Dress Like an Egyptian

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Level of Authenticity:  Passes the 10-foot rule.

Who/When/Where:  This was a commission for HM Queen Nasheeta of Avacal, who has an Egyptian persona.  She has narrowed her time period down to the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom period.  This encompasses two of the most famous and powerful women of Egyptian history, Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE) and Queen Nefertiti (1370-1330 BCE).  Seriously, I love Ancient Egypt so much that I would just like to dive down a rabbit hole and research everything there is to learn about this time period, but I’m going to try to cut it off here for now.

What:  This is a historically-inspired interpretation of the styles of sheath dress many Egyptian women and goddesses are pictured wearing.  Also a shout-out to my student HL Taletta of Circle Hill who made the cute Avacal-coloured crochet sandals 🙂

Why: I am always super interested in the social meanings of dress but I haven’t had an opportunity (yet) to get into this topic with Egyptian society.  Did only certain classes of women wear this style of dress?  Was this style of dress only used on certain social occasions?  Stay tuned in case I learn more >:)

As for why I made these dresses for HM, I’m always excited to try new styles especially when they are styles that traditionally have not had a lot of attention in the SCA.  I think it’s great that we are able to push our time boundaries back into antiquity and prehistory and it’s a great opportunity to promote a culture that I’ve been interested in since grade school.

How:

Project Design:  I was very fortunate with this project that my Laurel Mistress Issabbella had already done a good deal of research and thinking about how to put together an Egyptian-style dress, so I was able to use her patterning work as a jumping off point instead of starting from scratch.

There were a number of challenges to coming up with an appropriate design for an Egyptian style dress, and I’ll discuss them further below.  Most notably, many (though by no means all) Egyptian women’s dresses appear to leave the breasts bare, which rightly or wrongly is not in accordance with early 21st century ideas of modesty (me, I’d be more concerned with whether I was going to be warm enough and whether I was going to feel supported enough).  Another challenge I faced, coming from my background in Renaissance costuming, is that Egyptian art is very stylized rather than naturalistic so it’s difficult to make conjectures about the construction of Egyptian garments based on surviving art.  Finally, many Egyptian women’s garments appear to be either very intricately pleated or heavily beaded or both, and there simply wasn’t time to take on a project of that scale here.

Materials:  EJW Barber discusses the use of cotton in antiquity and prehistory at pages 32-33 of “Prehistoric Textiles”.  She doesn’t mention exact dates for Egypt but notes she believes Egypt obtained cotton from India slightly earlier than “early Classical times”.  By this I’m going to assume she means some time after the “Bronze Age Collapse” of around 1177 BCE.  Since HM Nasheeta’s persona is from a time a few hundred years before this collapse, I’m not sure I can say with confidence that she would have had access to cotton, although based on my understanding of the Mediterranean economy prior to this time (based mainly on the work of Eric Cline in “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed”)  if there were exotic trade goods to be had in this time, a queen would have had greater access to them than an ordinary citizen.

There is a lengthy section in “Prehistoric Textiles” talking about ways that textiles were embellished during the Eighteenth Dynasty with techniques including tapestry, embroidery, and painting (Barber, 159).  By Roman times, Pliny could describe Egyptians producing multicolored or patterned fabric by putting several different colorless chemicals onto a plain cloth and then putting it into a dye vat (Barber, 225).  Barber suggests this may have involved resist-dyeing or batik techniques and/or applying various mordants.  This is all the information I have so far about this technique, but when I was choosing potential fabrics for this project my assistants and I agreed that we would assume for these purposes that fabrics with a printed rather than woven pattern could be suitable.  When choosing patterns, we picked things that had a geometric design or a stylized floral design as these seemed more in keeping with the Egyptian aesthetic than the other prints available.  We did not attempt to look for exact matches to period patterns though for a competition piece I probably would make an attempt to do so.

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As usual, the fabrics I chose were most likely produced using modern factory equipment and modern chemical dyes.  Egyptians used ground looms from or before the Neolithic onwards (Barber, 91) and from the Eighteenth Dynasty on they also or perhaps instead used vertical two-beam looms (Barber, 113-115).  Interestingly, the ground looms are depicted being worked by women but the vertical looms are depicted being worked by men.  It’s been a while since I refreshed my memory on Barber’s “Women’s Work”, she may have something to say about this there, but I’m trying to stay on task and not fall into that always-tempting rabbit hole of feminist analysis.  As for colours, Barber mentions a sudden proliferation of colours in the Eighteenth Dynasty including red, yellow, blue, green, brown, and black (Barber, 224).  Some of the colours in these two dresses are maybe not in this list (orange, turquoise, pink), and I would have to check with someone more knowledgeable than me in the fiber arts whether those are colours that could be achieved with dyestuffs available to the Egyptians.

Tools:  I used all modern tools for this project, including my sewing machine.  I actually do like to sew things partly by hand because I feel it often gives a nicer finish, but I’m used to working on linen or wool and I didn’t think I was going to get as nice of a result working these cottons by hand.  Something that could be the subject of further research would be the types of tools Egyptian tailors and seamstresses used in their work.

Cut and Construction:  There are a couple of extant Egyptian shirts, and quite a few extant textiles generally, but none of them seem to be this style.  As I mentioned above, Egyptian art is very stylized rather than naturalistic, so all it’s really possible to tell is that the garment should have quite a slim line.  In addition, HM Nasheeta requested a style line that would give her greater coverage over the bust than the standard Egyptian style.

I considered a number of different ways to cut a long slim skirt that can still be walked in:

  • stretchy material: this type of material would not have been available at this date.
  • slit or vent: a possibility, but still leaves more problem-solving at the waist and through the bodice.
  • pleating: well supported in pictorial evidence and extant garments, but too time-consuming for these purposes.  Pictorial evidence also differentiates between a pleated texture and a non-pleated texture, with both styles well represented.  If I was going to make an Egyptian garment for a competition piece, I would probably preferentially choose one that was pleated because of the extant pieces of this type.
  • skirt cut on the bias: it’s possible to make quite a slim line with this method, although it doesn’t have quite the same amount of stretch as a modern knit or lycra/spandex fabric would have.  However, it both uses quite a lot of fabric and also wastes quite a lot of fabric and I couldn’t convince myself it was a method that would have been used.
  • wrap skirt: this method is quite straightforward because it’s essentially wrapping a rectangle around your waist so it overlaps.  In some ways, this is not so different from some of the other ways that Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples wrapped and draped rectangles of fabric to form garments.
  • fabric woven in a tube: I’m not actually sure how this is warped, but at some point in my study of historical textiles I’m very sure I have seen an Egyptian garment from classical or late antiquity that was woven in the round.  Of all the possibilities here, this one would be the most difficult to try to recreate with modern fabric, though it would certainly be an interesting weaving project.

Note that in Renaissance painting, I would expect to see pictorial evidence of the construction of either a slit or vent or a wrap in the skirt.  No such evidence shows up in Egyptian depictions and I’m not sure if it’s because some other technique was being used or because of the style conventions of the time.

As well as considering these approaches, I had the chance to examine a dress that my Laurel had already made for HM Nasheeta.  This previously-made dress was also a wrap dress, which solidified my intention to make a wrap dress as well.  Egyptian dresses, where they cover the bust at all, do so with quite narrow straps.  This dress was designed to provide more coverage, which also meant it needed more shaping over the bust.  Here’s my crummy little line-art sketch of how the dress goes together.  Those inverted vs at the sides (near the middle of the drawing) represent deep box pleats, which maintain the slim line but also ensure the skirt fits over the hips as well as the waist and gives room for movement.

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Am I convinced this is how Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian tailors would have made a dress? No, not really.  I’d have to do quite a lot more research, though writing this post has helped me identify a couple of avenues of inquiry I could go down to try to learn more.  And in the case of fitting the bodice, because our modern sensibilities tell us we want to cover up more than Egyptian women did, the shaping techniques I needed to use are not the same as techniques I could use if I was going for the more bare look.  Am I satisfied with how these dresses turned out?  Reasonably, though I’ve already been dreaming up some new things I could do to make it come together a little more nicely, like having one side of the bodice on each side of the wrap instead of having it meet at the side.  But luckily for me, I still have one commission to go, so I have room to try my improvements!

Signs you may have been tailoring in the Renaissance a little too long: Garment doesn’t fit quite right?  That’s okay!  Just fix it with pins!!!!

Works Cited:

Hey look!  I actually cited my statements properly, like you should do in your documentation, instead of just waving my hand generally in the direction of my sources.

Barber, E.J.W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1991.

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