How did social, political and economic factors influence fashion during the ancient Egyptian era?
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As a general rule clothing for the ancient Egyptians was constructed of linen (although there is some evidence of trading with Rome and the eastern Mediterranean for cotton and silk). Linen was made through a labor intensive process of converting the flax plant, which grew along the Nile River in abundance, into thread; the finer the thread, the more affluent the wearer. This job was normally performed at home by less-affluent women, although in some cases affluent men or nobles owned workshops that performed this process. It is interesting to note that the invention of the vertical loom in the New Kingdom period did not, as one might expect, lessen the amount of labor required, but rather made it such that men were required to operate the heavy machine. Clothing in ancient Egypt reflected the consistent heat and humidity of life along the Nile River, as well as the Egyptians dedication to maintaining differences in class structure and appealing favorably to the gods. The very wealthy wore the finest, thinnest linen which they were able to keep clean because they didn’t do much work; in other words, white linen meant affluence. The poorer people normally dyed their linen of necessity, as colors were better for hiding stains.
Both men and women wore loose tunics that might be adorned with fringe or pleats. In the Old Kingdom, men typically wore short linen wrap skirts, which were deemed easier for working in. During the Middle Kingdom, these tunic type skirts tended toward calf-length for men, and were ornamented with pleats by the time of the New Kingdom. Children typically dressed as adults, although they didn’t begin wearing clothes until around age six—and sometimes, they never dressed at all.
Jewelry, animal skins and feathers were other products of the region that Egyptians used to express their interest in fashion as well as demonstrate their social class; generally, the wealthier people had more jewelry that was more ornate and personalized, and often made from gold or what we would call now precious stones; the less affluent typically made their jewelry of beads. Both classes of people orchestrated their jewelry “wardrobes” in a way that they thought would please the gods by increasing their personal attractiveness on the earthly plane. Priests and pharaohs, those thought to be in closest contact with the gods, sometimes donned animal skins while kings and queens might ornament their costumes for important ceremonies with feathers.
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