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28 October 2014

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Autumn, embroidered panel, 4th century
Autumn, embroidered panel, 4th century

Dress like an Egyptian

In our fashion-led times, you could be fooled into thinking that we’re the first to wear slogans, bright colours and thrift chic, but a new exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery shows that the ancient Egyptians were doing it millennia ago.

Clothing Culture

  • Clothing Culture: Dress in Egypt in the First Millennium AD is at the Whitworth Art Gallery from 20 May to 10 Sept
  • Entry is free

We asked the exhibition's curator, Frances Pritchard, to talk us through the street style of the first millennium.

Why is first millennium Egyptian clothing so interesting?

"The construction of garments was radically different to that of today. Clothing was woven-to-shape, rather than cut from cloth and then stitched, and in order to do this, they had very wide looms.

Frances Pritchard
Frances Pritchard

"This method of making clothes prevailed in the Mediterranean region for more than 1000 years but from the seventh century, there was a growing tendency to shape clothes by adding inserts, varying the neckline and length of sleeves and employing intricate stitching.

"The clothes that are preserved provide a tangible link with the people of the past and bring them more vividly alive. The colours are often so bright and varied that it is almost impossible to believe that they were made so long ago."

Were the ancient Egyptians stylish people?

Detail of embroidered clavus, Egypt, c.9th century
Detail of embroidered clavus, Egypt, c.9th century

"The people in Egypt had a very distinctive style of dress, though it was quite similar to other regions in the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the garments were unisex, although the length of tunics differed according to whether a person was male or female.

"Women tended to wear far more colourful clothes, especially up to the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 642. Jewellery was also very important and necklaces, bracelets, earrings and finger-rings helped embellish clothing that was very slow to change, except in subtle ways."

Obviously, the dignitaries were well dressed in the period, but what was the average Egyptian wearing?

"Under Arab control, woven panels decorated with religious scenes from the Bible were often applied to tunics, rather like a slogan on a T-shirt."
Frances explains how the Egyptians had their own style of logo culture

"The ordinary people wore similar garments but they were made from cheaper and coarser fabrics. The decoration was less fine and less expensive colours were worn. Second-hand clothing was commonplace and cloth was recycled. Many clothes were darned and a child’s tunic in the exhibition is so extensively repaired that scarcely any of the original fabric is visible."

How did they move clothing on?

"Clothing is always evolving and this is often due to outside influences. At the beginning of the seventh century, Egypt was governed by Persians, who wore a very different style of clothes. They included linen shirts, long-sleeved cashmere coats and highly patterned leggings all trimmed with edgings of silk and this exotic style of dress had a big impact on native garments.

"Slightly later, under Arab influence, there was an increasing use of needlework and embroidery to embellish clothes. Plain fabrics were supplanted by bold coloured stripes and silk was more widely available with Alexandria becoming an important centre for silk weaving."

Before the Arabs conquered Egypt, there was a period of Christianity. What effect did that have on clothes?

Child's tailored wool tunic, Egypt, c.9th century
Child's tailored wool tunic, Egypt, c.9th century

"Tunics were decorated with tapestry-woven patterns. In the third and fourth century, these patterns were often geometric. With the spread of Christianity in the fourth century and its acceptance as the official religion, crosses began to appear as decorative motifs on clothing. They were usually positioned on the shoulder or at the centre front of the neckline.

"Popular motifs, such as vine leaves, were more ambiguous as they were also associated with Dionysus, the god of wine, who was widely revered and worshipped in Egypt, where many people of Hellenistic descent had settled going back to the time of Alexander the Great.

"Later, when Egypt was under Arab control, separately woven panels decorated with religious scenes from the Bible were often applied to tunics, rather like a slogan on a T-shirt."

Why does the Whitworth have such a good collection of the clothing?

"When the Whitworth first opened in 1890, there was great public interest in Egypt and textiles from a cemetery at Akhmim beside the river Nile were among the earliest textiles acquired for the collection.

"This was followed by a gift in 1897 of a large number of complete garments from W. M. Flinders Petrie, who is often known as the Father of Egyptology. He was the first Professor of Egyptology in this country (at University College London) and did much to popularise the subject at the time by undertaking lecture tours."

last updated: 27/06/06
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