Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ancient Egyptian Dress - Part I
Wearable Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The dress designs of ancient Egypt laid down foundations of dress designs across the Mediterranean sea. It is clear that Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt were mostly clothed.

The Dress Designs of Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
Courtesy of reference [2].

The immortality of the soul was fundamental to the ancient Egyptians’ religious beliefs and so mummification was a form of an entombed dress. Pyramids, mastabas and tombs were all constructed to house the dead. The word “Ka” indicates the universal spirit, the physical body which animates the entire being.

After the death of the body, the soul enfolds the mummy; it becomes its “Ka” - its “double” - until the spirit is transformed into “astral spirit” and “Ka” and “Ba” (the divine spark, one of the spiritual principles of the individual) become one, uniting through Osiris’ cord with the superior spirit to form one single spirit.

Numerous frescoes representing immortality of the soul and other religious scenes have been found in the brick dwellings, which housed the Pharaohs. In all the funerary temples and in tombs were depicted scenes symbolizing the survival of the decreased in the after world, in external life; for this they were called “houses of eternity”. “Ankh”, the crux ansata, also symbolized the life to come with its three attributes: peace, happiness and serenity.

Representation of the god Anubis leaning over a mummy. (Valley of the Workmen – Tomb of Sennedjen).
Courtesy of reference [2].

Dress Designs of Ancient Egypt[1]
Linen from the first Dynasty (ca. 3000 BC) has been found to have a warp count of 65 and a weft count of 65 or a weft count of 50 threads per centimetre, a rather finer weave than that of a modern handkerchief. Cloth could be woven in large pieces; from the beginning of the second millennium there are examples of rolls of cloth some eighteen meters in length.

Representation of a sun barge (Valley of the Workmen). Note: the variation in dress.
Courtesy of reference [2].

The use of linen is well documented, not only by the finds of cloth, but also in the depiction in wall-paintings and reliefs of the harvesting, preparation, spinning and weaving of flax. Most of the Egyptians shown in paintings wore white linen clothes, sometimes pleated and sometimes sheer to the point of transparency.

From Sennefer's Tomb. Sender and his wife Seth-Nefer, sail the Nile seated beneath a canopy, while a servant presents a richly prepared table. Note: the linen dress of the woman and the men's linen "kilts". Men's skin coloration is always depicted darker than female skin pigmentation.
Courtesy reference [2].

Most of the cloths found in tombs are wrappings and bandages from mummies and lengths of cloths; a few actual garments have survived. From the evidence of statuary and wall paintings it would seem that Egyptian garments were simply tailored and consisted mainly of rectangular pieces wrapped around the body in different ways according to fashion.

The tomb of Tutankhamon. Note: the difference between male kilts and fremale dress.
Courtesy of reference [2].

The golden mask of Tutankhamon. Note the magnificent headdress.
Courtesy of reference [2] and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Men wore a “kilt” – a plain or pleated strip of fabric of varying width wrapped round the hips and tied in the front.

Male kilts. Offerings painted on the wall of a tomb, depict produce spread out on the ground.
Courtesy of reference [1].

Illustrated from detail from a tomb painting. Man pleated kilt. Man kneeling by a pond in the shade.
Courtesy of reference [1].

Illustrated from detail from a tomb painting. Man kilt with animal skins shoulder cover.

Men also sometimes wore shirts or tunics with or without attached sleeves.

Illustration of one of the tunics found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It is of fine linen with woven and embroidered applied bands. Top: Illustration indicates the position of the bands on a tunic. Below: A reconstruction illustration of two embroidered panels. Their condition is poor but outline and chain stitch can be recognized (ca. 1361 – 1352 BC).
Courtesy of reference [1].

Women wore close-fitting dresses with shoulder straps, which were made up of a piece of cloth sewn together to form a tube, or wrapped round the body like a sarong.

Illustration of the use of nets of cylinder beads over a plain tunic. Both sexes wore simple cloaks fastened at the neck.
Courtesy of reference [1].

Spinning and plying was done on a spindle weighted by a whorl. The illustration below shows the two threads drawn up from separate pots and plyed. The woman holds another spindle behind her back.

Illustration from details from wall paintings. The girl is plying yarn from two threads.
Courtesy of reference [1].

The earliest type of loom in Egypt was the ground loom. The warp on this loom was stretched between two beams, secured in the ground by a peg on each corner. The chain of threads at the top represents laze threads, which enable the weaver to disentangle the warps at this point. One of the two cross-sticks would be in the heddle-rod. The long stick held by the weaver on the right is probably a “sword” used for beating down the weft. No shuttle is shown. The woven cloth has a pronounced selvage on one side

Illustration from details from wall paintings. The ground loom on the Middle Kingdom tomb-painting is shown in the “aspective” convention.
Courtesy of reference [1].

Upright looms (see below) had been in use in neighbouring Asia since the beginning of the third millennium and were perhaps one of the products of new technology introduced to Egypt during the Hykos period in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC. On this type of loom the warp is stretched between beams fitted into the upright frame. The illustration below shows little detail – the warp for instance is not differentiated from the cloth – but it can be seen that the two weavers sit in front of the loom holding sword-beaters. The upright loom did not replace the ground loom, but it was more flexible, and while the same type of plain cloth could be produced as on a ground loom, particularly in larger sizes, it could also be used for tapestry weave.

Illustration from details obtained from a wall painting. The upright loom was introduced in the New Kingdom. It was used to weave large cloths and tapestry.
Courtesy of reference [1].

Linen is difficult to dye colorfast and the knowledge of mordants – chemicals which fix the dye permanently to the fiber – was not introduced in Egypt until the end of the Dynastic Period. The weaving of white garments was therefore perhaps a necessity rather than a matter of choice. Rare examples of linen cloth dyed in monochrome colors are found, but it is thought that these would have been fugitive (not colorfast); there is no evidence that such cloth was frequently worn.

Apart from simple striped patterns on clothes depicted in tombs and on statuary, there is no evidence of clothes with woven or embroidered color patterns worn by Egyptians before the New Kingdom. Representation of pattern garments of earlier dates may have been ornamented with fine pleating, beads, feathers or patchwork – or they may show clothes of dyed or painted leather of fabrics woven from other plant fibres like grasses in natural or dyed colors.

Wool was not much used in Egypt, save perhaps for rough cloaks. This may have been because of religious taboos against wool garments or more simply because the native sheep were hairy, rather like goats, and produced no wool. Egypt’s eastern neighbors, however, commonly used wool, which was much easier to dye than linen. Figures represented in color-patterned garments are therefore usually identified as slaves or foreigners. For instance, the Semitic travellers illustrated below may be wearing woolen clothing.

On tomb painting, foreign visitors are often shown in pattern clothes while the Egyptians wear only white. Above is an illustration from a tomb painting showing a group of Semitic travellers dressed in clothes of dyed wool or appliqué leather.
Courtesy of reference [1].

In the New Kingdom a few pattern textiles appear in tombs. Most are self-patterned in stripes, but for color patterning several techniques occur – embroidery, tapestry and warp-face weaving. Their sudden appearance, and certain foreign elements in their design, suggest that some of these techniques came from abroad at a time when influences from Egypt’s extensive empire introduced many new ideas and techniques.

The textiles in the tomb of Tutankhamun illustrate the range and quality of the pattern fabrics available at this time. The textiles themselves are in a very poor state of preservation, but an impressive variety of techniques can be identified – simple striped weaves, tapestry-woven tunics and gloves, belts and braids in warp-face weave and embroidery in outline and chained stitch as well as a cloth embroidered in beads. The colors are difficult to determine; analysis has revealed the use of madder and indigo (perhaps Egyptian woad) and other dye-stuffs, but the colors are not fixed and so the fabrics could not have been washable.

Illustration of a design of a warp-face weave linen bands of a tunic. The arrows indicate the direction of the warp. The colors are difficult to distinguish with certainty: black indicated black, dark blue or brown, the dark screen red or brown and the light screen pale blue or gray.
Courtesy of reference [1].

The so called “Girdle of Ramesses III” is in a much better state of preservation and allows a closer study of warp-face weaving technique. The design on the five-meter long and tapering strap is of two lengthwise stripes separated by a plain white field. The main motif is the hieroglyphic sign “ankh” – meaning “life”. There has been a good deal of controversy associated with this object: it has been suggested that it was made by tablet-weaving, but it is now generally agreed that this is a warp-face weave, produced on a simple ground loom.

Illustration of s detail of the design from the “Girdle of Ramesses III” (ca. 1198 – 1166 BC). The 5.2 m long sash is in double warp-face weave (the arrow indicates the direction of the warp).
Courtesy of reference [1].

Other patterned fabrics from the Old Kingdom onwards include matting, hangings, canopies and sails – all often depicted on the walls of the tombs. The materials used to produce such fabrics can only be guessed at – woven plant fibers or leather could be painted, embroidered, appliquéd or decorated with beads etc.

Silk was first introduced into Egypt by the Greeks during the Ptolemaic Period towards the end of the first millennium BC and cotton was brought in during the Roman Period.

The use of beads to produce patterns on cloth is particularly associated with the design of lozenges found in many contexts in wall paintings and statuary from the Old Kingdom onwards on garments, hangings, canopies, cushions etc. The beads were either woven into the cloth or stitched onto it, or (as illustrated below) the beads were made up into a separate net worn over a dress of plain fabric.

Illustration of the design of a hassock in beadwork from Tutankhamun’s tomb. It depicts a bound and gagged prisoner in flower dress, floating among water plants. The hassock is bordered by petal and feather patterns (ca. 1361 – 1352 BC).
Courtesy of reference [1].

A unique dress of tabular beads from the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2494 – 2345 BC) was discovered in Qua Southern Cemetery and is now in the Petrie Museum, University College London. Blue and black cylinder beads make up a wide-meshed net, measuring ca. 51 x 57 cm, with green ring-beads at each crossing point. There is a bead fringe and a string of shells at the bottom and towards the top two caps, 4.3 cm in diameter, which were worn over the breast. This is probably the costume of a dancer, the shells rattling as she moved.

[1] E. Wilson, Ancient Egyptian Designs, Dover Publications, New York (1986).
[2] A. Chalaby, All of Egypt, Bonechi, Florence (1996).

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