If we look at the scenes on the walls of Egypt’s elite tombs, we see the tomb owner and his family wearing gleaming white garments. Men wear either kilts or full-length robes with sleeves; women often wear dresses so tight it would have been very difficult to walk.
Both men and women are seen wearing sandals, jewellery, cosmetics and wigs. Children are often shown naked, with a distinctive ponytail or ‘sidelock’ on an otherwise shaved head.
Archaeology paints a slightly different picture, however. The garments recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb show that rich Egyptians enjoyed colourful clothing, decorated with embroidery, appliqué and beading. Garments recovered from less prestigious burials suggest many people wore the equivalent of the djellaba [a traditional long, loose-fitting unisex outer robe with full sleeves] worn in Egypt today.
Clothing was made from linen and, as fabric was extremely valuable, garments were mended, patched and handed on from wearer to wearer. Sandals were made from leather or reeds, while loincloths might be made of leather.
Dr Joyce Tyldesley is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, where she writes and teaches a number of Egyptology courses.
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