Ancient Egyptian fashion I Curator’s Corner Season 5 Episode 3


You might know how to ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ but do you know how to dress like an Egyptian? Hi my name is Amandine Merat I’m an Egyptologist and an expert in ancient Egyptian textiles and welcome to my corner! So today if I tell you ‘Ancient Egypt’ you will tell me ‘Ohh, sculpture from pharaohs temples or maybe ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ – The Bangles (1986) Well I’m going to introduce you to another period of Egyptian history and also another kind of material. Today we are going to say dress like an Egyptian and we’re going to talk about textiles in ancient Egypt from the 7th century to the 15th century AD. Egypt has a long tradition in textile production which dates back to the first millennium BC. Where in other parts of the world textiles haven’t survived thanks to Egypt’s dry climate textiles survive in abundance. Today the British Museum collection of ancient Egyptian textiles comprises around 500 textiles from the first millennium AD roughly. They mainly come from excavations lead at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. They come from graves because from the 2nd century onwards Egyptians stopped mummifying their dead instead burying them in their daily clothes wrapped into furnishing textiles. So the textiles we’ll look at today are both clothing items and furnishing textiles. So this one here is a fragment of a shawl or a furnishing textile it’s difficult to tell. It has been woven in linen the main fibre used in Egypt since 4th millennium BC. As you can see it is decorated with a band here which has been woven with tapestry but this time not in wool as was mostly the case during the so-called coptic period but in silk. This is possible after the Arab conquest because Arabs controlled the silk road and so this makes silk more easily accessible in Egypt. It shows some birds and quadrupeds in vegetal interlacing. This iconography comes back from the classical imagery imported by the Greeks during the arrival of Alexander the Great during the third century BC. However this piece dates to the 7th or 8th century AD and shows the continuation of imagery and iconography throughout the centuries in Egypt. So this piece shows a transition which will continue for example with this piece later on. So this textile has 4 edges preserved They have been sewn underneath and the shape indicates that this is a sleeve of a tunic. What is interesting here is that we can find the same iconography here that we found here which means the vegetal interlacing and medallions which are housing some animal motifs here very much stylized. This inscription doesn’t read anything it’s a pseudo-inscription a pseudo-kufic inscription which is an Arabic script. Such garments bearing such inscriptions are called tiraz. And ‘tiraz’ comes from the Persian word meaning embroidery. and tiraz was used to describe both the clothes produced at the time and also the workshops where they were produced. At first tiraz were easily identifiable because of their inscriptions. So the inscriptions was either naming the kalif or quoting the Qur’an. Later on, especially from the 9-10th century AD tiraz were also just identifiable by these pseudo-inscription lines and they could also be not only embroidered but woven in tapestry like this one. Tiraz were produced to decorate furnishing textiles or garments They were mostly found tunics on the sleeves. And at the time the main item of clothing for men, women and kids alike was the tunic And the tunic could be of two types at this time it could be either the traditional tunic which was adopted after the Roman fashion from the second century AD which is a tunic which was woven in one piece in a T shape folded and sewn along the edges or it could be a tunic which was imported from the 7th century AD after the Arab conquest from eastern countries. And this tunic was made of several pieces of clothe sewn together. So to imagine how this was worn if you look at my jacket for example this part would be that part and this would come up to here and these two ends would be sewn along the edge here. So we are now looking at textiles from the Mamluk period which is roughly 13th century to mid-16th century. So I have 3 textiles in front of me and I’m sure you can already notice some differences from the ones we just had a look at. The main difference with the Mamluk is their taste for geometric decoration and that’s why at this time the main decoration consists of geometric motifs. So for example you can see on this textile tiny, tiny triangle motifs. This textile is a pillow case and it was found in a grave as we can… notice through the stains coming from the humor of the body. Geometric decoration can be found on furnishing textiles but also on clothing items. So in front of me is another example of a sleeve of a tunic This tunic is probably of the type 2 that we described earlier because under the Mamluk’s type 1 is slowly but surely abandoned and men, women and kids only wore tunics made of several pieces of clothe cut and sewn together. But then you will tell me: ‘But hang on, here there is some patterns????’ ‘AND IT’S NOT ONLY GEOMETRIC!’ This is true because under the Mamluk’s one of the most important signs of high rank in society became the blazon. So a blazon is basically a kind of logo for an amir or a prince. For example this blazon has been woven in cotton one of the most used fibres under the Mamluks and it was made to decorate a tent of an amir and it is decorated with a cup and this cup helps us to know that this amir was the ‘cup bearer’ at court which was a very, very high duty under the Mamluks. Thanks for watching my little introduction on fashion in Egypt and textile production. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you’re going to look for these textiles in museums now. If you want to see more Curator’s Corners you can find them here.

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