Author Topic: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours  (Read 153 times)

Jim Webster

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Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« on: April 13, 2019, 07:52:48 PM »
Other than plain bleached/white linen, what other colours do we know were associated with Ancient Egyptian clothing, especially for the military?
Also does anybody know what the 'banded armour was that the sea peoples and some Egyptians seem to have used was made of?
Also any ideas of colour?

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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #1 on: April 14, 2019, 10:03:22 AM »
Some idea might be gained from the illustrations on this page, which appear to be taken from tomb paintings.

In tomb paintings generally, primary colours are emphasised, and only higher-ranking individuals wear dyed garments.  However model soldiers placed in tombs sometimes wear coloured kilts (see this pinterest page).  (Do please scroll down - there is a lot more on the page than just the headline picture.)

With some soldiers, especially Mesehti's troops at the top of the page, it is not clear whether they wore white which has dulled to cream-yellow over time, or yellow/gold which has dulled to near-white.  Yellow is however seen on tomb paintings of some nobles and high officials (the two usually being synonymous), so we might be justified in giving some soldiery yellow kilts.

Period may have made a difference; green appears to become more popular as a colour under the Libyans and Nineteenth Dynasty.

Regarding the armour, sorry, no idea.
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Jim Webster

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #2 on: April 14, 2019, 02:41:06 PM »
White does seem to be the 'go to' colour doesn't it
I'll stick with white and add bits of colour to more senior people
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #3 on: April 14, 2019, 06:35:18 PM »
Sounds good to me.
  • Patrick Waterson
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Jim Webster

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #4 on: April 14, 2019, 06:38:00 PM »
Sounds good to me.

Quick as well  8)

I tend to wash over with peat ink to give everybody a grubby and lived in look  ;)
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #5 on: April 14, 2019, 06:54:11 PM »
I tend to wash over with peat ink to give everybody a grubby and lived in look  ;)

Probably about right after a march to the battlefield in a dusty season. :)
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Jim Webster

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #6 on: April 14, 2019, 08:48:30 PM »
I tend to wash over with peat ink to give everybody a grubby and lived in look  ;)

Probably about right after a march to the battlefield in a dusty season. :)

That was my thinking
It also adds shading, picks out the detail and colours any 'white bits' I've missed  8)
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Erpingham

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #7 on: April 15, 2019, 08:38:21 AM »
Having now consulted the house's resident kemite, she points out that "white" is a bit of a catch-all, as there were different shades of white depending on rich you were - only the rich could afford bright white.  She also mentioned that the Egyptians had a fondness for dyed leather.
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Andreas Johansson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #8 on: April 15, 2019, 08:59:58 AM »
A very simple way to make a brighter, less dusty, white that's still got some depth is to use a light grey wash instead of Jim's peat ink.
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #9 on: April 15, 2019, 07:10:02 PM »
Having now consulted the house's resident kemite, she points out that "white" is a bit of a catch-all, as there were different shades of white depending on rich you were - only the rich could afford bright white.  She also mentioned that the Egyptians had a fondness for dyed leather.

Always good to have Helen's input; my impression from tomb paintings was that white was pretty much white*, while social distinction was reflected in the fineness of weave of the material (and often in the amount of the person covered).  Did a finer thread and tighter weave result in a whiter look?  This is something I had not previously considered.

*Although when looking at black-and-white photographs finer gradations of intensity may be lost.
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Erpingham

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #10 on: April 16, 2019, 09:11:29 AM »
I have asked and have been told that different weave densities would appear different, that not all cloth was as well bleached and also, the newer the cloth, the whiter.  Only the rich could afford new clothes all the time when the old ones wouldn't come clean anymore.

I'll try and get her to discuss this directly but she's on the way to work at the moment.
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #11 on: April 16, 2019, 09:01:04 PM »
My thanks.  It all helps in the quest for accuracy.
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Erpingham

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #12 on: April 16, 2019, 10:43:29 PM »
Hi Patrick, Mrs Erpingham here.  Regarding ancient linen.....

Natural (unbleached) linen is vaguely creamy.  The Italians do nice lines in unbleached linen.  The Italian stuff is also a fairly coarse weave, and can often be obtained fairly cheaply (I imagine these days they probably get the raw materials from the Far East or some such).  Paintings from the tomb of Nebamun show herdsmen and those who toiled in the field wearing garments of an unbleached textile - wool and linen being the main options. 

The Kemitic Egyptians could easily have made soap by running water through fresh wood ash (caustic potash or potassium hydroxide) and boiling it with any kind of fat available.  I think it is Laurens Van Der Post describes using soap made from lion fat while in Africa.  However their preferred washing agent was natron, which is sodium carbonate (the main ingredient in Radox and bath bombs) combined with salt and borax.  Borax was the primary ingredient in Reckitt's Blue, used from Victorian times up to the 1950s to get your wash whiter than white.  The Egyptians could also have bleached their linen with caustic potash or with urine.  Catholic Europe viewed the urine of nuns as particularly valuable for several kinds of industrial process.  They could also have used the liquid from boiling old world beans, particularly chickpeas.  Elizabeth David records Languedocian housewives keeping bottles of the stuff to remove particularly persistent stains from household linen.

So bleached linen would have been expensive, and unbleached, coarser weave cheaper.  Most people who died were wrapped in their own household and garment linen, so we have a fair bit of the stuff, and most of it is the grade of linen sheets.  Very finely woven linen did exist, but again it would have been expensive.  Also worth noting that the linen worn by the partygoers in both the Book of the Dead of Ani and the tomb of Nebamun have been crinkle dried (which involves gathering the linen up and tightly rolling it - those who wore cheesecloth in the 1970s will remember the faff) or else they have been pressed with something that must resemble the goffering irons used to press Elizabethan ruffs.  Pressing the linen will also make it look lighter.

There is a lingering suspicion that the dead are shown wearing very white linen to show that they are dead, and it is possible that the partygoers are similarly wearing white because it is a funeral feast.  Tomb painters used a standardised palette of colours that all had magico-spiritual meanings. The Egyptians dyed both cloth and leather and middle kingdom models from tombs show people wearing coloured clothing.  Isis is often depicted wearing a red linen dress with a gold bead net dress over it.  We actually have a bead dress in the British Museum - it's made of faience, so pale blue.

Finally, as any housewife will tell you, linen gradually turns yellow with age, and comes out of the wash increasingly grey. Even with modern cleaning products and a washing machine, I still have to chuck my bedlinen from time to time because it simply won't wash white any more. The Egyptians used old household and clothing linens as mummy wrappings, and old linen would have had a market value as secondhand clothing.    So while most Egyptians would have worn linen as a practical textile in hot weather, very few would have been able to afford the very fine, very white linen, or to keep replacing it when it stopped washing white.

So the crowd at Luxor would have looked much less like the Hajj, where all the pilgrims are given brand new white garments for that last lap, and more like Monday washday in Tudor England, with many variations in the whiteness of the linen on display, as well as coloured linen and wool, and dyed leather.

Hope this helps.
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Jim Webster

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #13 on: April 17, 2019, 07:31:34 AM »
Thanks that was fascinating
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Ancient Egyptian clothing colours
« Reply #14 on: April 17, 2019, 08:05:43 AM »
Yes, thank you, m'lady. That is both useful and interesting on several counts, not to mention broadening my knowledge.

Mesehti's 'old model army' appear to be wearing kilts which were undercoated white and overpainted a light cream colour. This fits exactly with unbleached linen.

Herodotus mentions various grades of embalming, with the traditional head-to-toe wrapping 'in fine linen cloth' being the most expensive variety; those who wish 'to avoid expense' have the corpse pumped full of cedar oil and laid in natron; once flushed out, the husk 'is returned to the relatives without any further trouble being bestowed upon it' and the relatives presumably then provided us with our wrappings of everyday linen.  The third and cheapest variety used natron for the internal injection instead of cedar oil, with results probably reminiscent of Unknown Man E in the Cairo Museum (although the latter came wrapped in royal quality Eighteenth Dynasty linen, but that is another story).

The Father of History also notes that Egyptians living in the Delta marshes anointed their bodies with castor oil, a practice which perhaps had a cumulative effect upon the colour of their clothing.

He additionally mentions that each Egyptian normally had a 'white woollen garment', which was thrown on over the calasiris, his term for the 'linen tunic fringed about the legs'.  This is not standard Egyptian work wear, but resonates with the portrayal of soldiery in Ramses III's time.  Wool, as he points out, is not 'taken into their temples or buried with them, as their religion forbids it' (II.81)

In Papyrus Anastasi I the scribe Hori expatiates on the potential pitfalls of being a Maher, a military commissary officer.  Among the misfortunes he anticipates for his correspondent is:

"Thy shirt of fine linen of Upper Egypt, thou sellest it. Tell me how(??) thou liest every night, with a piece of woollen cloth(?) over thee."

Herodotus' 'white woollen garment' looks as if it may be probably Hori's 'woollen cloth over thee'.
  • Patrick Waterson
"History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens." - Hugh Trevor-Roper