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Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt What are some of the clothing they wore and did they have a purpose?

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April 08, 2011 11:52AM

For centuries Egyptian culture has been a source of inspiration for art and architecture. This is also true of Egyptian dress. When we think of ancient Egyptian clothes many of us conjure images of the stunning elaborate costumes from classic Hollywood movies such as Cleopatra. This lavish guise overshadows the simplicity of the white linen schenti (a man's loincloth or kilt), and the kalasiris a long close-fitting sheath dress worn by women.

The dry, hot climate and the environmental conditions at many burial sites have helped to preserve clothing, bracelets and artefacts that historians use to study Egyptian clothes and lifestyle.

The most common fabric used for clothing was linen. It was light, fine and easily draped over the body. Linen is woven from vegetable fibres obtained from the flax plant, a technique invented in Egypt. Textile production and fabric quality improved with better irrigation. The introduction of weavers from Syria weavers refined weaving techniques.

Linen came in several grades from the coarse schenti worn by a peasant to the diaphanous material draped over the bodies of the rich. It was not the only material in use: papyrus was used for aprons; wool was woven into shawls and other outer garments; cotton introduced by the Assyrians was also used.

Clothing changed little throughout the history of Ancient Egypt. When new garments and styles were introduced, they were worn alongside the ancient ones. In the early days garments were simple and roughly triangular in shape. Because of the extreme heat, clothes were roomy, light and spare.

Clothes reflected the well-defined hierarchical nature of Egyptian society. It distinguished social rank. The quality of cloth denoted your position in the pecking order. The higher a person's rank, the better the cloth he or she wore. The Pharaoh's kilt was made of the finest linen, possibly embroidered with gold, whereas the peasant's schenti was made of linen of a poorer grade of linen.

It was quite permissible for both men and women to keep the upper body bare, although women covered themselves more than men. Complete nakedness for an elite Egyptian was not acceptable, only children, slaves and peasants could appear unclothed. Such an Egyptian would not raise an eyebrow at the sight of thousands of naked slaves working on the construction of a new temple but would upbraid their own for showing too much flesh.

Colours were loaded with symbolism: green symbolized life and youth; yellow was the symbol of gold, the flesh of the immortal gods. Dyeing techniques with natural indigenous ingredients had been developed in Egypt but was not well evolved as dyeing linen was difficult.