Bryce is an Egypt enthusiast and loves writing about everything from costumes to the Pyramids of Giza.
Fashion of the Pharaohs
Whether you've always wanted to dress up as Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Hatchepsut, an Egyptian dancing girl, King Tut, or Mark Antony, costume-making can be easier than you think. There are even no-sew options. Egypt's fashion history can inspire contemporary fashion, costumes for plays, such as Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," Halloween costumes, fancy dress ball outfits, masquerade, and special event costumes. With some background, imagination, and a few basic supplies, even a beginning costume-maker can achieve good results. Explore ideas for kids' costumes and adults' costumes.
The Egyptians made garments suited to their hot, desert climate. Linen spun from flax served as the primary fabric, and garments tended to be based on simple rectangles. Tunics, gowns, basic shirts, and kilts were common. Wealthy Egyptians had finer and more elaborate garments than the common people. They often wore intricately pleated clothing.
Although the length of men's kilts changed, becoming longer during Egypt's hundreds of years of fashion history, the basic lines of women's dresses and men's clothing remained fairly consistent. Unlike contemporary fashion, the styles were timeless. The sheer, body-hugging linen gowns and even men's kilts have made regular comebacks in our own time.
The queen's gowns and the men's kilts and wide jeweled collars give ideas for simple homemade kids' costumes—or elaborate adult costumes. Inspiration for materials and fast and easy costume-making provide options for handmade or no-sew costumes. Whether you want to dress up as a princess, a priest, one of the most powerful pharaohs who ever lived, or a shambling, horrific mummy, this article can help you create an eye-catching costume.
Fashions and Costumes
These fashions continue to influence jewelry-making, hairstyles, accessories, belly-dance accessories, and the graceful drape of fabric over women's and men's bodies on fashion runways.
Egyptian costumes have appeared in movies from the beginning of film-making and remain popular in all venues of entertainment, from music videos to stage productions. Learning about elements of Egyptian fashion history adds to the effects you can create for costumes, jewelry, or original fashions.
Kings and Queens from this land's history appear in movies, ads, and music videos. Popular costume choices include Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Tut, Ramesses the Greatand, of course, the mummy. Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Theda Bara, and many other actors and celebrities brought these clothing styles back to life.
Although authentic-looking costumes can be time-consuming to make and require sewing skills, it's possible to make simple, no-sew Egyptian costumes with common household and craft items.
- Museum gift shops where Egyptian exhibits are on display are a good source of quality reproductions of Egyptian jewelry.
- Thrift stores and online retailers who sell preowned goods may have suitable linen garments and even scarab jewelry, ankhs, diadems, Egyptian headdresses, and sandals.
- Costume suppliers generally have ancient Egyptian costumes, but the quality varies.
- Wig suppliers and theatrical supply sources are a good option for browsing Egyptian hairstyles or plain wigs to braid or style yourself.
- Fabric vendors usually have unbleached linen and muslin and cords in a variety of colors and materials for making belts, trim, and headdresses. Faux leather is an option for a soldier's costume or a Roman's, for late period Egyptian costumes, such as Caesar or Marc Antony.
- Flea markets and online or offline shops that specialize in vintage goods can be a source for Egyptian-inspired accessories. The Egyptians have inspired jewelry and clothing fashions since ancient times.
- Local jewelers and online suppliers of hand-crafted jewelry may have beadwork, bracelets, or armbands suitable for an Egypt costume.
- Bead and craft suppliers: If you have time, making your own ancient Egyptian accessories makes your costume one-of-a-kind, and you can wear the results for other occasions. The ancient Egypt look lasts beyond Halloween or a costume party.
Queens and Pharaohs
Egyptian rulers include some of the best-known, studied, and admired figures in history. Nefertiti and Cleopatra retain the allure of being among the most captivating women in the world. The Berlin bust of Nefertiti shows a young beauty. Although not all images of Cleopatra and Nefertiti are equally flattering, their fascination remains powerful. The legends of their beauty contribute to the enduring popularity of ancient Egyptian clothing.
Controversy over whether Nefertiti reigned in Egypt on her own continues, including speculation that she may have taken on a male name and aspect in the manner of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Queen Cleopatra, famed for captivating Caesar and Mark Antony, lives on in legends of her style and power—and in centuries of art depicting her committing suicide by snakebite instead of surrendering to capture.
Notable men of ancient Egypt include Cheops, the pharaoh who ordered the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Ramesses, a line of powerful pharaohs including Ramesses the Great, Akhenaton, the "heretic king" who overthrew the pantheon of gods and elevated Aten, also spelled Aton, as the one god, creating uproar and monotheism. His reign moved the seat of power to Amarna and created new styles in art with peculiarly elongated heads. Depictions of him are androgynous.
King Tut, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun—perhaps the best-known of all ancient Egyptian men—is famed more for his bountiful, gold-laden grave goods than his short reign. A pharaoh costume could include one of the characteristic crowns of Egypt, a wide jeweled collar, a shenti, and the crook and flail that were symbols of the king's position.
Excavations in Egypt discovered the role of little people in making wardrobes for royal households.
Ancient Egyptian Clothing for Women
A woman's status and occupation affected her style of clothing and the value of her jewelry. Queens and princesses owned bracelets, rings, necklaces, collars, and diadems made of gold with jewels or semi-precious stones. Delicate circlets were worn around the headset off the striking hairstyles of the day. Beaded jewelry was also popular, and many ancient pieces of beaded jewelry from the tombs of high-ranking women have been reconstructed. You can view these examples in museums and in books.
Ancient garment-making involved growing and harvesting the flax and weaving flax into linen. For hundreds of years, most garments were based on rectangles—simple tunics and sheaths. Some women's dresses had two wide shoulder straps, some had one shoulder strap in an off-the-shoulder look that remains popular on fashion runways. Some gowns were high-waisted, with a bodice and a long skirt. Some women's garments extended from just below the bust to the floor, leaving the breasts exposed.
The transparent nature of the fine linen used for high-ranking and common women's clothing shows clearly in Egyptian art. The see-through fabric clings to the lines of the body, showing the woman's legs through the open weave.
The Petrie Museum has a women's garment described as a "beadnet dress of a dancer from the Pyramid Age, about 2400 BC." The open beadwork would show the woman's body. Dancers in Egyptian art wear jewelry and filmy fabric and are often bare-breasted.
The elaborate braided hairstyles shown in art were generally wigs. Some of these wigs survived for hundreds of years, still adorning the owner's mummy when archaeologists open the coffin. Some wigs were quite heavy, featuring multiple layers of tightly woven braids.
A small dome-shaped device shown on the heads of female musicians in one tomb painting contains a fragrant unguent that interacted with the wearer's warmth to melt into her hair.
Materials for Costume Making
Linen, or cotton gauze, especially cream, taupe, or tan, works well for draping into Egyptian garments or tearing into strips for mummy wrapping. Steep strips of pale fabric in a pot of strong, brewed tea overnight to create the look of an old mummy. The strips turn out an aged brown from the tea—this makes an easy and eco-friendly costume, free of chemical dyes. A linen dishtowel tied at the waist makes a quick shenti for a man's costume.
Pleated fabric, such as drapes or pleated skirts, provides a shortcut for creating ancient Egyptian costumes with the look of pleated kilts or pleated gowns.
Foil, especially in gold and brass colors, can be glued over cardboard cutouts to make wide Egyptian collars.
Fake jewels or gemstones, especially in lapis blue, turquoise, and coral, work well to glue on Egyptian collars to create the color scheme of ancient Egyptian jewelry.
Beads were a crucial part of Egyptian fashion. The ancient Egyptians used natural stones, including amethyst, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, for jewelry. Garments, including men's clothing, sometimes included beadwork on the fabric.
Ancient Egyptian Men's Clothing and Fashion
Men's clothing in ancient Egypt also featured linen as the main fabric. The kilt, known as a shenti, was a common form of clothing for men, often tied in a knot at the waist in front or worn with a cloth belt. Men generally wore the shenti over a loincloth—for those of you wondering what ancient Egyptian men wore under their kilts. The loincloth goes around the waist and between the legs.
Although linen was the primary material for clothing, ancient Egyptian men sometimes wore leather loincloths. Working men wore a kilt or loincloth and sandals and often went shirtless. The ancient Egyptians often went barefoot, judging by their artwork. They made sandals from braided leather or papyrus.
The shenti became longer over time, and during the Old Kingdom and again during Tutankhamun's reign, the shenti featured a triangular panel that stuck out in front, probably from a stiffener in the fabric.
Men in ancient Egypt were depicted as tan, compared to women who were conventionally shown as having lighter skin. Guys with pale skin tones who want to pull off the Egyptian look for a costume can apply a self-tanner to create the outdoorsy appearance of an ancient Egyptian man, and this will improve the contrast with the light-colored linen.
Nobles and wealthy men wore longer kilts or loincloths and tunics. They wore jewelry and painted their eyes with kohl. Men, as well as women, applied cheek and lip color. Fashions for men became more complex in style for noblemen during the Middle Kingdom and the Late Kingdom, becoming more layered and pleated, in contrast to the sleek, body-hugging kilts of the Old Kingdom, the era at the beginning of ancient Egypt's history.
Wealthy men often wore wide collars, pectorals, of gemstones. Wealthy men wore scented cones on their heads at times. When Egyptian men wore a cape or cloak, they draped it over one shoulder.
In the New Kingdom, men's fashion in Egypt included tunics as well as the shenti. This garment is also translated as "bag tunic," according to the University College London. Most of these garments that survived are sleeveless, although the Egyptians, men and women alike, wore a version of this rectangular tunic equipped with long sleeves.
Priests maintained shaved heads and bodies and wore a sheath-like garment with a strap over one shoulder. One type of priest, the sem priest, wore a long robe with leopard skin hanging from one shoulder.
Pictures of ancient linen garments, including a dress and the rectangles men wore.
The University of Chicago: Slide show: Man and Wife in Traditional Clothes
This slide shows typical clothing and wigs for a man and woman, including a man's wig and a woman's wig. This is a sculpture from the Old Kingdom, yet the basic styles remained popular for centuries.
- The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology - University College London Museums
Find out about the Petrie Museum, which houses an estimated 80,000 objects, one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. The collection includes examples of ancient Egyptian clothing.
© 2011 Bryce
Bryce (author) from Northern California Coast on November 16, 2011:
Hubert'svoice -- Thanks. I feel the same way. I've been following stories about the ancient Egyptians since I was a kid.
Hubertsvoice on November 15, 2011:
Interesting article. I really like stories about Egyptian rulers. The era of pyramid building must have been brutal.
Bryce (author) from Northern California Coast on November 14, 2011:
Xenonlit -- I'm glad to hear that! So many style elements from Egypt work well for costumes -- or for any day. My Cleopatra hub will have more costume ideas.
Bryce (author) from Northern California Coast on November 14, 2011:
Plinka -- Thanks! Yeah, I was playing. I've always liked the phrase "walk like an Egyptian."
Xenonlit on November 14, 2011:
I was going to dress as an ancient Egyptian for Halloween. Thanks to you, I can do this for New Years!
plinka from Budapest, Hungary on November 14, 2011:
Hi, this is an interesting hub, though "Egyptian walk" rather means a modern dance technique element to me. :-) Voted up!