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First published: October 2000

Beauty and Fashion in Ancient Egypt

by Michael Sones

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What was it like to be an Ancient Egyptian woman? Did she worry about how she looked, about her weight, about the first appearance of wrinkles on her skin? Did she diet and compare her figure with her friends? Was she bothered about bad breath and stretch marks? Although her life predates modern women's by some thousands of years, it would seem that her preoccupations were very similar to our own.

For example, historical research has uncovered ancient Egyptian formulae for many conditions of which the removal of stretch marks (particularly after pregnancy), the reduction of wrinkling, or the diminishing of scarring are only a few. Men, too, seem to have been concerned with their appearances, and there were also in circulation at that time recipes for facilitating hair growth and getting rid of bald spots.

Beauty and self-confidence were important to the ancient Egyptians. Art depicts men as slim, broad shouldered and muscular. Women are depicted as having rounded busts with small waists and flat stomachs. They hold themselves elegantly and wear fine clothing with luxurious hair (often wigs) and jewellry.

The well-known adage "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" would have made sense to an ancient Egyptian woman, for good hygiene provided a solid foundation upon which beautifying rituals rested. A body that was not clean and from which unpleasant body odours emanated was very undesirable and associated with impurity. Women who could afford it would have made a cleansing paste out of water combined with Natron, a compound which occurs naturally in sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate. Once she had washed , she would rub oils into her skin, possibly fragranced with frankincense or myrrh. Even a poorer woman would be supplied with oils as part of her wages. The importance of oiling the skin may in part be due not only to the particular skin qualities of Egyptian women but also to the fact that they lived in such a hot, arid climate. While soap can be traced back to 2800 BC and the Babylonian empire, the Egyptians were bathing regularly with soap made from animal and vegetable oils and salt by 1500 BC.

Egyptian women loved to adorn themselves with make-up: ochres made of iron oxides, commonly found in Egypt provided rouge while malachite, a copper ore, was the basis of a green cosmetic used to adorn to eye, and the colour of which symbolized fertility. Dark grey eye paint was also used and this was a derivative of a lead ore called Galena. Eye make-up also had magical and medicinal purposes; Galena not only protected its wearer from the "Evil Eye" but it also contained disinfectant and deterred flies. Further information on Egyptian cosmetics can be found on this site at at COSMETICS, STYLES & BEAUTY CONCEPTS IN IRAN by Massoume Price. This is an interesting historical overview of cosmetics and beauty concepts in the ancient Middle East with particular reference to Persia (Iran). The article has some very good photos of ancient statues revealing hairstyles from 3000 BC.

Women attended not only to their bodies but also to their clothes; examples of women being massaged with oils and dressed in fine linens, and garlanded with flowers are commonly depicted in the art of the time. In their graves we find combs and hairpins. They thought thick hair was best and used hair extensions and wigs. They even dyed their hair and wigs a variety of colours with blues, greens, blondes and gold colours being the preferred colours.

For the average Egyptian woman life was short. Many girls became brides around the age of thirteen to young men who were often only a few years older. As sons would later take on the important responsibility for funerary preparations, securing comfort for deceased family members in the afterlife, they were highly desired. As well, having many children was a sign of status, so that childbearing was considered to be a very important function of wedlock. Sadly, many mother and their babies died during childbirth or shortly thereafter, so that it was common for many young women to die before their 21st birthday. A middle class woman, on the other hand, who led a much more comfortable and well-nourished life, might live to the grand old age of thirty-five.

Anch-es-AumunThis illustration is part of an ivory chest which is about 3 1/2 thousand years old. It is decorated in a carved relief of a garden promenade of Tutankhamen and his wife Anch-es-Amun. Her body is slim and attractive. Egyptian women were often shaved entirely and their pleated skirts were worn wide open in front to reveal this! (This photo is copyright Winifred Cichon and used with permission. More on beauty and art can be found at her website The Ideal Beauty of the Human Body in Art. )

The civilisation of Ancient Egypt, in which women had a relatively high status, was to become one of the most widely known and influential civilisations of the ancient world. Early Egyptian fashion was simple and elegant. Men wore kilts, which were tied at the waist and were knee-length. Woman wore close-fitting kalasaris, which flowed from their breasts down to their feet. These clothes were made of linen, the threads of which were formed from flax fibres, a by-product of local agriculture. Being light, airy and cool, linen was ideal in such a hot climate.

Over time the fashion changed; costumes and clothes became more complex and decorated. In the New Kingdom , for example, pleats and fringes in clothes were bountiful in men's and women's fashions. Over their kilts men wore long, pleated skirts, with a pleated apron, decorated with a fringed sash. Linen tunics, with pleated sleeves, also became a part of their wardrobe. Women's' clothing remained very form-fitting, but now, over their long skirts they worn fringed robes with many pleats that were wrapped around their waists and pulled up over their shoulders, and then secured under their breasts with a knot.

 

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Common people kept their own hair, but it was a sign of wealth and status to have your head shaved and to wear a wig instead. The wigs themselves were made of a combination of layers of human hairs and vegetable fibres. Each wig had about 300 strands which were then looped and waxed around the inner wig netting at very high temperatures. This guaranteed that even an unusually high seasonal temperature would not be able to begin a melting process that would ruin the wig! It was also believed that a woman's wig could enhance her sexuality. Men also wore wigs, which although smaller than a woman's were often more complex in design. Wigs might be dyed blue, red or black and were often scented with perfume. They were worn especially at festive or social gatherings, such as banquets. Here, guests arrived to be showered with garlands and then to be treated to a sumptuous feast for all the senses. As well as plenty of good food, there was musical accompaniment, often provided by slim, scantily-clad young women who played the lute or harp or flute. There were also entertainers who danced and sang. It was fashionable among these entertainers to be tattooed and this form of body art could often be found on breasts, thighs, arms, torsos, chins and even noses. Tattooing was thought to be somewhat erotic and hence was often also popular with prostitutes. The face of Bes, the dwarf god of childbirth, who also was linked to fertility and sexuality, was a popular choice of tattoo art.

Queen Nefertiti
Queen Nefertiti
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