Fashion is about moving forward, with new ideas, new silhouettes, and new innovations. But as with history, to learn about the future we must look to the past. With the apparent repetition and recycling of trends that happen throughout modern style making, it’s important to understand the outfits that outfitted our past. First up is one of the most famous, iconic eras in style: Ancient Egypt. The period of pyramids, dating from 3000 BCE to 300 CE, is seriously essential to everything under the fashion umbrella: from fabric to face makeup. The Egyptians first introduced linen (which we’ll go more in depth about later), eye makeup, cleansing creams, perfumes, and wigs. Not only do we still practice their beauty regimens, we take inspiration from their design style and iconic aesthetic, evident in today’s designs.
The Height of Fashion in Ancient Egypt
Essentially one of the most worn garments during this era, both men and women wore skirt/kilts called kaunakes. Servants and soldiers wore the shorter knee or above lengths as opposed to the royalty’s long lengths.
A fiber removed from the stem of a flax plant, linen provided the fabrications for most Egyptian fashion. The hot weather allowed for its high popularity. Linen was usually kept in its original white because of its difficulty to dye, however lower class workers had to dye their linen to hide stains from labor. The royalty would maintain the pristine crispness of the white linen to project an image of a sheltered and comfortable life.
For the Egyptians, jewelry provided more than beautiful decoration or style. The symbolic nature of their jewelry honored their polytheistic religion and helped them feel protected from evils. Egyptians prize gold jewelry which most of their accessories were made from since the alternative silver had to be imported and came limited in supply. To add color to golden collars, pendants, armlets, earrings, bracelets, and head ornaments, semiprecious and precious stones in bright tones were used like lapis lazuli, feldspar, and turquoise. Even those who couldn’t afford the most expensive of gold still wore jewelry. More affordable versions were produced from pottery materials.
- Eye of Horus: represented the human eye as a symbol of the moon
- Scarab: an extremely popular image that represented a beetle as a symbol of the Sungod and Rebirth
- Sacred Cobra (Uraeus): symbol of Lower Egypt
- Vulture symbol of Upper Egypt
- Gods and Goddesses were also featured frequently in Egyptian jewelry design
→ Wrapped Dresses + Bead Net Dresses
Women wore a tight fitting wrapped tube dress that had a calf or ankle hemline length. The dress had either one or two straps for the shoulders and elaborately decorated with painted designs, beadwork, feather embellishments, woven prints, and appliques.
Both men and women wore tunics, a popular garment that is still prevalent among people today. The loose fitting long-shirt had slight variation depending on gender. Women’s tunics usually had longer sleeves than their male counterparts and made of much more elaborate fabrications. Another variation, in contrast, had no sleeves and a V-neckline.
Changes in Womenswear and Menswear
→ Old Kingdom
Menswear and womenswear consisted of short skirts, long narrow aprons, and loincloths. Overall, most of the clothing during Egypt’s Old Kingdom era was very basic in design, with little stitching and simple shapes. Large rectangular fabric wrapped around the body provided the basis for most of their apparel, usually plain and white in color.
→ Middle Kingdom
The hemlines lowered during this time period, especially for men. The skirts became more complex and elaborate belts were used to hold up the straight silhouette. Full length cloaks were used during the wintertime by men. During the Middle Kingdom, women wore short shawls and long cloaks, in contrast to the New Kingdom’s wrapped cloaks tied with knots. The skirts during this time consisted of an opaque underskirt with diaphanous outer layers.
→ New Kingdom
The most elaborate fashion occurred during the New Kingdom, where even the empire’s religion changed for a short period during Akhenaton’s reign. The transformation from a polytheist to a monotheist religion also manifested a transformation in artistic style. From before this time, traditional Egyptian proportions were broad shoulders and a slim waist, looking strong and masculine. Akhenaton’s reign introduced a new body proportion that emphasized an androgynous ideal with slim shoulders and imperfect, more alienesque style. Men’s changed once again, becoming pleated and fringed. Sashes and aprons were also added. Women started using beaded and embroidered yoke collars and long pleated dresses with shawls. The pleated skirts had triangular panels and came in both short and form fitting styles.
The last thing we think about when viewing the glamorous minimalism of a stark alabaster Calvin Klein sheath is the golden excess of Ancient Egypt’s tombs, but understanding influences in fashion—even unintended ones—intrigues and excites us. Regardless that the pharaohs are long gone from their tombs now, their desires for afterlife truly live on in fashion. Today, their take on clothing proves to be more relevant than ever. For Spring 2004, John Galliano’s Haute Couture collection for Christian Dior created a exuberant, extreme take on the Valley of the Kings. More recently, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci designed costumes for Madonna’s supersized Super Bowl performance inspired by Cleopatra, mixed with gladiatorial influences. Gareth Pugh’s sculptural pyramid-esque design that Karl Lagerfeld tapped into for Chanel’s crystal inspired Fall 2012 show expresses the importance of even Egyptian architecture. Galliano, Pugh, and Tisci using you for inspiration? Now that’s what we call an afterlife.
By Iris & Daniel