Dressing & Clothing in Ancient Egyptian Culture

Colorful tomb paintings show the dress of the ancient Egyptians as white linen.
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Images of daily life painted on their tombs have a wealth of information about dress and clothing of ancient Egyptian culture. By examining these, as well possessions found inside tombs, scholars have come to a greater understanding of their daily preparation that involved clothing, protection of the face and hair, and ornamentation of the body and footwear. Scholars now know subtle points about changes in dress that occurred through time, how men and women dressed differently and how some clothing goods were typical of people with more resources.

1 Clothing

Clothing fragments found in ancient Egyptian tombs, often folded inside chests, were simple garments made of linen from the cultivated flax plant. Style changed little over time. A dress was composed of a rectangular sheet, or ifd, up to 9 feet long. It could be folded into a men’s or woman’s cloak or a man’s kilt, tied with a fringed edge at the waist, sometimes with a belt or sash. Earlier tombs have revealed long, narrow, sleeved dresses, while later tombs had dresses with two shoulder straps and fringe lining one side of the body and neck. Still later, women wore a very long, draped ifd. Another style of dress for both men and women was the bag-shaped tunic, or mss, with a neck circle and slit cut into the center of the cloth and fringes hanging from the front and back. Wealthier Egyptians often wore newer garments that had been processed as pale green or brownish gold from the natural color of the flax fiber. They also wore starched clothes that had been pleated.

2 Make-up and Hair

The make-up palette was a rectangular slab of siltstone, sometimes in the shape of a bird or fish, used to mix cosmetics before applying to the face. They have been found in men’s and women’s tombs, often with a pebble to grind the malachite (green from copper) or galena (gray-black from lead). Black kohl -- lead powder or soot – was applied from a small pot. A study of 2,000 tombs at Tarkhan (3000 B.C.) showed that women had more palettes than men. The skin was protected from the sun and wind with creams and oils, and wigs protected the hair. The British Museum examined a wig from 1400 B.C. with straight strands of human hair ending with small brown curls covered with wax or resin. Women also wore linen headbands, plain or with beads.

3 Jewelry

Both men and women wore colorful jewelry, which included earrings, rings, bracelets, anklets, collars, and beaded necklaces of mineral stones (amethyst, garnet, jasper, onyx, lapis lazuli), pottery, copper, gold, shell and glass. Amulets such as the lotus flower often hung from the necklaces as good luck charms. People of more means wore jewelry of gold and inlay, and neck collars of beads threaded on papyrus.

4 Footwear

The choices of footwear indicated the individual's resources. Shoes made from strips of palm, reeds or papyrus woven together were easier for the average person to obtain. Most open-toe shoes were made of these materials. Shoes of leather with wooden and metal materials have also been found, some with decoration for a special occasion. Egyptians used these materials to make sturdy, complex soles for heavy use or for working.

Educated in New Jersey, Diana Ford received training by the National Park Service on the written presentation of history in museum exhibitions, as well as from the Institute of Children's Literature. Obtaining her master's degree in history in 2000 from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Ford began writing for museums in 2005.