Draped in fabulous linens- Ancient Egyptian Clothing Part 1

What would you wear to be the height of fashion in Ancient Egypt? The fashion for both men and women in ancient Egypt changed throughout time just as they do today. Returning to my regular schedule after a pretty hectic work schedule. This is the first part of this two-part blog series, looking at clothing in Ancient Egypt from the Early Dynastic times up until the Middle Kingdom. Clothing can also often be used as a reliable chronological guide for modern and ancient civilisations. The Egyptian elite of most periods were generally subject to the different changes in fashion. The Ramesside period jumps to mind (but I will leave the details of that until next week).

Early Dynastic

Figure 1: Cast of the Namer Palette showing King Namer wearing short kilt EA35714. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA35714

The arid conditions of Egypt meant that from early times meant that light, simple and airy dress was adopted. In general, men wore loincloths or short kilts and women simple tunics or sheath dresses. These conditions have lost led to a number of clothing items being preserved. But whilst we have little written information, these few surviving garments the numerous statues, paintings and engravings are our main sources combined together to form an illustrated catalogue for ancient Egyptian fashions over time [1]. Linen was the natural pick for clothing with wool coming second and then last cotton being introduced during the Ptolemaic period. Although some predynastic palettes show men naked except for a belt around their loins or a short kilt shirt-like garments have survived from the early dynastic period. The Narmer Palette for example shows one of the earliest depictions of the newer short kilt style of men’s dress. On the palette, the king is shown wearing the short kilt with its two ends crossed over and tucked in at the hips under a belt that is tied into a bow at the front[2]. (Figure 1). The earliest example being a linen short/dress comes from the site of Tarkhan and was excavated by Flinders Petrie. Tarkhan is one of the most important cemeteries from the time that Egypt was unified around 3000 BC[3]. Although Petrie excavated a pile of linen from this 1st Dynasty tomb in 1913 it was not until 1977 when this pile was cleaned by the Victoria and Albert Museums Textile Conservation workshop that the dress was discovered [4]. The tunic shirt shows signs of pleating around the neck and on the sleeves (Figure 2). Rosalind Hall, who mounted the garment for display commented that “The garment had clearly been worn in life because it was found inside-out … with distinct signs of creasing and the elbows and under the armpits”[5].  

Figure 3: Queen Meresankh in her tomb is shown wearing a typical Old Kingdom sheath dress with wide shoulder straps and v neckline overlaid with a collar necklace. https://www.osirisnet.net/mastabas/meresankh3/e_meresankh3_01.htm

Old Kingdom

Figure 4: Beadnet Dress – This design is believed to represent beadwork, which was either sewn onto a linen dress or worked into a separate net worn over the linen. This beadnet dress is the earliest surviving example of such a garment. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/146531 ACCESSION NUMBER

The dress of men stayed relatively simple with regards to kilts the only developments being the length of them, reaching to mid-calf during the Old Kingdom and then later in the Middle kingdom dropping down the angle length[6]. The changes to the fashion of the Old Kingdom came with what women were wearing.  During this time period that women (and goddesses) are shown wearing a sort of sheath dress with broad shoulder straps[7] (Figure 3). Women’s dress was more distinctive between classes as upper-class women wore a long, figure-fitting dress with or without sleeves and often but not all the time could be worn with the addition of a beaded net dress on top (Figure 4).

There are also textual examples for the idea of nets being used as women’s clothing. In Papyrus Westcar specifically a collection of magical tales one tale refers to a relaxing boating party and a king.  The setting of these tales is the Old Kindom, specifically the time of the Fourth Dynasty with King Khufgu being entertained by his sons. Khufu’s first son tells a story as follows. The story goes that One day King Snefru was board and roaming around his palace looking for relaxation finding nothing he summons his chief lector priest a man named Djedjem-ankh[8]. His priest suggests that the king would be refreshed by going to the lake of the palace and filling a boat with the beautiful girls of his palace. The king agreeing with his advisor exclaims ‘Indeed, I shall go boating! Let there be brought to me twenty oars of ebony plated with gold… let there be brought to me twenty women with the shapeliest bodies, breasts and braids… Also let there be brought to me twenty nets and give these nets to these women in place of their clothes[9].  

Figure 5: A bared chested woman mashes bread to make beer she wears only a long skirt. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/women-making-beer_n_5b914f13e4b0cf7b003d8263

It should also be said that women’s dress that exposed their breasts was not a matter of concern. Some dresses of wealthier women began below the breasts and went to the ankle whilst women of lower status sometimes wore simple skirts and no top. Furthermore, certain professions/ occupations from early times until the introduction of readily available linen, shepherds ferrymen, fishermen often wore a simple leather sash which a curtain of reeds could hang forming a band but many also worked in the nude at least until the Middle Kingdom[10].  Female millers, bakers and harvest workers are often shown wearing a long skirt with their upper halves bare [11] (Figure 5).

Figure 6: Nofret wearing her hair in the Old Kingdom style just belong her ears. http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/detail.aspx?id=14847
Figure 7: A female statue wears her hair now in the style of the Middle Kingdom reaching past her shoulders. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544210

Middle Kingdom  

Figure 8: A female figure is shown wearing cotton although still form-fitting there were often sleeve with a plunging neckline with the addition of a clasp necklace around her neck https://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/20598754674/in/photostream/
Figure 9: A woman offering bearer wears this near style of dress with thin straps across her breasts. Authors own photo

The first intermediate period which followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom although enacting social change fashion stayed a consistent facto ht the middle kingdom saw changes to women’s clothing with long cotton gowns and different hairstyles. In reference to hairstyles in the Old Kingdom, Women wear shown with hair just below their ears whilst in the Middle Kingdom, the shift was made to have their hair worn to their shoulders[12] (Figure 6 and 7).

The dresses worn by women also change alongside adopting new hairstyles. Now upper-class women’s dresses could be made of cotton although still form-fitting there were often sleeve with a plunging neckline with the addition of a clasp necklace around her neck[13] (Figure 8).  Another style of dress that developed in this time period was an ankle-length dress that stopped around the waist which was then held up with thin straps that ran over the chest and faster over the shoulders at the back[14] ( Figure 9). It should be made clear by this point that although I am describing linen clothing and for the most part the colour is injected into these outfits by accessorizing the ancient Egyptians did wear colourful garments. A colourful example is that of an offering figure found in the Tomb of Meketra dating to the early Middle Kingdom (Figure 10/7). This statue has always been a favourite of mine due to the details is shown from the addition of pink in the corner of this woman’s eyes and the array of bright colours her dress shows.  Striding forward with her left leg, the woman carries on her head a basket filled with cuts of meat. The figure’s iconography is well known from reliefs of the Old Kingdom in which rows of offering bearers were depicted. The woman is richly adorned with jewellery and wears a dress decorated with a pattern of feathers or some have said this could be a heavily beaded dress overlaid a simple garment, nonetheless this kind of garment is often associated with goddesses and high powered women[15].

Figure 10; Statue of an Offering Bearer, Egyptian, Middle Kingdom (20.3.7) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/544210
Figure 11: This figure wears a long ankle-length kilt wrapped with a knot at the waist, with the stone incised with raised horizontal lines that create a striped pattern across the clothing and is enhanced with fringed detail along the waistline. EA58080

By the Middle Kingdom, men’s kilts had also become longer and more complex with some boasting ornamental pendants attached to elaborate belts. Alongside this, the double kilt was also introduced (a triangular loincloth was worn under a more standard kilt)[16].  

I hope you enjoyed this first part of my series of Ancient Egyptian clothing next time I am going to run through the New Kingdom to the end of Dynastic Egypt.


[1] Tyldesley, J., 2005. Daughters of Isis. London [etc.]: Penguin Books. Page 163

[2] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 78

[3] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum/tarkhan-dress

[4] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum/tarkhan-dress

[5] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum/tarkhan-dress

[6] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 78

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 76

[8] Lichtheim, M., 2006. Ancient Egyptian literature. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Vol 1 page 216

[9] Lichtheim, M., 2006. Ancient Egyptian literature. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Vol 1 page 216

[10] Strudwick, H., 2006. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. London: Amber Books. Page 376

[11] Strudwick, H., 2006. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. London: Amber Books. Page 376

[12] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1037/fashion–dress-in-ancient-egypt/

[13] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1037/fashion–dress-in-ancient-egypt/

[14] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1037/fashion–dress-in-ancient-egypt/

[15] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544210

[16] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/clothing/

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