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Clothing and adornment

The ancient Egyptians were very particular about cleanliness and personal appearance. People who were poorly groomed were considered inferior. Both men and women used cosmetics and wore jewellery. One item of jewellery, the amulet, was believed to protect the owners and give them strength.

Servant wearing a short kilt; 
CMC PCD 2001-283-028 Flax grown by farmers was woven into fine linen for clothing. Working-class men wore loincloths or short kilts, as well as long shirt-like garments tied with a sash at the waist. Kilts were made from a rectangular piece of linen that was folded around the body and tied at the waist. Wealthy men wore knee-length shirts, loincloths or kilts and adorned themselves with jewellery – a string of beads, armlets and bracelets. Working-class women wore full-length wraparound gowns and close-fitting sheaths. Elite women enhanced their appearance with make-up, earrings, bracelets and necklaces.

Both men and women wore sandals made of papyrus. Sandals made of vegetable fibres or leather were a common type of footwear. Nevertheless, men and women, including the wealthy, were frequently portrayed barefoot.

Old Kingdom Middle Kingdom New Kingdom
Nobleman
Short kilt, pleated and belted; shoulder-length hair; necklace.
Female servant
Simple sheath dress with wide shoulder straps; long hair, unplaited; jewellery.
Official
Mid-calf kilt with a large apron that was probably stiffened to maintain its triangular shape; elaborate necklace.
Female servant
Simple sheath dress, long unplaited hair.
Nobleman
Elaborate pleated garment; jewellery, wig and scented cone; sandals with the extended curled toes typical of the period.
Noblewoman
Elaborate gown; jewellery; plaited wig, hair ornaments and scented cone.
Drawings by John Ide

The Royal Image

Clothing

Female with offering; 
CMC S98 3523; 
PCD 2001-283-038 When royalty, gods and goddesses were portrayed in statues, temple carvings and wall paintings, it was the beauty and self-confidence of the subject that was conveyed. Egyptian artistic conventions idealized the proportions of the body. Men are shown with broad shoulders, slim bodies, and muscular arms and legs; and women have small waists, flat stomachs and rounded busts. Both wear elegant clothing and jewellery, and stand tall with their heads held high. Their stately appearance commands the respect of all who gaze upon their portraits.

In the Old Kingdom, goddesses and elite women were portrayed wearing a sheath with broad shoulder straps. In the New Kingdom, they wore sheaths decorated with gold thread and colourful beadwork, and a type of sari; the sheath had only one thin strap. These dresses were made of linen, and decorated with beautifully coloured patterns and beadwork.


King Ay wearing the leopard skin of a high priest; 
CMC S98-3522; 
PCD 2001-283-037

By the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.), women's garments were made of very light see-through linen.

The men wore knee-length shirts, loincloths or kilts made of linen. Leather loincloths were not uncommon, however. Their garments were sometimes decorated with gold thread and colourful beadwork. The priests, viziers and certain officials wore long white robes that had a strap over one shoulder, and sem-priests (one of the ranks in the priesthood) wore leopard skins over their robes.

 

Hairstyles

The Egyptian elite hired hairdressers and took great care of their hair. Hair was washed and scented, and sometimes lightened with henna. Children had their heads shaved, except for one or two tresses or a plait worn at the side of the head. This was called the sidelock of youth, a style worn by the god Horus when he was an infant.

CMC S97-10758; 
PCD 2001-310-018 (left) Women wearing perfumed cones and wigs.
Painting: Winnifred Neeler, Royal Ontario Museum
CMC S97-10963
(right) Wig replica.
Royal Ontario Museum

Both men and women sometimes wore hairpieces, but wigs were more common. Wigs were made from human hair and had vegetable-fibre padding on the underside. Arranged into careful plaits and strands, they were often long and heavy. They may have been worn primarily at festive and ceremonial occasions, like in eighteenth-century Europe.

Priests shaved their heads and bodies to affirm their devotion to the deities and to reinforce their cleanliness, a sign of purification.



Make-up

Bronze mirror; New Kingdom.  Royal Ontario Museum 910.100.4;
CMC S98 3501; 
PCD 2001-282-002 Elite men and women enhanced their appearance with various cosmetics: oils, perfumes, and eye and facial paints. Both sexes wore eye make-up, most often outlining their lids with a line of black kohl. When putting on make-up, they used a mirror, as we do today.

The Egyptians used mineral pigments to produce make-up. Galena or malachite was ground on stone palettes to make eye paint. Applied with the fingers or a kohl pencil (made of wood, ivory or stone), eye paint emphasized the eyes and protected them from the bright sunlight. During the Old Kingdom, powdered green malachite was brushed under the eyes. Rouge to colour the face and lips was made from red ochre. Oils and fats were applied to the skin to protect it, mixed into perfumes, and added to the incense cones worn on top of the head. Both men and women wore perfumed cones on their heads. It has been suggested that the cones were made of tallow or fat, which melted gradually, releasing fragrance. No examples of the cones have been found.

Jewellery

Necklaces.  Royal Ontario Museum; 
CMC S97 10839; 
PCD 2001-281-018 From the earliest times, jewellery was worn by the elite for self-adornment and as an indication of social status. Bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, pins, belt buckles and amulets were made from gold and silver inlaid with precious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian and amethyst. Faience and glass were also used to decorate pieces of jewellery.

The elegant design of Egyptian jewellery often reflected religious themes. Motifs included images of the gods and goddesses; hieroglyphic symbols; and birds, animals and insects that played a role in the creation myth. Commonly seen were the scarab; the Eye of Re; lotus and papyrus plants; the vulture and the hawk; the cobra; and symbols such as the Isis knot, the shen ring (symbol of eternity) and the ankh (symbol of life). A person's jewellery was placed in his or her grave to be used in the afterworld, along with many other personal items.



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