The clothes worn by most Egyptian people were made from linen from the flax plant, a fabric that is cool and comfortable to wear. The quality of the linen ranged from an almost see through woven fabric for the rich – to a coarse cloth worn by the peasants. From studies of clothing styles depicted on wall decorations, sculptures and fabric found in graves, clothing clearly played an important role as a status symbol. The richer the person, the more elaborate and expensive their clothing and adornment.
Ancient Egyptian fashions were simple with men wearing a piece of linen wrapped around their waists like a kilt or loincloth and women donning a dress with straps or plain sheath wrapped around her body. Other types of everyday clothing included underwear, cloaks, sleeves, shawls and kerchiefs.
Most people wore plain linen, decorated by pleating, as only the rich could afford brightly coloured cloth. Both sexes sometimes wore cloaks of thick material depending on the weather.
Labourers mainly wore linen loincloths or nothing at all, or if they were clad, the clothes were plain and undecorated. Most pre-pubescent children wore no clothes and had their heads shaved, except for a long plait on the side of their head, which was called ‘the lock of youth’.
The working classes like the serving girls, musicians and prostitutes for instance, did not wear a lot of clothes. They compensated for the lack of adornment by tattooing their bodies. The prostitutes especially did this. They had the image of the god Bes tattooed on their thighs. Bes was portrayed as a grotesque dwarf and was regarded as a protective spirit who averted evil.
Dresses worn by dancers and prostitutes were made from bead-net decorated with semiprecious stones and beads. Bead-net dresses were also worn by respectable ladies, but only over their everyday dresses. Beautifully decorated bead-nets with ankh symbols, the hieroglyphic sign meaning life, and djed pillars were placed over mummies. The djed hieroglyph means stability and is regarded as the backbone of Osiris, the god of the Underworld.
Professional mourners wore special clothing. These ladies lamented with bare breasts and dust on their heads and no wigs. The normal kilt was lowered and draped around the waist to expose the breasts.
Linen cloth excavated by Sir Flinders Pertie at Tarkhan, dating Dynasty 1.
The North wall of the Egyptian Room in the Iziko Slave Lodge. From studies of wall decoration clothing style clearly played an important role as a status symbol.