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Ancient Egypt


Russell, Douglas Costume History and Style; Chapter 2 pp.11-27


          When we look at Egyptian art for information about Egyptian dress, one immediately tends to assume that the lines of the clothing are ex≠tremely distorted by the formal angularity and symmetry emphasized by the artist. But the more we study the information on clothing, the more we are forced to realize that, as in all cultures, the people will always attempt to look as much like the stylistic elements stressed in their art as possible. Women today may not look exactly like the elongated, hat-rack fashion figures drawn in newspapers and magazines, but they do all in their power to achieve a close approximation. The same was true in ancient Egypt. Look, for example, at a bas-relief of funeral ceremonies from the XIX Dynasty now in the Archaeological Museum in Florence. The figures have a flat, side-view angularity in position and dress that would lead the viewer to think that all the items of cloth≠ing as well as the bodies are distorted for effect; but when we realize that these angular clothing lines were actually possible through the use of starched and pleated linen, we begin to un≠derstand what effort the human spirit will make to look like the human form created in the arts of a particular culture. The same is true of the suggested transparency in certain tunics, particularly for women. We know that the linen was woven into such a thin, transparent texture that the body was glimpsed as through a pleated veil-a weaving technique unequaled to this day. Such pleated tunics and skirts fell into fine lines which not only emphasized the cut of the garment but also clung to the body in fluid, pleated lines. In Egyptian fashions as in all fashion since, life reflects art more than art reflects life.




          Egyptian clothing, as with all its other Egyptian arts, was calculated to demonstrate manís triumph over nature, and it was this need to reaffirm human beingsí dominance over the natural and animal world and to secure a continuity of culture and civilization that produced the angularity, severity, and often-unnatural textures, lines, and forms of Egyptian fashion. Nothing was more symbolic of this attitude than the removable beard of the pharaoh. Normally all Egyptian men were totally clean-shaven as a statement of their rise to civilization out of a lower, natural, animal existence, but the pharaoh (shown with an animalís powerful body in the Great Sphinx) had the power to add and remove the beard, as a symbol of animal power, at any time that he ceremonially chose to do so. The same was true with the heavy use of cosmetics by women; through this means the noble woman was able to demonstrate her civilized rise above and beyond that of a human tribal animal. Even the bleached linen worn on the body represented the ability of humans to remove fabric woven from flax from its natural color and to make it even more abstract by the use of starching and pleating.


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