Slow Fashion

Part I: Everyday Ancient Egyptian Clothing

By Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood

Our impressions of what the ancient Egyptians wore have largely been shaped by modern-day films, but are these perceptions accurate? Or was the reality much more varied and complex?

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Information about textiles and clothing in ancient Egypt comes from a variety of sources including objects found in excavations such as the worker villages at Amarna and Deir al-Medina and finds from the tombs of Kha (TT8, Thebes)

and Tutankhamun. There is also considerable information available in the form of tomb paintings, tomb models, statues, and statuettes. There are few written records concerning textiles and clothing, however. Most people were illiterate and surviving records mainly concern religion, kingship, and other ‘official’ subjects. Nevertheless, items such as temple administration records, letters associated with royal and legal courts, and simple items such as laundry lists help provide a picture of what was made and worn in ancient Egypt.

The vast majority of ancient Egyptian clothing was made out of flax, which was grown in many parts of the Delta and the Nile Valley. The whole process of flax production, from the sowing of the seeds, harvesting of the plants, spinning, and weaving can be seen in various tomb paintings, notably the tombs of Amenemhat, Khnumhotep II, and Baqet at Beni Hasan (Dynasties 11 and 12) and Daga (TT103, Dynasty 12) and Djehutynefer in Thebes (TT80, Dynasty 18). The tomb models that were popular in the Middle Kingdom also provide interesting information. They depict spinning and weaving workshops and give an indication of the various processes involved in preparing flax yarns and spinning them into threads. They also illustrate the types of looms used and how many people were involved in making a length of woven linen cloth.

Very occasionally, woollen textiles can be found, but it is not clear if these were locally produced, imported (perhaps from the Aegean), or maybe even made by nomads. There’s a common misconception that the ancient Egyptians considered wool impure and would leave woollen garments at the temple entrance before performing rituals. With the exception of a dubious mention by Herodotus, however, there is no evidence to support this theory, and it has been impossible to substantiate thus far.

A critical transformation

Based on actual finds and various tomb paintings, it is clear that the basic loom was a single-person (usually female), horizontal form that could produce cloth of up to 50 cm wide. Most lengths of woven cloth are up to about 2.5 m long, but there are longer and shorter versions depending on the intended use.

In ca. 1400 BCE, during the New Kingdom, a significant change took place with the introduction of the vertical loom, which was sometimes worked by two (male) weavers at the same time. The cloth produced on this loom could be up to about 120 cm wide. This ‘new’ cloth was to dramatically change the range of clothing worn by both men and women.

Colour as status

Flax is well known for being difficult to dye, so it is not surprising that relatively few garments in ancient Egypt were dyed. The amount of colour on a linen garment gave an indication of the wealth and status of the wearer. Colour was usually incorporated as a band down the sides and along the hem of a garment—the wider the band the higher the status of the wearer.

The two most widely used colours were red, produced from plant dyes, notably madder (Rubia tinctorum), and blue, using woad (Isatis tinctoria). There are also some textiles that appear to have been coloured yellow, but over time, the colour has more or less vanished. It is likely that safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) and/or saffron (Crocus sativus) were used.

Laundry lists

There are also tomb scenes depicting the washing of clothing, a task that fell to the men as many waterways housed crocodiles. It is likely that women were involved in washing clothes, but perhaps from the security of their own homes. The main sources of information about the laundry process come from the Beni Hasan tombs of Amenemhat (BH2) and Khnumhotep II (BH3). Men are shown washing the cloth in water, wringing it out, beating, and then stretching it out on the sand to dry before bleaching.

There are also laundry lists from the New Kingdom site of Deir al-Medina that have drawings on them depicting various recognisable garments, such as loincloths, shawls, sashes, and tunics, with one or more dots. This was meant as a visual reminder to the washer indicating how many garments they had and of what type.

Clothing in ancient Egypt

Most of the garments worn in ancient Egypt were wrap-around and made of linen. By the Middle Kingdom, sewn garments appeared, but these remained basically square or rectangular in shape. Garments seem to have been regarded as backdrops to accessories, notably beads and jewellery in all their many glorious forms.

The concept of fast fashion—changing material and clothing styles several times per year—did not exist in ancient Egypt. Instead, change in dress was gradual and could take decades (or longer!) to develop. Changes in accessories were much more significant, most notably in the styles of wigs and jewellery.

Until they were about five years old, children wore minimal clothing, if any. Young boys, for example, are often depicted wearing nothing but a large, curled lock of hair. Later in life, children would wear types of garments that were the same as parents or family members of the same sex.

Men’s clothing

The basic ‘wardrobe’ for a man consisted of a loincloth, kilt, sash, and shawl, as well as headgear and footwear of some kind. The quantity of cloth worn, the quality of the cloth used to make the garments, and the presence of colour were all indications of the status of the wearer. In addition, some men would wear make-up, perfume, jewellery, and wigs, and carry accessories such as walking sticks to project who and what they were in the social hierarchy.

Kilt – A skirt or kilt is a length of material that is wrapped around the waist, hips, and legs. Kilts are normally kept in place with a sash (made from cloth) or a belt (leather or metal) of some kind.

Loincloth – A simple, triangular garment, a loincloth is wrapped around the waist while the rest is drawn up between the legs. Loincloths were worn throughout ancient Egypt by men from all levels of society, from a man making mud bricks to the pharaoh himself. It was a versatile garment that could be worn open or closed at the front, tied at the top with a sash, worn by itself, or underneath other garments.

Another version of the loincloth that was only worn by men (including pharaohs, soldiers, sailors, and workers) was made out of a piece of leather (cow, goat, and antelope were known to have been used) which was often slit to make it more flexible and at the same time decorative.

Sashes – Technically a belt is made of leather, while a sash is made of cloth, and to date no depiction of an ancient Egyptian has been found wearing a leather belt. Instead, they wore a wide variety of sashes around their waists.

These were made of linen and often had a long fringe along the two short ends of the sash. They were wrapped around the waist and tucked into the waistband, or sometimes they were knotted and the fringed ends allowed to hang down the wearer’s kilt or other garment. Again, the width and length of the sash were used as an indication of status.

Hip wraps – An extension of the sash, the hip wrap was used in conjunction with a kilt or a gown. Once again, the wider the wrap, the higher the status of the wearer. A low-status man would have one that just covered the hips; a middle official’s hip wrap went down to his knees; while a governor’s hip wrap could come down to his ankles (making walking difficult).

Headwear – A range of headwear was worn by men in ancient Egypt. These included simple strips of cloth tied around the head to form a headband (or sweatband), large rectangular lengths of cloth draped over the head (sometimes with a headband), and more complicated cut-to-shape forms, such as the khat, which had a semi-circular shape and was made from two layers of fine cloth sewn together.

Cloaks – From the Old Kingdom onwards, men wore cloaks to protect from the cold.They were mainly made out of long lengths of cloth of varying thicknesses that were wrapped around

the shoulders and bodies, or in some cases, knotted at the shoulder. In addition, in the Old Kingdom tomb of Khufukhaf I in Giza, there are servants carrying cut-to- shape cloaks with attached ties. One of these cloaks was described in a hieroglyphic inscription as being a ‘mantle of Upper Egyptian leopard skin’, which must have been an unusual garment of high prestige that they were showing off.

Priestly clothing – This consisted of a kilt with a sash. Sem priests, who presided over mortuary rituals and funeral services, also wore a leopard skin as part of the rituals they were involved in. In general, priests had shaven heads, and although they might wear a khat (simple cloth) head covering, they are often depicted bare headed.


It is not sure whether women wore loincloths, but it is likely. What is clear is that since the Old Kingdom, they wore a variety of garments in different combinations. The earlier items of attire were mostly composed of a length of cloth wrapped around the body in some manner, but gradually more and more cut-to-shape and sewn garments were developed. These were worn in various manners and combinations with wrap- around forms. The basic garments worn by women included wrap-around garments, various types of stitched dresses, sashes, and wraps or cloaks.

Wrap-around skirts and dresses – The earliest depictions of women often show them wearing skirts of various lengths. As with men, the quantity and quality of the cloth worn indicated the status of the wearer. So, short skirts were associated with servants, while longer versions, which sometimes reached down to the ankles, were worn by women of higher status. Similarly, the number of times the length of cloth was wrapped around the body was another indication of status.

 There is also another form of dress that is related to the wrap- around skirt. These were worn from the early Old Kingdom well into the New Kingdom and were made from a long length of cloth that was wrapped around the body and tucked in at the top. Again, garment length and volume of cloth indicated the importance of the wearer.

By the Middle Kingdom, some higher status women started to wear dresses that had separate shoulder straps (much easier for washing purposes) with a wrap-around skirt that started just above the breasts or in some cases just below them. The shoulder straps could be made of cloth, but it is clear from tomb paintings and statuettes that more ornate straps made from coloured beads were also worn.

V-necked dresses – A few examples of V-necked dresses have been found from the Middle Kingdom. These were made from a bodice and sleeve combination together with a sewn skirt. These garments had long ‘V’ shapes at the front and back of the bodice.

Pleated dresses – By the end of the Old Kingdom, pleated dresses started to appear. These consisted of two sections, a bodice with sleeves and a skirt section sewn down one side. There are two types of this form of garment. The first had a pleated bodice area and skirt, the second a plain bodice with pleated skirt. Each time the garment was washed, the pleats would have had to be re-done. The use of these garments appears to have died out in the early Middle Kingdom.

 Wide dresses – With the introduction of the two-person vertical loom in ca. 1400 BCE, a new form of clothing became common, namely wide gowns, sometimes with sleeves. These dresses were often worn with a sash around the waist, and they are made out of a large rectangle of cloth folded in half at the shoulders and sewn down the side seams.

Wraps and cloaks of various types – As with the men, women wore a variety of wraps and shawls over their garments as a form of decoration and self-identification but also for warmth. The variety of styles in which these garments were worn is far wider than those worn by men. Sometimes the garments went over one shoulder, on other occasions over both. There are also versions where the cloak is kept in place with sashes. Fringes were prominent in shawls and cloaks, and sometimes deliberately long fringes (occasionally ending in beads) were made to hang in a decorative manner when worn.

Priestesses’ clothing – In general, priestesses do not appear to have worn special clothing nor were their heads deliberately shaven like their male counterparts.

But was it fashion?

The modern concept of fashion, which involves changes of style and clothing throughout the year, did not exist among the ancient Egyptians. It is likely that they would have found it a very strange concept. We shouldn’t assume, however, that their clothing and accessories remained the same throughout their lives. The forms of clothing worn by men, women, and children did change, but at a slow pace—the concept of ‘slow fashion’ is nothing new!

What people used to wear in ancient Egypt often changed as a result of a change in status, advancing age, marital status or widowhood, or in a broader context, through contacts with people from neighbouring villages or from even further away. There may also have been religious influences

that caused people to change their outfits. Some people may simply have wished to wear something different, perhaps to stand out. In that respect, little has changed over the three thousand or so years of ancient Egypt. 

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 11, 2021.


Ancient Egypt ,


Statue of Metjetji as a young man wearing a short kilt with pleated edges and a metal belt with hanging strands of coloured beads. Wood with paint. Dynasties 5–6 (ca. 2465–2150 BCE), Old Kingdom.


Statue of Metjetji. Wood and gesso with paint, copper, alabaster and obsidian. Saqqara, late Dynasty 5 (ca. 2465–2323 BCE), Old Kingdom. Metjetji here is depicted as a senior official wearing a long, starched kilt. The length of the kilt was a signifier of status. The longer it was, the more the fabric used and the wealthier the owner. The white striations on the front of the kilt are fold lines, which indicate that the cloth was folded and stacked above other textiles, meaning that the owner had more than just one or two garments. This was a further signifier of status, and the creases were therefore not ironed or straightened out but worn with pride.


Bead-net dress from the reign of Khufu. Giza, Dynasty 4 (ca. 2575–2465 BCE), Old Kingdom. This spectacular dress was painstakingly reassembled from approximately 7,000 beads found in a Dynasty 4 burial site. A few strung beads that survived in their original pattern were used as a reference. Although the colour here is slightly faded, this dress would have been originally blue and blue-green in imitation of lapis lazuli and turquoise.


Tomb relief. Dynasties 18–19 (ca. 1550–1186 BCE, New Kingdom). Colour as a symbol of wealth: This relief depicts a standing woman wearing a blue dress, an unusual colour for a full garment given how difficult it was to dye linen at the time. The large wig also is a signifier of her high status. A fragment of the inscription reads ‘[The one who] is the object of his affection, the one who is praised by ...’.


Pleated tunic. Assiut, Dynasties 5–6 (ca. 2465–2150 BCE), Old Kingdom. Pleating was popular in the Old Kingdom and began to disappear in the Middle Kingdom. Pleats were made and re-made presumably after every single wash. The style may have disappeared because of how time-consuming it was to produce and maintain.


Model of a textile weaving workshop. This is one of the most complete examples showing the full technique of textile production and comes from the tomb of the royal chief steward Meketre, Theban Necropolis, Dynasty 12 (ca. 1985–1802 BCE), Middle Kingdom.


The scale or feather design of this dress remains a mystery. No similar known garments have survived, which leads archaeologists to believe the motif may have been woven or painted on the fabric.


Light linen tunic with embellished neckline and a hem fringe. Dynasty 18 (ca. 1550–1295 BCE), New Kingdom. Plain woven ‘bag’ tunic made from a rectangular piece of cloth folded in two halves and sewn at the sides. A space would be left at the top for armholes, and a slit is cut through the centre for the head opening, which is fastened with two small strings at the sides (one of them remains in this tunic). This is an example of a full-length tunic that would extend from the shoulders to mid-calf or ankle length. It was worn by both men and women. The half tunic, worn only by men, extended to the upper thighs or knees. These tunics would be worn alone or with other garments


Ostracon with laundry list. Deir al-Medina, Ramesside, Dynasty 19 (ca. 1295–1186 BCE), New Kingdom. Clothes would be taken to the river, dipped in water then rubbed with natron or another cleaning agent, such as the saponaria officinalis plant (common soapwort), before being pounded with a wooden mallet and then rinsed. Laundry lists were either written out, or as in this example, roughly sketched. The ostracon here illustrates tunics, triangular loinclothes, and other items listed for a possibly illiterate launderer. Dots indicate how many pieces there were of each item.


Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood is the director of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden and a specialist in Middle Eastern dress and textiles. She has worked for many years as a textile archaeologist in Egypt and is the author and editor of numerous authoritative publications including Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Brill, 1993), and Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), among others.