians (Retu), Blacks (Nahsi), Asians (Aamu), and the white skinned people of the North (this is a really broad category of people including the Greeks, Romans, and the Jews). One of the distinctions passed on to Egyptian society came from Moses's selection of the tribe of Levi as servants of the sanctuary. Within this class, he divided the people into priests (Cohanim) and ordinary Levites. The priestly class wore breeches, a tunic, a belt, and a tall hat with the addition of a violet outer tunic (pectoral) over the regular tunic. The shorter garment worn underneath was woven in purple, violet, crimson, and gold thread.
Egyptians were tall and slender with narrow hips and wiry legs. Tunics were usually worn with a belt tied with loose ends around the waist as a means of accentuating the figure (not like some representations of Akhenaten who really just looked like a woman because of the gynecomastia ... because of the inbreeding... but this is not a history lesson on genetic inheritance and the need for diversity in the gene pool ... I digress). The statues commonly depicted in Egyptian art represent a typified ideal of the Egyptian man wearing a shendyt (a kilt like skirt made of linen), as seen above. They frequently had flattened feet as a result of the extensive time spent walking barefoot in the sand.
The scorching desert heat informed their choice of fabric and dress. Common materials included wood, bone, leather, hair, and linen. Royals wore leopard skins draped over their shoulders. These were readily accessible to the Egyptians but the finer materials were frequently reserved for the upper classes, like the royals, military, and the priestly class. In fact, royal standards were usually strikingly similar to military dress up to and including the calasiris worn by Ramses the Great which really looks like those Balmain dresses from Fall / Winter 2016. Usually, these were worn by women and the length of the dress denoted the social class of the wearer.
Other common materials were thin muslin, wool, and cotton. These were typically reserved for civilian dress as opposed to the linen and precious metals reserved for military and religious wear. The use of linen actually makes for a clear distinction between what clothing looks like when represented in Egyptian art versus what it would have actually looked like. Linen sags with time (like crepe paper decorations, floral arrangements, and breasts) and would have tended to conceal the body rather than reveal it as it would appear in the art with lithe yet curvaceous figures.
Frequently, representations of dress were connected to social status within Egyptian society. Much of this information was transmitted by the funeral papyri and sarcophagi that were discovered throughout the ages. Perhaps the most identifiable item of Egyptian dress is the uraeus or the serpent-like head dress worn as a component of royal regalia. Other common features were crowns of various sorts and adorned with additional materials, as seen in the image of Osiris below.
For finery, both rural and divine figures donned plumage and feathers as well as the royal standards. In the funeral papyrus below, the mask worn by the figure on the left and the headdress in the figure to the right are representative of their divine status due to the finery the wore. Gods typically also wore precious metals aligned in concentric rings around their necks and carried a crook and a flail, symbolizing their status as shepherds of people that bring unity to the kingdom. This was later adopted for use by the pharaohs.
The two most popular items for the Egyptians were salves (a word that I loathe entirely) and jewelry. Any form of jewelry. They loved it. From bracelets, to necklaces, to anklets and earrings, they were ardently fond of all of it. Ordinary dress was rather plain so they would demonstrate both social class and fashion sense with their accessories (though they did not have the advantage of understanding costume jewelry OR going down the street to their local supermarket and buying 45 new bracelet stackables because they wanted to be into that season). Jewelry was a luxury and would be worn the majority of the time. Though children were likely unclothed until the age of six, even they would be adorned in jewelry.
Ultimately, the Egyptians gave us an irrefutable appreciation for the value of accessories and access to the finer materials in life. Though their clothing needed to be functional to adapt to their climate, they demonstrated that a sense of fashion can be had at any stage in life, even if you are wearing nothing but jewelry. Their use of skin care products and make up is still practiced today (though this has a rocky history that we will probably cover at some point). We certainly appreciate their contribution of cotton and tunics to our modern wardrobe and remember fondly that they were the original Vogue magazine, though it was not published monthly and was instead etched in stone on the death of a member of the royal family for a sense of permanence by which we are able to write this post today.
Tune in next week for a review of Greek fashion that promises to be slightly better researched and far less technical (they had significantly more realistic art. Not a dig on the Egyptians, it just was not their style and we can certainly appreciate that).