CLOTHES, FASHION, HYGIENE AND SEX IN ANCIENT EGYPT

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN CLOTHES

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Egyptians wore kilt-like, tunic-like and robe-like garments like those pictured in tomb painting. In many cases the garments worn by pharaohs and nobles wasn’t all that different from those worn by ordinary Egyptians. Egyptian clothes had no buttons or zippers. They were either tied or tucked.

People generally didn't wear underwear. Men and women sometimes went topless. Ordinary men often wore loin clothes and went bare chested. Even when women wore tops breasts were visible in the thin fabric. Egyptian noblemen used parasols, carried by slaves for protection from the sun.

Egyptians didn't wear hats. They sometimes wore hair bands to keep their hair out of their face of wigs. The Egyptians didn't need gloves for warmth, but women wore soft linen gloves, sometimes embroideried with colored threads, as a decorative accessory.

Commoner men (pyramid builders) wore loin clothes and women dressed in long sheaths attached above the breasts with a shoulder strap. Women also wore ankle-length skirts. The pharaoh’s kilt was called a shendyt .

Fabrics in Ancient Egypt

Most clothes in ancient Egypt were made of wool or linen woven using a two-barred loom. The Pharaohs and upper classes favored clothes made from linen and embroidered with colored cloth. Archaeologists have collected well preserved samples of ancient Egyptian fabric and complete human-hair wigs.

Linen has was used as a fabric by the ancient Egyptian. It was strong and used for making ropes as well as clothes. Mummies were wrapped in it. It was also widely used in the Middle Ages. Linen coms from flax, a plant with a woody stem that contains long, strong but soft fibers that can be used to make heavy, course materials and ropes as well as fine fabrics, namely linen. Flax seeds contain linseed oils which is used in industry and a number of consumer goods, mainly as a drying agent for paints and varnishes. Flax is also used in making cigarette paper. Fiber flax grows tall and has few branches, narrow leaves and purple flowers. It grows best in places with constant rain and a short, cool, growing season.

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Egyptian-era loom

The Egyptians and Mesopotamians made cloth from linen. Clothmakers made linen with a fine texture for pharaohs and noblemen. Workers wore garments made from coarser cloth. Linen is not very stretchy. Cloth was adorned with paintings made by hand. Popular designs included scarabs, lotus flowers and zigzag patterns. Mummies were wrapped in linen. The Egyptians mass produce linen for sails.

Stones carvings from 3000 B.C. show leatherworkers. A 3,300-year-old leather sandal and 3,100 gazelle hide tent have been found.

Scientists examining the hair of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy found a strand of silk. This astonishing discover provides evidence not only of the existence of silk in ancient Egypt but also of trade between ancient China and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

Blue India dye is derived from a blue powder extracted from the indigofera plant. The dye was known to the Greeks and Romans and used by Egyptians to dye mummy cases.

Men's and Women’s Fashions in Ancient Egypt

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Nefertari
Well-preserved clothes found in King Tut tomb include lose-fitting, sleeveless tunics worn over loin clothes, linen belts, jeweled sandals made of reed, white loin cloths and head scarves. Some of the fabrics were plain white and others were embroidered with red, yellow and blue threads and studded with gold. Scientists were able confirm the boy-kings age from a small, delicate, linen cloth.

In tomb art women are portrayed as tall and bosomy. They were often elaborately dressed and sometimes wore tight dresses that left one breast exposed. Ordinary women dressed in long sheaths attached above the breasts with a shoulder strap. Children often went nude until they were teenagers.

From what can be determined, the Egyptian upper classes were very fashion conscious. Much effort went into preparing their clothes and the hairstyles, which appeared to changed often over the centuries. Over time the kilts and tunics became long and fuller. In the Ramses II era men and women wore elaborately pleated layers of starched linen. Some women are believed to have worn live snakes around their necks.

The clothes were depicted in tomb paintings were probably different than what people actually wore. For example, sculptures of women depict them wearing sexy, thin, tight-fitting garments while clothes excavated from graves tend be loose and smock-like.

Some elite New Kingdom women wore form-fitting dresses of pleated linen. Linen undergarments were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Ancient Egyptian Shoes and Sandals

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cobblers at work
Some of the earliest known shoes from the Old World are sandals made from papyrus leaves found in an Egyptian tomb dated at 2000 B.C. A leather sandal dated to 1300 B.C. has also been found in Egypt. Sandal-makers depicted in tomb paintings went about their duties like 19th century cobblers.

Sandals and shoes were worn mainly the rich. One very old image shows a nobleman walking barefoot followed by a servant carrying his shoes. Ordinary people often went barefoot. Egyptians exchanged sandals when they exchanged property or authority. A sandal was given to a groom by the father of the bride.

Ancient shoes where generally made from woven palm leaves, vegetable fibre or papyrus and were kept in place on the foot with linen or leather bands.

Early Shoes, See Bronze Age

Ancient Egyptian Jewelry

Egyptians liked jewelry. They wore necklaces with blue faience beads, and gold leaf; girdles of cowrie shells molded in gold; silver bracelets with semi-precious stones; golden amulets decorated with the face of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and fertility; and pencil thick glass-stud earrings. Some jewelry was believed to be imbued with magical powers. Glass eyes bead were worn perhaps to ward off evil.

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Jewelry was made from gold, silver, faience (a blue stone), lapis lazuli, carnelian, green feldspar, green jasper, ivory, bone, amethyst, and black quartz. Silver was regarded as more valuable than gold. Tombs were filled with jewelry the dead wanted to take with them to the netherworld. Tomb paintings and reliefs are also full depictions of people loaded down with jewelry.

Amulets were carried by the living and wrapped with mummies. The mummy of King Tut had 143 of them. Their primary purpose was to attract “sympathetic magic” that would protect the wearer from misfortune and maybe bring some good luck. Amulets were inserted in different stages of the embalming process, each with special spells and incantations to go along with it. Some bore inscriptions and were made of materials, such as gold, faience (a blue stone), lapis lazuli, carnelian, green feldspar, and green jasper.

Amulets with protective cobras, ba (winged symbols of the soul), re (sun disk), ankhs, and scarabs were popular. There were amulets for limbs, organs and other body parts and ones derived from the hieroglyphics for “good,” “truth,” and “eternity.” Hearts, hands and feet were often found on mummies in places where the real body parts were normally found, the idea being that they could be offered as substitutes if the real ones were coveted by demons.

In Genesis 41:41-42 a pharaoh gives Joseph a ring to symbolize a deal has been made. Most ancient rings were made of steatite of medals such as bronze, silver or gold. Few were adorned with precious stones. Those that were usually contained amethyst, coral or lapis lazuli. Some of the oldest known rings were used as signets by rulers, public officials and traders to authorize documents with a stamp. Signatures were not used until late in history.

Hygiene in Ancient Egypt

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In the dry climates of Mesopotamia and Egypt, cleanliness, washing and bathing for some was not given a high priority. But those close to Nile had better access to water than those who were not near the river.

The Egyptians values cleanliness. The Nile and various oasis supplied them water and some scholars credit them with inventing the custom of bathing. Bas-reliefs and tomb paintings showed attendants pouring water over bathers. Bathing was an important aspect of some religious ceremonies. Priests were required to bath four times a day. By 1500 B.C. some homes of Egyptian aristocrats were outfit with copper pipes that carried hot and cold water.

Upper class Egyptians bathed with soda instead of soap and used waters scented with oils and alcohols of honeysuckle, hyacinth, iris, and jasmine. The oldest known image of washing cloth was found in the tomb of Beni Hasan in ancient Egypt. It dates to around 2000 B.C. Egyptians liked fresh linen and used body ointments and skin conditioners. The Ebers Papyrus describes the treatment of skin diseases with soaplike materials made from animal fats, vegetable oils and alkaline salts.

Tooth Brushes, Shampoo and Deodorant in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians used primitive toothbrushes, or "chew sticks," made of twig with frayed ends. Remnants of these chew sticks have been found in tombs dating back to 3000 B.C. The oldest known toothpaste was awful pungent, highly abrasive stuff made from crushed pumice by Egyptian doctors around 2000 B.C.

As for deodorants, Egyptians took scented baths and applied perfumed oils and little balls of incense-scented porridge into their underarms. The also discover that the removal of underarm hair decreased the odor.

Egyptians washed their hair with a mixture of water and citrus juice, sometimes mixed with soap. They freshened their breath with natron, naturally occurring sodium carbonate. A bronze razor were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Manicurists were members of the elite.

Sex in Ancient Egypt

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Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Lettuce has been described a the Viagra of the Egyptian era. The sexual genitalia of animals was believed to promote youth and sexual vigor. Body paste and facial creams were made of calf penises and vulvas.

Men and women shown embracing on tomb murals and the like were regarded as married or having sexual relations and there was an understanding their erotic life would continue in the afterlife.

The ancient Egyptians performed circumcisions and had an initial ritual after it was done and had erotic dancing. There are some references to fetishism and masochism in Egyptian writings. Nose kissing appears to have been popular. In some reliefs Ramses II is pictured with a big dick and strong erection.

To keep from having babies, Egyptian women were advised to inset a mixture of honey and crocodile dung in their vagina. The honey may have acted as a temporary cervical cap but the most effective agent was acid in the dung that acted as the world's first spermicide.

Methods of birth control mentioned in the Petri Papyrus (1850 B.C.) and Eber Papyrus (1550 B.C.) included coitus interruptus and coitus obstructus (ejaculating into a bladder inserted in a depression at the base of urethra).

Ancient Egyptian Gods and Sex

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Nut was the sky-goddess. She was the great mother who held up the canopy of the sky. From her breast poured the Milky Way. In one tomb painting she is shown with her legs spread and her lover Geb, with an erect penis, reaching for her. Pharaohs often claimed to be the offspring of Nut and Geb, or as Pepi II put it from "between the thighs of Nut."

Min, the god of sexual fertility, appeared in both human form and as an erect phallus. It was no surprise that he was worshiped by a fetish cult similar to one that honored Dionysus (Bacchus) in Greece. Geb was the Earth god. He is sometimes depicted with an erect penis and was sometimes represented by a crocodile.

According to legend Osiris was originally a local fertility god in southern Egypt. He was slain by his evil brother Seth and had his body parts scattered all over the world. In one version of the story his body was torn into 14 pieces and all of them were found except one piece---Osiris’s penis.

Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt

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Nianhkhnum and Khnumhotep
There are few references to homosexuality in Egyptian writing and art. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead there is one passage in which a deceased man said he had sex with a boy. There are some reference to homosexuality in myths of certain gods, with the suggestion it was not normal and certainly was not as accepted as it was in ancient Greece.

In 1964, an unusual image of two men embracing in a tomb for two men---Nianhkhnum and Khnumhotep---was found in the necropolis of Saqqara. Most scholars think the two men were twins. Some think they may have been Siamese twins. Others think they were gay. Evidence for the latter includes the fact that it was rare for men to be buried like this (most individuals were buried with the spouses and families) and other scenes show them holding hands and nose-kissing.

Nianhkhnum and Khnumhotep were chief manicurists for the pharaoh---relatively high status jobs--- sometime between 2380 and 2320 B.C. Greg Reeder, an independent scholar, is one of the leading advocates of the belief they were gay. He told the New York Times that in the image in which they are embracing: “they are so close together that not only are they face to face and nose to nose, but so sloe that the knots of their belts are touching, linking their lower torsos. If fthis scene were composed of a male-female couple instead of the same-sex couple we have her there would be little question concerning what it is we are seeing.”

John Baines at Oxford University thinks the twin explanation is best. He told the New York Times, “The gay-couple idea is essentially derived from imposing modern pre-occupations on ancient materials and not attending to the cultural context.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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