A History of Costume in Egypt

Fom ancient Egypt to the 20th century


Issue 11

Artwork: Muhammad Mustafa

Traditional Egyptian dress through the ages, from ancient Egypt to the 20th century.

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After the ancient Egyptian weavers invented the basic loom and mastered the skill of spinning and weaving flax plant fibres, they soon became adept at producing ultra-fine linen fabrics that they used for almost all their clothing. Men would normally wear a loincloth—on its own or underneath a basic kilt wrapped around their waist— adding extra details and accessories to embellish their outfits depending on what they could afford and the image they wanted to project. Women would wear unsewn wrap-around dresses that sometimes came with detachable straps tucked in at the top over the shoulders. Old Kingdom dress is usually identified by its relative simplicity. The man and woman depicted in these illustrations would have been well-to-do, which we can tell by the details of their clothing. In addition to the jewellery they are wearing, the man’s kilt is partially pleated (a task usually undertaken by servants) and is held together by an enamelled gold belt with strings of hanging beads. The woman’s dress also has beaded details sewn on the linen straps, and she wears a choker necklace typical of that period. Most people are depicted barefoot. Sandals were expensive and weren’t part of everyday wear. They were only worn on special occasions, or if one was expected to walk through harsh terrain—like soldiers, for instance.

The finest linens were reserved for royalty and the wealthy, while the thicker grades were sold at affordable prices to the poor. Since flax linen was particularly difficult to dye, fabrics were always plain, except for occasional coloured borders, and provided a backdrop for magnificent jewellery and beadwork details. Wigs were another important element of adornment and were typically worn very short in the Old Kingdom.

During the Middle Kingdom, kilt length became a signifier of status, particularly among high officials and wealthy men of prominence. Women, on the other hand, showed wealth by enveloping themselves in more layers of cloth, donning high quality wigs, and accessorizing with fine jewellery (something the men did as well). The Middle Kingdom generally saw a continuation of the fashions of the previous period except for one particular garment that became especially popular: the V-necked, pleated dress with sleeves, where the fine linen is carefully and meticulously pressed into hundreds of thin folds after every wash to create a tightly pleated effect. The complicated and time- consuming process was repeated every time the garment was washed. This type of sleeved dress gradually disappears from the archaeological record in later periods. Several examples survive, however, and they show us how extremely intricate—and cumbersome—this technique was, which may explain why it was short-lived.

There were certainly innovations in dress such as the pleated dress and the many different beading patterns, but there is no evidence to suggest that short-term fashion trends as we know them today existed. Basic garments usually remained the same for centuries, if not for millennia, and there was no ancient Egyptian equivalent to the spring and autumn collections launched today on glitzy catwalks.


From the untailored, wrap-around clothes of the Old Kingdom, we move on to a new phase of sewn garments of which the square ‘bag’ tunic is the big innovation. Larger, two-person looms allowed weavers to make wide pieces of cloths that precipitated dramatic changes in fashion, for the wealthy at least. The poor most likely continued to wear simple wrapped and tucked garments for longer. Sewn tunics were combined with sashes, shawls, and other wraps and were worn by both sexes. Men wore them as a sort of undergarment combined with other elements (a sash and apron, normally), and the women would frequently wear them either on their own or as part of a complex outfit. In it, the female tunic would be covered by a kind of outer garment like a cloak or shawl carefully draped and tied to create multiple fold lines, which we see frequently in New Kingdom art. As our knowledge of ancient Egyptian clothing comes from highly stylized sculptures and two- dimensional depictions together with unstructured surviving garments, it is challenging to ascertain exactly how the elaborate and varied outfits were worn. Through experimentation and reconstruction, however, specialists have identified how the multiple elements of a New Kingdom outfit were fashioned. Sashes, a crucial element in these complex outfits, were no longer narrow and plain as they were in the Old Kingdom; they were now more ornate and longer in length to hold the garment together. Hair fashion also changed, and wigs grew longer, larger, and much more elaborate for females, while those for males were also longer but more formal.

Colour was more commonly used during this period among the wealthy. Cloaks and shawls were dyed for the first time (as far as we know), and we begin to see depictions of women wearing pale pink, yellow, and blue outer garments. The majority of clothes remained white, however, and as ever, were considered a backdrop for jewellery. Sandals (as well as ‘open’ shoes) were worn at almost all levels of society. Evidence shows that they were made from a variety of materials such as grass, leaves, leaf sheaths of the date palm, and leather. Naturally, there were differences between the sandals of the rich and those of the common people, mostly in the level of craftsmanship. The finer examples were made in multiple colours such as red, green, and blue and were intricately decorated with fine details.

A nostalgic classical revival movement took place in the final years of the Late Period in a last attempt to rekindle the ancient glory of the Old Kingdom and the age of the great pyramid builders. During this period of national resurgence, we find some of the older—by then archaic—fashions making a comeback. This last gasp of ancient Egyptian rule ended with Dynasty 30, after which Egypt briefly fell under the rule of the Achaemenid Persians, before becoming part of the Hellenistic world under Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies (who ruled from Egypt and portrayed themselves as Egyptian Pharaohs). Foreign influences increased with time, particularly in the larger cities and urban centres where most of the changes in visual and material culture would take place over the coming millennia.



Almost 300 years before the arrival of Alexander the Great, Greeks began to settle in Egypt for trade, but it was only after the establishment of the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305 BCE), with its capital in Alexandria, that a massive influx of settlers from different regions of Greece and the Greek-speaking world came to Egypt.

We don’t have much evidence to tell us how the inhabitants of Egypt dressed during the Ptolemaic Period and almost nothing that shows everyday dress. Using the little information we do have, however, we can form an idea about how a street scene in Egypt might have looked at the time. The degree of ‘Hellenization’ of the local population varied from region to region, but it was more pronounced in larger urban centres. It is still safe to assume, however, that the majority of Egyptians continued to wear the linen ‘bag’ tunics of their ancestors, while the new Greek inhabitants dressed according to the fashion of their homeland. Basic Greek dress comprised a tunic or chiton of linen—long for women, shorter for men—worn under a mantle made of wool: either a draped, large and rectangular himation, or only for men, a short, pinned-at-the-shoulder chlamys, also rectangular in shape but curved at one edge. Their dress was colourful and was draped and assembled with various brooches (fibulae), which were sometimes also partially sewn on. It was sleeveless, but to cover the arms one could make ‘false’ sleeves fastened at intervals down the arm.

Upon the death of Cleopatra VII, Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire. The principal element of clothing introduced at this time was a wool tunic made of two rectangular pieces of fabric sewn together. Such a tunic would either leave the arms uncovered or cover the arms to the elbow. Roman tunics were very often decorated with two narrow clavi (stripes), which ran down the front and back from the shoulders to the hem. The clavi are often of a colour imitating purple (the imperial colour), but other colours were possible, too. White was the prevalent colour for men, while women continued to wear coloured garments. The toga was the formal dress of the Roman citizen, while the plebeians (those who did not belong to the higher social orders) wore short, knee-length tunics with elbow-length sleeves.

Towards the end of the second century, probably in the Near East first, then in Egypt and elsewhere, the method of making tunics changed. In addition to sleeveless tunics, the inhabitants of Egypt started to wear tunics woven ‘in shape’ in a single piece with ‘true’ sleeves using a special large loom. These tunics were first made of linen but soon also of wool. Typical Roman-era dress is depicted in the famed ‘Fayyum’ portraits, which help us also understand the hairstyles and jewellery of the time. Following the Byzantine Period, human depiction became rarer in art, and we are left with little clear visual evidence of Egyptian costume for almost a millennium.

With input from Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert.


Features of Hellenistic culture remained apparent after the Roman conquest of Egypt. Along with ancient Egyptian culture, all three civilizations continued to interact until Christianity spread widely in Egypt, becoming the main source of identity and permeating every aspect of society. This fusion of Christian and Classical influences created a unique material culture that was, among many other aspects, manifested in people’s dress.

Garments became much more colourful and ornate for both sexes. In spite of religious rhetoric condemning self-adornment and overuse of colour and embroidery, people still seem to have enjoyed wearing fine clothes in rich hues and adorning themselves in sumptuous jewellery. Although they were instructed to cover their hair outdoors, women wore it in elaborate hairdos with ringlets, often adding artificial hairpieces to mirror the fashions of the day.

From the third to the seventh centuries CE, clothing underwent a gradual evolution from the Roman to the Byzantine style (a period also referred to as the ‘Coptic’ Period). Tunics woven to shape were wider, with broader clavi, and were often decorated with geometric, floral, or figural motifs in tapestry weave. Round and square embellishments on the shoulders and near the lower hemline were also common. Thin, narrow sleeves would fit tightly over the lower arm, pushing up the excess fabric to the shoulder area to create a bouffant effect and show off the embellishments. A thin belt held the folds of the garment in place.

It was through these ornaments and decorations that people expressed themselves, giving us clues about their beliefs as well as what they found fashionable. In the first centuries CE, pagan iconography from Classical mythology (deities such as Herakles, Dionysus, and others) prevailed, even among Christians. After the third century CE, and even more so after the fifth, we begin to see a gradual increase in Christian imagery through motifs such as crosses, fish, flowers, birds, and Old Testament biblical scenes.

For centuries after the Arab conquest in 641 CE, Egyptians continued to dress in Coptic-style tunics. New embroidery designs were introduced, and we also find hunting and horse-riding scenes (‘Sassanian’ imagery popular in the early Islamic world) on roundels that decorated tunics. It is likely that these fashions were introduced to Egypt through trade. The luxurious silks and cashmeres circulating during the Umayyad and Abbasid Periods would have appealed to the local elite. However, we have no knowledge to indicate that society was stratified religiously based on costume, and clothing continued to be used primarily as a means of social rather than cultural differentiation.

Byzantine-style dress gradually disappeared by the tenth century CE as a growing urban middle class dressed in new fashions more in keeping with Islamic customs. The famed textile weaving centres—Alexandria (silk and linen), Damietta (fine linen or sharb), and Tinnis (today’s Manzala, known for dyed linens, brocades, and the newly introduced tiraz)—produced luxurious textiles that were coveted around the medieval world, from the castles of Europe to the Abbasid court of Baghdad and as far away as India. Over the coming centuries, Egypt would gradually rise to prominence as a centre of excellence for textile production.


In the early Islamic Period, under the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the way Egyptians dressed did not change significantly. Coptic or Byzantine-era fashions continued to develop until the Fatimid Period, when larger transformations took place. Arab styles such as loose robes worn in layers became common, and in the tenth century, we start to see the first depictions of men wearing elaborate turbans and of women with simple, Islamic-style veils in contrast to the richly decorated headdresses of the Byzantines. It is also around this time that we begin to see a galabiyya-like garment with a long front neck opening and straight sleeves.

In 1171, the last Fatimid caliph died and the Ayyubids took control of Egypt. In 1250, the Mamluks—Ayyubid slave soldiers—gained enough power to establish their own dynasty and ruled over Egypt and Syria for over two centuries. Cairo, the capital of their empire, became the centre of Islamic civilization and a metropolis for merchants and travellers.

The Mamluks were famously extravagant and known for expressing their power through dress. Chroniclers describe lavish silk robes embroidered with gold thread, pearls, and precious stones. Seasonal dress included fine white linens in summer and winter clothes made of expensive wool or fur-lined silks in vibrant colours. To emphasize their power and majesty, the sultans organized lavish ceremonies to dazzle both their Egyptian subjects and visiting dignitaries. The most important dress item, however, was the turban. Sometimes described as a ‘small tower’, the size, shape, and fabric quality and quantity of the turban were all signs of status and wealth. The colour of the turban also indicated the faith of an individual. Muslims wore white turbans, Christians blue, and Jews yellow. Following the tradition of the Abbasid Caliphate, the sultan’s turban was black.

The taste of the ruling class seems to have inspired local fashions in many ways. Silk production and export flourished, and excess was the order of the day. Several accounts mention Mamluk women wearing silk tunics with flowing sleeves that were so long they warranted the issuance of royal decrees requiring them to be shortened. Decrees were also issued for men guilty of similar sartorial overindulgence, especially when the size of their turbans reached ridiculous proportions.

The basic components of a Mamluk-era costume included a thob (a gown, usually with long sleeves), a qamis (an undershirt), a sirwal (trousers, also used as an undergarment) worn by both sexes, along with a turban for men or a veil for women. Outdoors, women enveloped themselves in an izar (a large, rectangular cloth wrap), which would have completely covered their figures. Men wore a qiba’a (an outer coat) sometimes decorated with inscribed, gold-embroidered armbands called tiraz.

Although the material and visual evidence that remain are limited, written accounts from the period, such as travellers’ chronicles or trousseau lists, are quite informative. The man here is dressed in the attire of the early Mamluk military aristocracy, while the woman wears an everyday costume of the late Mamluk Period.

With input from Maria Sardi and Shireen Ellinger

THE OTTOMAN ERA (1517–1860s)

In 1516, the Mamluks were defeated by the Ottomans in a series of violent events that brought the extravagant dynasty to an end. The Mamluks continued to hold power in Egypt as administrators under the Ottoman pasha, but mutual distrust prevailed. At first, they were forbidden from wearing Ottoman dress, but in 1521, this edict was reversed, and they were ordered to dress in Ottoman fashion with tapered sleeves and shaved beards. Chroniclers of the day do not give a clear reason for the reversal, but it was likely meant to reduce tension between the two factions who were reportedly in constant, bloody rivalry.

Egypt was a profitable province for the burgeoning Ottoman Empire, providing plentiful agricultural produce and rich taxes. Cairo was the largest Ottoman city after Istanbul and left travellers impressed by its size and heterogeneity. Inhabitants included Turks, North Africans, Syrians, Armenians, Greeks, and Abyssinians, not to mention the many travelling merchants from more distant lands. Street life was colourful and rich with diverse ethnicities, fascinating traditional costumes, and different languages heard at every corner.

Turkish became the language of government spoken by the bureaucrats and the ruling class. Eventually, wealthy urban Egyptians began to dress in the Turkish fashions of the Istanbul court. The adoption of these fashions began as early as 1547 as reported by French traveller Pierre Belon, who described the ladies of Cairo as being dressed in close-fitting, multi-layered outfits that included coats, waistcoats, baggy trousers, shirts, and sashes.

The most detailed description of (late) Ottoman-era Egyptian dress is probably that of Edward William Lane. In his book An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), he describes the dress of the women of the middle and higher orders as ‘handsome and elegant’, composed of a full shirt with wide trousers called shintyan tied around the hips with a dikkeh (drawstring or band). Over them, they would wear a long yelek,‘which is cut in such a manner as to leave half of the bosom uncovered, except by the shirt’. The outermost garment was a gibbeh, usually embroidered with gold or coloured silk. Lane also describes the dress of the men of the middle and higher classes as ‘a long vest [referring to a robe-like garment] of striped silk and cotton (called a quftan), descending to the ankles, with long sleeves extending a few inches beyond the fingers’ ends.’ The men also wore a gibbeh (less form-fitting than that of the women) on top. In cold or cool weather, they wore a black woollen ‘abayya as well.

Women continued to be completely covered outside the household, obscuring their face with a transparent veil of white muslin. The countryside was different. The fellahin (peasants), as in the preceding centuries, did not follow new fashions and continued to wear the T-shaped archetype of their forebears. The women also walked freely, unburdened by the layers of covering that urban and upper-class woman endured.

Egypt remained under Ottoman rule until the first decades of the twentieth century, but Turkish influence on dress waned with Khedive Ismail’s push for modernization in the 1860s. A new era was dawning.

THE MODERN ERA (1870s–1950s)

Egypt—and indeed the entire world—underwent a seismic shift during the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The industrial revolution swept away customs and traditions rooted in centuries and millennia, replacing them with a new consumer culture characterized by glitzy department stores, shop-lined boulevards, and public entertainment spaces, changing people’s lifestyles and bringing everyone, including Egyptian women, out of the home and into the public sphere. People started to dress to be seen, not just by their peers in the privacy of their homes, but by everyone, everywhere.

The changes came in several waves, the first from the Ottoman court itself, when Sultan Mahmud II introduced his tanzimat (reforms) between 1839 and 1876 to modernize Ottoman society. These included the introduction of various aspects of Western clothing combined with one modern element designed to replace the turban: the fez. European dress started to supplant traditional Ottoman court costume and gradually spread to other groups within society and around the empire.

In Egypt, Khedive Ismail and his family were probably the first to adopt a more Western-style dress, but regular people soon took to the changes. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, Paris began to replace Istanbul as the new trend-setting capital for the urban Egyptian.The princesses of the ruling Mohamed Ali dynasty hired French and Italian modistes to concoct frilly European dresses and ordered the latest fashions from leading Parisian department stores. Travellers visiting Egypt began noting the differences from one year to the next and lamenting the disappearance of the country’s ‘oriental’ style.

By the turn of the 19th century, the upwardly mobile urban man had donned the tarboush, an offshoot of the fez, and coupled it with a European suit to mark himself a citizen of the modern, secular society. In his memoirs of life in the mid-1920s, writer Ahmed Amin describes how he would suffer discrimination when dressed in traditional attire and how a simple change into Western dress guaranteed him respectable treatment. He recounts unpleasant experiences at hotels, the post office, and even in the first-class carriage of the tram where he was ordered back to second class along with the other turban wearers.

While these sartorial changes meant that men went from wearing loose, airy garments to tight-fitting, less comfortable ones, the changes for women were liberating. The 1919 revolution created a new space for the regular woman. For the first time, unveiled respectable women joined men on the streets. Suddenly a new space was created for the regular woman. Face veils began to shrink and then disappear altogether, short hairstyles became fashionable, and hemlines rose, albeit with plenty of accompanying social anxiety.

Rural Egyptians remained faithful to the traditional T-shaped galabiyya but began to incorporate some elements of European style. The negative attitudes that Ahmed Amin faced in the 1920s continued, with even the government indirectly joining in the anti-galabiyya propaganda in the mid-twentieth century by encouraging people to don Western dress and take their place in the rising modern nation. Today, the galabiyya thankfully survives, as does the turban, but usage diminishes with each passing generation, slowly putting an end to elements of traditional dress that were themselves fads over a thousand years ago  

This article was first published in print in Rawi's Issue 11, 2021.