Chronology of the Development of Boys' Clothing Styles: Ancient Egypt


Figure 1.--This gold statuette was atop a ceremonial walking stick of Tutankamen. (Note the destinctive belly and long fingers.) It was apparently was made to depict the young monarch when he became pharaoh at age 8 or 9 years, at which time he was married to Ankhesen-pa-Aten, nearly twice his age. He wears a kilt-like garment called a shenti along with the Blue Crown. His shenti is elaborate. Common Egyptians, both men and boys, wore essentailly the same garment, but very plain ones. There was no real difference between the shenti worn by men and boys, although common boys might often not wear anything at all.

Clothing in ancient Egypt was almost always linen which is made from flax. Clothes were made of linen because flax was the only plant growing in Egypt that was used for clothing. The actual weaving of linen fabric was done on a loom, usually by women. Textile manufacture and dressmaking were actually the only areas of the economy that remained predominantly in female hands. White linen needed constant washing. It was washed in the river or canal, rinsed, then pounded on a stone, and, bleached in the sun. Linen clothes needed to be repleated every time they were washed. Important Egyptians were often depicted with pleated skirts. Only high status individuals had pleated clothes because the pleating process involved so much labor. Pleating required pressing the linen into grooves on a wooden board and letting it dry. The most interesting feature of Egyptian clothes is that styles changed so little over the long sweep of Egyptian history. Since there were no new styles, Egyptians took great pride in keeping themselves and their garments immaculately clean. Of course clothing is affected by climate. The warm weather in Egypt meant that ancient Egyptians wore little or no clothes at all. If they did wear clothes they were very thin and light. Even in Egypt, however, it could be cool at night during the winter. The basic garments worn by men was a loincloth or a shenti. A shenti was a kilt-like piece of linen fabric tied around the waist and kept in place by a girdle. While poor Egyptians had a simple shenti, the wealthy had shentis pleated and decorated with gold thread. Women might wear a simple shift for women. Many low status individuals, like slaves and children, did not wear any clothes at all. Children might earrings or protective amulets. In general, shoes were not worn. Egyptian children in the summer usually went around without any clothing at all. During the winter the children might be wrapped in cloaks and other wraps. One interesting aspect of Egyptian clothing is how little fashions changed over very long periods of time.

Material

Clothing in ancient Egypt was almost always linen (mnkht) which was made from flax. Clothes were made of linen because flax was the only plant growing in Egypt that was used for clothing. One notable aspect of linnen as a material is that it is not a vey flexible fabric like cotton or wool. Although cotton is today widely cultivated in Egypt, it was unknown to the ancient Egyptians until the later period of the New Kingdom. It appeared as trade goods as Egypt moved within the Roman orbit. Silk was also unknown to ancient Egypt until the Helenic period. Alexander appears to have opened trade routes to the East. Thus silk reached Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period. As with the Romans, it was highly prized, but very expensive. It is known to have been the fabric most admired by Cleopatra.

Weaving

The actual weaving of linen fabric was done on a loom, usually by women. Textile manufacture and dressmaking were actually the only areas of the economy that remained predominantly in female hands. Women wove the clothes worn by the family as part of their household chores. If they had time and were skilled enough, they could sell the fabric produce beyond what was needed by the family. There were also shops where women were employed to spin and weave. The output would have been sold to the wealthy sufh as aristocrats. Weaving was a highly admired skill. Weaving was associated with Neith, notably a female godess. A skilled weaver could be highly paid. Weaving technology developed over time, Egyptian weavers by the New Kingdom had developed larger, vertical looms. They require more physical strength than the smaller looms formerly used. For this reason, men began to become weavers.

Maintenace

White linen needed constant washing. It was washed in the river or canal, rinsed, then pounded on a stone, and, bleached in the sun. Linen clothes needed to be repleated every time they were washed. Important Egyptians were often depicted with pleated skirts. Only high status individuals had pleated clothes because the pleating process involved so much labor. Pleating required pressing the linen into grooves on a wooden board and letting it dry. Since there were no new styles, Egyptians took great pride in keeping themselves and their garments immaculately clean.

Styles

One interesting aspect of Egyptian clothing is how little fashions changed over very long periods of time. The most interesting feature of Egyptian clothes is that styles changed so little over the long sweep of Egyptian history.

Climate

Of course clothing is affected by climate. The warm weather in Egypt meant that ancient Egyptians wore little or no clothes at all. If they did wear clothes they were very thin and light. Even in Egypt, however, it could be cool at night during the winter. A reader writes, "I have been to Egypt in the summer and can understand why the ancient Egyptians went naked in the hot summer weather. I'm sure they wore clothing in the winter when it can be chilly. When I was there in 1978, the men frequently wore long flowing garments, presumably to keep the sun off their skin. The women (non Coptic) were completely covered with a black garment with only their faces showing. Being a black color, they must be extremely hot. But, religion dictates clothing now, which the ancient Egyptians apparently did not have to deal with. Of course, wealth and status did play a role in the ancient world through clothing." Our reader is quite correct that climate is an important factor. It should be viewed, however, in combination with economics. In terms of comfort there could have been little difference between going naked abd wearing a brief loin cloth or kilt. The difference was economics. The peasantry was very poor and thus wearing clothes, which were very expensive in relative terms, might be dispesed with.

Garments

Fashion garments was a technological advance. Most people in the ancient world wore just one or two big pieces of cloth which they wrapped around themselves. Here wrapping methods varied. This was common because it was easiest to weave squares or rectangles. Actually fashioning garments was more complicated and required technological advances.

Headwear

Surprisingly for a people living under hot semi-tropical sun. Egyptians even peasants working the field do not seen to have worn any type of headwear.

Shenti

The basic garments worn by men was a loincloth or kilt-like gaement--a shenti. A shenti was a piece of linen fabric tied around the waist and kept in place by a girdle. This was the garment commonly worn outside by working men as it was less restrictive than a tunic. For the same reaso, it was the garment worn by soldiers. While poor Egyptians had a simple shenti, the wealthy had shentis pleated and decorated with gold thread. Common Egyptians, both men and boys, wore essentailly the same garment, but very plain ones. There was no real difference between the shenti worn by men and boys, although peasant boys might often not wear anything at all

Tunics/Kilts

The basic Egyptian garment worn by both men and women was a kind of tunic. Actual garments like this were not seen in Mesopotamia at comparable times. They were the first form fitting garment produced by man and a major step in the history of clothing and fashion. Eyyptian tunics were rather like an elongated T-shirt. Men's tunics reached to the knees. Women's tunics reached to the ankles. We see some men wearing long tunics. We think this may have been older or higher status men. The tunics were commonly made of linen. and were as best we can tell virtually always white. A good example is the tunics worn by Thebes parennts.

Shifts

Women might wear a simple shift.

Footwear

Footwear in general was not worn by common people meaning the peasantry. Most Egyptians commonly went barefoot. The affluent might wear straw or leather sandals, but even pharoahs sometimes went barefoot, at least in the Old Kingdom. Archaeologists have found several sorts of sandals, especially in papyrus and palm leaves, sometimes also in leather. Ancient Egyptians are, however, were usually depicted in bare feet. We can assume that sandals were worn only by the elite class and even the elite did not wear them all the time. Perhaps they were not very comfortable. It seems that during the Old Kingdom only the men wore sandals, while the women were always barefoot. Later the sandals became more common both for men and women. Probably the footwear became a 'status symbol', because working class people didn't own footwar. We are not sure of the conventions. We se, for example, the Pharoah Narmer going barefoot while a servant carries his sandals. We are not sure just why that was. Perhaps the sandals were not practical for strenous activities like combat. We can assume that sandals were even less common for children. Wealthy children may have had, but may have not worn them commonly.

Colors

Egyptian clothing was not colorful. The imafes we have found show men and women wearing white clothing.

Slaves

Many low status individuals, like slaves and children before puberty, might not wear any clothes at all. There wre slaves in Egypt, but much of the agricultural labor was performed by peasants rather than slaves. The low status and income of the peasantry was suh that slavery was not as important in ancient Egypt as it was in societies like Greece and Rome. It was while laboring inthe fields or other plaves like mines that both peasant laborers and slaves might work naked. This was an economic matter. Clothing in ancient Egypt was much more expensove in relative terms than modern clothing. Thus it might be disensed with in situations where it would become soiled and quickly worn out.

Children

Children might earrings or protective amulets. Egyptian children until puberty during the summer usually went around without any clothing at all. And this was not just peasant children. Even the children of the affluent class are commonly depicted naked in Egyptian art. During the winter the children might be wrapped in cloaks and other wraps. Much of what we know about the clothes worn by Egyptian children come from tomb paintings and temple carvings. There is virtually no written recokrds. As a result the conventions for children's clothes have to be largely deduced from the plaintings. The paintings more commonly depict life-like activities of the common Egyptian. They suggest that children , both boys and girls, often were naked as the warm Egyptian climate permitted. Clothing was expensive and many peasanys could not afford to clothe children who would quicly dirty their clothes in play or agricultural activities. This does not mean that children never wore clothes until puberty. Paintings do not always show children naked, although the younger the child, the more likely he is to be naked in the paintings. It is likely that many young children might have some clothes. They might have normally gone naked, but may have been dressed for special occassioins or on cool evenings. Children, even those painted as naked, often wore jewelry, including earrings, collars, bracelets, armlets and anklets. Girls might wear hair ornaments. [Springer]

Artistic Depictions

Some caution must be exercised in using paintings and sculptures to determine what clothing aincient Egyptians wore. We note many images of Egyptian women wearing knee-hobling skirts. This appears to be an artistic convention that was largely fiction. Women could not walk in such skirts, especially given the fact that linen has little ability to streach. Actual dresses recovered from tombs are "baggy tubes with shoulder straps" nd not the tight-fitting skirts depicted. [Stewart, p. 78.]

Sources

Springer, Ilene. "A Kid in Ancient Egypt," Tour Egypt Monthly (December 1, 2000).

Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt," Smithsonian, date missing, pp. 74-84.






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Created: November 9, 2002
Last updated: 1:20 AM 7/15/2011