Clothing in ancient Egypt - Wikipedia

Clothing in ancient Egypt - Wikipedia

Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life

© December 2000
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Ancient Egyptian clothes:
Clothing materials
Articles of dress
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For best results save the whole page (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print. Pleated dress
Pleated dress
Pleated kalasiris
Late New Kingdom

Source: Karl Köhler: A History of Costume
Draped dressDraped dress
New Kingdom

Source: Boston Museum Bulletin No.354


-Loincloth, Source: 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson, Time-Life Books, 1975     The Egyptian climate with its hot summers and mild winters favoured light clothing made from plant fibers, predominantly linen and in Roman times occasionally cotton, an import from India [15]. Wool was used to a lesser extent [16], and seldom by Egyptians proper.
    Small amounts of silk were traded to the eastern Mediterranean possibly as early as the second half of the second millennium BCE and traces of silk have been found in Egyptian tombs [2].
    Animal skins, above all leopard skins, were sometimes worn by priests and by pharaohs in their role as first servants of the god. Such outfits were found in Tutankhamen's tomb and were depicted quite frequently on the walls of tombs. At times kings and queens wore decorative ceremonial clothing adorned with feathers.      For a more detailed description of cloth production see "Flax"
Model of women weaving with a horizontal loom, excerpt - Source: V.Easy     The manufacture of clothes was apparently mostly women's work. It was generally done at home, but there were workshops run by noblemen or other men of means.

Model of weaving women at a horizontal loom, excerpt
Source: V.Easy

    The most important textile was linen. It was produced from flax, the quality ranging from the finest woven linen, the byssus for royalty, to the coarse cloth peasants wore. People who were buried in mastabas or pyramids would not be satisfied with anything less than the best quality linen, jdm.j, after death as well. Pepi I had a vision that his ka would taken to this heaven... to the noble ones of the god, to those whom the god loves, who lean on their Dam-sceptres, the guardians of Upper Egypt, who clothe themselves with jdm.jt-linen, who live on figs, who drink of the wine, who anoint themselves with the best oil...

Pyramid Texts spell 440 [21], Old Kingdom

and if a person was lucky he would be

...given as a boon of the king: royal linen, a garment, //////////, aAt-linen, fine and good [linen], /////// [without] end

pChester Beatty IV [22], New Kingdom

    The first stages of the linen production were performed by men: They reaped the plants and by beating and combing the plants they extracted fibers from them, which could be spun into thread, the first of the stages often performed by women. When the cloth was still woven on horizontal looms, which were often just pegs rammed into the ground and where the weavers had to crouch on the floor, it was generally women who performed the task. During the New Kingdom vertical looms were invented. These new looms were physically more demanding and were generally operated by men.
    As the sewing of clothes was very labour intensive and the art of tailoring to fit in its infancy–the tightly fitting dresses which the without exception incredibly shapely women are displayed in notwithstanding–many garments consisted simply of a rectangular pieces of cloth draped around the body and held together by a belt. But the cloth was often hemmed to prevent fraying, with either simple, or rolled and whipped hems. At times garments had parts, which had to be stitched on such as sleeves or shoulder straps. The seams used were generally simple or lap-over, though run-and-fell and overcast seams were also known. The number of different stitch types was also limited: running stitch, overcast stitch, and twisted chain stitch.[20]
    The tools used such as knives and needles changed over the centuries. Blades were made from stone during the Neolithic, then from copper, from bronze during the Middle Kingdom and finally from iron, though flint knives, which had sharper edges than iron ones, continued to be used to an ever decreasing extent until Roman times. Needles were fashioned from wood, bone and metal. The Egyptians succeeded in making eyes in millimetre thick copper needles. Scissors came into general use late in Egypt's history though the principle was known since the second millennium BCE.  

    They wear tunics made of linen with fringes hanging about the legs, called "calasiris", and loose white woollen cloaks over these.

Herodotus, Histories 2,81

    Tutankhamen's tomb yielded many pieces of clothing: tunics, shirts, kilts, aprons and sashes, socks, head-dresses, caps, scarves, gauntlets and gloves, some of them with fine linen linings, others with separate index and middle fingers and a hole for the thumb. Underwear in the form of a triangular loincloth was also found.
    If royals had a garment for every body part and for any occasion–even though statues and reliefs often show them wearing only a SnD.wt, the so-called kilt, and a crown–most of their subjects had to make do with much less. Clothes were expensive and in the hot Egyptian climate people often wore as little as possible. If we are to believe the depictions, at parties servants and slave girls wore little more than skimpy panties and jewellery [7], though one may assume that the reason for this undress was not a lack of funds. Working women mostly dressed in a short kind of kalasiris. Men doing physical labour wore a loin cloth, wide galabiyeh-like robes or, if they were working in the water, nothing at all. Children usually ran around nude during the summer months, and wore wraps and cloaks in winter when temperatures might fall below 10°C.
    The gods had to be dressed as well. This was the duty of a small number of priests allowed to enter the holiest of holies, where the god's statue was. Nesuhor, commander of the fortress at Elephantine under Apries, took care that the temple of Khnum had all the servants necessary to serve the needs of the god:

I appointed weavers, maid-servants and launderers for the august wardrobe of the great god and his divine ennead.

Statue of Nesuhor, Louvre [24]

    The clothes were generally made of linen and kept simple: a short loincloth resembling a kilt for men, a dress with straps for women. These basic garments with minor variations accounting for fashion, social status and wealth did not change fundamentally throughout Egypt's history.   Men's clothing   Old Kingdom Middle Kingdom New Kingdom Late Period     Very little sewing was done. The cloth was wrapped round the body and held in place by a belt. Its colour was generally whitish, in contrast to the colourful clothes foreigners wore in Egyptian depictions, although dyed cloth was not unknown.

Picture sources: Louvre website K.Köhler, A History of Costume

    Everyday clothing was mostly undecorated, though pleating was known since the Old Kingdom, when some dresses of upper class Egyptians were pleated horizontally. In the New Kingdom the pleats were often vertical, but pleating could be quite intricate. A Middle Kingdom piece of clothing displays three different types of pleating: one part is pleated with pleats a few centimetres apart, another with very narrow pleats and a third part is chevron-patterned, with horizontal and vertical pleats crossing each other. How the pleating was done is not known, but it is generally supposed to have been very labour intensive.[20]
    The length of the the kilts varied, being short during the the Old Kingdom and reaching the calf in the Middle Kingdom, when it was often supplemented with a sleeveless shirt or a long robe. Linen kalasiris, New Kingdom; Source: University of Indiana website     The robes worn by both sexes in Egypt were called kalasiris by Herodotus. Material and cut varied over the centuries, though the cloth of choice was always linen.
    The kalasiris women wore might cover one [3] or both shoulders or be worn with shoulder straps. While the top could reach anywhere from below the breast up to the neck, the bottom hem generally touched the calves or even the ankles. Some had short sleeves, others were sleeveless. The fit might be very tight or quite loose. They were often worn with a belt which held together the folds of cloth.

Source of the kalasiris picture on the right: University of Indiana website [1]

    They were sewn from a rectangular piece of cloth twice the desired garment length. An opening for the head was cut at the centre of the cloth, which was then folded in half. The lower parts of the sides were stitched together leaving openings for the arms. Women's clothes, Source: the two pictures to the right are excerpts from 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson, Time-Life Books, 1975 Selket wearing a pleated dress Servant wearing panties and collar Ankle long dress with straps, leaving breasts half bare Source: the two pictures to the right are excerpts from Ancient Egypt by Lionel Casson
    Women's dresses were at times ornamented with beads. They covered the breasts most of the time, though there were periods when fashion left them bare [4].
    Circular capes date back as far as the Old Kingdom. They were generally made of linen and had an opening for the head cut at the centre. They were often dyed, painted or otherwise decorated and covered little more than the shoulders. Shawls were sometimes worn during the New Kingdom.

    The ancient Egyptians knew how to use starch. They used it to stick sheets of papyrus together. According to Pliny they made starch by mixing some of the finest wheaten flour with boiling water.[25] They also soaked linen bandages in starch which became hard and stiff when dried.[26] It would be tempting to assume that they achieved the pleats in their clothes by using starch, but there is no evidence for that.[27]

They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always fresh washed.

Herodotus, Euterpe, 2.37.1

Laundry, Source:?     Cleanliness was apparently next to godliness in ancient Egypt. And who was closer to the gods than the pharaohs themselves. Since earliest historic times the titles of "chief washer of the palace" and "washer to the pharaoh" are known, and keeping the royal clothes lily white was the duty of the "chief bleacher."[23]
    Manually washing clothes was hard work. Soap was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, so lye, made of castor-oil and saltpetre or some such substances [18], or detergents made of soapwort or asphodil [19] were used. The laundry was beaten, rinsed and wrung by pairs of workers. By 1200 BCE there were fire-proof boilers in the wash-houses, and the hot water lightened the workload.
    Many, above all the poorer people had no access to facilities and had to do their laundry under at times difficult conditions. Washing on the shore of the river or the bank of a canal, which had the advantage of not having to carry a lot of water in heavy earthen pots, could be dangerous:

The washerman launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile. I shall go away, father, from the flowing water, said his son and his daughter, to a more satisfactory profession, one more distinguished than any other profession.

The Instructions of Dua-Khety

    In the eyes of Kheti at least, washing women's clothing was not really work a man should be doing. He says disparagingly of the washerman:

He cleans the clothes of a woman in menstruation.

The Instructions of Dua-Khety

    Before the advent of industrial production techniques, cheap overseas transportation and a Third World population with little choice but to work for peanuts, clothes made up a considerable part of one's living expenses. Even though the clothes of the Egyptians were lighter than those of Europeans and less critical to survival, they were careful not to ruin them, and when a garment got torn, it was probably the ancient Egyptian housewife who got her favorite needle out of her needle box, a knife and a piece of thread and settled down to mend it. Garments have been found which were mended a number of times and finally recycled and turned into something else.[20]     If depictions are anything to go by, then ordinary Egyptians did not wear any headdress as a rule, similar to African peoples further south. The better-off put on wigs - perhaps just on special occasions. These grew to a remarkable size during the New Kingdom.
    The pharaohs are always represented wearing crowns, but whether this is a pictorial convention or whether they did so in every day life can not be decided. Sandals, Photo: mfa Boston- Plaited reed sandals
New Kingdom
Picture source: mfa Boston website [14]
    People living around the Mediterranean had little need for elaborate footwear, with exceptions like the Hittites in their Anatolian highlands who wore shoes with turned up toes, though in Egyptian reliefs Hittites are depicted unshod. The Egyptians went barefoot much of the time, but wore sandals on special occasions [8] or when their feet were likely to get hurt. The sandals were tied with two thongs and, if they had a pointed tip this was often turned upwards. They were made of leather [17] or rush [12] woven or stitched together, and often had leather soles and straps.
    The cheapest kind of sandals were affordable to all but the very poorest. Ipuwer in his Admonitions used the lack of sandals to describe the destitute who, in the topsy-turvy world of chaos he warned from, attained great wealth: He who could not afford sandals owns riches [9].
    The kings wore at times very elaborately decorated sandals, Sandal of Ramses IIIand sometimes decorative gloves as well, but generally they were depicted barefoot, as were the gods.

Sandal of Ramses III, excerpt
Source: L. Cassell Ancient Egypt

    Sandals made of gold have been found which cannot have been very comfortable to their wearers if they were worn at all. Among Tutankhamen's equipment there were 93 pieces of footwear. There were sandals made of wood with depictions of enemies on their soles, on which the king would tread with every step and another pair which was fastened with buttons.
    One of the changes in daily life which occurred during the Middle and New Kingdoms was the increasing use of sandals, above all where soldiers [10] or travellers were concerned. In the story of The Two Brothers Anpu set out on a journey:

Then he took his staff and his sandals, as well as his clothes and his weapons, and he started to journey to the Valley of the Pine.

M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, p.208

    Sandals seem to have had an importance which mostly escapes us nowadays, symbolizing prosperity and authority. Thutmose III speaks of the countries he conquered, and possibly of the rest of the world as well, as all lands were under my sandals [11].
    Among the oldest images of the dynastic period are depictions of the sandal-bearer of the pharaoh, and for the sixth dynasty official Weni this post was seemingly an important stage in a splendid career, mentioned twice in his autobiography.

Sandals were very closely and beautifully stitched up of rush, and usually soled with leather. A small bundle of rush was wound round by a rush thread, which at every turn pierced through the edge of a previous bundle. Thus these successive bundles were bound together edge to edge, and a flat surface built up. This was edged round in the same way. In basket making exactly the same principle was followed, with great neatness. The rush sandals soled with leather, leather sandals alone, and leather shoes, were all used. The shoes seem to have been just originating at that period; two or three examples are known, but all of them have the leather sandal strap between the toes, and joining to the sides of the heel, to retain the sole on the foot ; the upper leather being stitched on merely as a covering without its being intended to hold the shoe on the foot. These soles are compound, of three or four thicknesses.

W.M.F.Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, p.28

    Early Middle Kingdom shoes were little more than sandals with straps between the toes and joined to the sides at the heel with the upper leather just covering the foot without being fastened to the foot itself. During the New Kingdom there were times when some Egyptians seem to have taken to occasionally wearing shoes, as in Rush slippers, Late Period, Source: cesras website a depiction of Queen Nutmose at Karnak. This may have come about as an influence of the Hittites, with whom they came into contact at this time.

Rush slippers
Late Period
Source: Cesras website


Picture sources
[  ] Man wearing a loincloth: Lionel Casson Ancient Egypt, Time-Life Books, 1975
[  ] Model of women weaving with a horizontal loom: V.Easy
[  ] Pleated kalasiris, Late New Kingdom: Karl Köhler: A History of Costume
[  ] Linen kalasiris, New Kingdom: University of Indiana website
[  ] Women's clothes: the two pictures to the right are excerpts from 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson, Time-Life Books, 1975
[  ] Sandals: mfa Boston [10]
[2] A few strands of material, which analysis proved to be hydrolysed Chinese silk, were found in the hair of a 21st dynasty female mummy (Inventory No. 15/8 Hrdlicka Museum of Man, Prague) which was discovered in the workers' cemetery of Deir el Medina. (Source of info: Charles R. Jones & Marianne Luban)


[7] The skimpiness of dress of servant girls may have been an attempt of the male grave owners at improving the quality of their after-life.


[8] In the afterworld one put on white sandals to meet the gods, just as one did during temple services:

In the monthly service, wear the white sandals,
Visit the temple, [observe] the mysteries,
Enter the shrine, eat bread in god's house...

The instruction addressed to King Merikare
M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p. 102


[9] M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p. 151


[10] During the reign of Mentuhotep III Henu set out for Punt accompanied by 3000 men. For their crossing of the rocky Wadi Hammamat he supplied his people with sandals:

The asses were laden with sandals [/// /// /// ///].

J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §430

In the Papyrus Lansing the scribe mocks the professional soldier:

He is called up for Syria. He may not rest. There are no clothes, no sandals.

M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, p. 172

[11] J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 148. The claim is repeated in a great many inscriptions with similar wording having become synonymous with rightful rule, e.g.

I am satisfied with victories, thou hast placed every rebellious land under my sandals which thy serpent-diadem has bound...

J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 245

and the subjects of Ramses III are exhorted to transfer their allegiance to his successor, Ramses IV

Be ye attached to his sandals, kiss the earth in his presence, bow down to him, follow him at all times, adore him, praise him, magnify his beauty as ye do to Re every morning.

J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 412


[12] Papyrus Harris lists the supply of 15,110 pairs of papyrus sandals and 3,720 pairs of leather sandals for the festival of Usermare-Meriamon-L.H.P.-Making-Festive-Thebes-for-Amon.


[15] Pliny's gossypium was cotton. According to him it was grown in the south of the country.

The upper part of Egypt, in the vicinity of Arabia, produces a shrub, known by some as "gossypium," but by most persons as "xylon;" hence the name of "xylina," given to the tissues that are manufactured from it. The shrub is small, and bears a fruit, similar in appearance to a nut with a beard, and containing in the inside a silky substance, the down of which is spun into threads. There is no tissue known, that is superior to those made from this thread, either for whiteness, softness, or dressing: the most esteemed vestments worn by the priests of Egypt are made of it.

Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)

[16] Most articles of dress found in tombs were made of linen. There were apparently also cultic restrictions to wearing woollen clothing. According to Herodotus wool was not worn in temples

They wear a linen tunic fringed about the legs, and called calasiris; over this they have a white woollen garment thrown on afterwards. Nothing of woollen, however, is taken into their temples or buried with them, as their religion forbids it.

Herodotus, Euterpe, 81.1


[17] In the reign of Amenemhet III Horemsaf wrote

Year of the reign 4, Month 4 of the season of Shemu, day 3
Let be brought cow's leather of the best quality for its utilization. As I have sent the sandal maker give (it) to him (as well).

Illahun, pBerlin 10014, Letter of Horemsaf
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website

[18] Many of the everyday substances used have not been identified. Lucas (p.172) suggested that it seemed possible that the fused ashes of special plants, or natron, might have been employed for some such purpose as washing clothes or the person...
The papyrus of Imhotep, son of Pshentohe, describes the preparations for the ritual of the transfiguration of the Osiris:

He was purified with netjeri-natron, bed-natron, and lye of hesmen-natron (mw-nw-Hzmn) which are prescribed in the words of god (i.e. holy writings).

After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher  => Papyrus des Imhotep Sohn des Pschentohe New York MMA 35.9.21 => 2. Ritual der Verklärung des Osiris (Buch IV)

where netjeri, related to netjer - god, is a general term for natron, bed is granulated natron and mw-nw-Hzmn is natron water or fluid.
[19] R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Brill Academic Publishers 1966, p.83f.
[20] Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian materials and technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp.281f.
[21] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Sargkammer => Westwand => Fläche über und links neben dem Sarkophag => PT 440
[22] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre von pChester Beatty IV => pChester Beatty IV = pBM EA 10684 => Beatty IV, Verso
[23] Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p.62
[24] J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, Chigago 1906, § 992
[25] A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, London 1989, p.8
[26] Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.294
[27] Harold B. Burnham, Veronika Gervers, Studies in textile history, 1977, Royal Ontario Museum, p.243

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