Dress Like an Egyptian: Fashion, Style, and Simplicity in Ancient Egyptian Clothing

The ancient Egyptians may have created some of the most intricate and intricate monuments known to man, but when it comes to clothing, they kept it remarkably simple. Traditional clothing in ancient Egypt was made from locally sourced materials and was surprisingly egalitarian, with women mostly wearing the same clothing as men. There were exceptions, however, and the more elite members of Egyptian society showed remarkable style and fashion.

The Gender Neutral Fashion of Ancient Egyptian Clothing

For the ancient Egyptians, they kept their clothing to a bare minimum. Considering the heat of Egypt, that was pretty smart. In fact, if you were a child, you wore no clothes for most of the year. For adults, however, their clothing was made from locally sourced cotton or linen. Some farmers also made their clothes from the skins of their cattle. Clothing was most often made from flax, given the abundance of flax (used to make flax) that grew along the Nile. Linen is a light, breathable material that is pleasant to wear in hot weather.

For ordinary lower-class Egyptians of the Early Dynastic Period (3150 – 2613 BC) and the Old Kingdom (2613 – 2181 BC), men and women wore exactly the same clothes. Depictions of men and women from this period show a knee-length white kilt-like garment held in place by a belt. The rest of their bodies were left bare, although some people wore straw sandals. Wealthier men wore the same clothes but in even lighter linen.

For wealthier women, however, clothing was a bit more complex. Bourgeois women of the Old Kingdom wore long, straight dresses that covered their breasts. Like upper-class men’s clothing, these robes were made with lighter linen than that of common people. These dresses were also much more expensive to make than kilts. These dresses were held in place with 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? EVERYBODY!

The use of makeup was equally common among men and women in ancient Egypt. 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. Eye paint in particular was extremely common. A wooden, ivory or stone pencil was used to apply kohl to the eyelids to accentuate 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 it produced a paste or cream. This form of kohl was expensive to make and was therefore only available to the upper classes, but the poorer people also had their own alternative form of kohl. It also had a medical purpose, in that it helped protect the eyes from infections caused by sunlight, dust, or flies. Powdered green malachite was also often brushed under the eyes, while a red color was applied to the face and lips through the use of red ochre.

Large Wig Rings from Sithathoryunet, ca.  1887–1813 BC (public domain)

Large Wig Rings from Sithathoryunet, ca. 1887–1813 BC ( Public domain )

Accessories: make or break the outfit since ancient Egypt

Wigs and jewelry were also a big part of traditional clothing in ancient Egypt. This was especially the case for upper-class people. Jewelry and wigs were used to show their wealth, but also because they believed it made them more attractive to the gods. They wore rings, earrings, bracelets, decorated buttons, necklaces, necklaces and pendants. These jewels were often made from gold or precious stones. Lower-class people also managed to obtain jewelry, although it was usually made from colored pottery beads.

Ancient Egyptian jewelry design often reflected religious themes. The designs included symbols of gods and goddesses and hieroglyphic symbols, as well as birds, animals and insects that played a part in their creation myth. Commonly seen were the scarab beetle (a type of beetle), the eye of Ra, lotus and papyrus plants, cobras, and symbols such as the Isis knot, shen ring (symbol of eternity), and the ‘ankh (symbol of life). A person’s jewelry was placed in their grave when they died, so they could be used in the afterlife.

Wig Rosettes, circa 1479-1425 BC.  AD, 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom, reign of Thutmose III (public domain)

Wig Rosettes, circa 1479 -1425 BC. AD, New Kingdom Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III ( Public domain )

In ancient Egypt, wigs were worn because they were more comfortable in the arid climate and made personal hygiene easier. For example, lice prevention has become much easier with the use of wigs. Wigs were made of human hair until the Second Intermediate Period (1782-1570 BC) when horses were introduced to Egypt. After that, horsehair and human hair were used for wigs. They have been padded on the inside using vegetable fibres.

Wigs were made in different styles to be worn on different occasions. For example, different wigs were needed for a family reunion and for a festival. Most wigs were long and heavy and were neatly arranged in braids and locks. The wealthy often adorned their wigs with pearls and large jewels. The poorest had to use wigs made from papyrus plants or simply shave their heads and wear head coverings.

Ancient Egyptians took great care of their physical appearance, wearing beautiful clothes, makeup, jewelry, and wigs to look better. The main reason for this is that they believed that one of the main purposes of their existence was to make themselves worthy of eternity, and taking care of their physical appearance and health was one of the components of this.

Top image: Main: the oldest beaded net dress with the diamond pattern ( CC by SA 3.0 ). Inset: a beaded net dress. Photo sources: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston .

By Mark Brophy

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