Fashion was important in the past as well as it is nowadays with the only difference that the majority of people did not have entire wardrobes built up to satisfy their aesthetic needs. The élite of the Ancient Egypt used to wear garments according with the African climate and social dynamics that the country had. One of the most desired pieces of clothes was certainly the “beads net dress”. HIstorians were aware of this particular garment for a long time, but it was only in 1920 that they found archeological evidence that would confirm their historical thesis.
Below: “beads net dress” dating back to the 4th dynasty, Kingdom of Khufu, between 2551 and 2528 BC. The find is kept at the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston. The dress was found in the plain of Giza inside the tomb G 7440 Z. The excavations were carried out in 1927 by the Harvard University and the dress was assigned to the museum by the Egyptian government
The net dresses were made with thousands of beads, placed in a diamond shape but it is not entirely clear the purpose of such dresses. Both the fragility and complexity of realization does not suggest a daily use of the piece of clothes; instead it is more natural imagining them as garment utilised for ceremonies of great events.
the total number or beads net dresses recovered from burials was 20, distributed in different museums throughout the world
If the èlite women of ancient Egypt could afford an entire dress made out of beads, the priestesses had beads- head pieces while the rich Egyptians (what represents the middle class nowadays) had only collars that they would wear on top of their tunics when they were attending celebrations. The poor women did not have to give up on beads completely but they could still manage to get a belt to secure around their waist.
Below: beads collar from the 26th-30th dynasty between the 664 and the 33 BC. Fitchburg Art Museum, US
Dresses with woven beads
The bead dresses could be made with two different techniques: the first one would see the beads sewn directly onto the linen tunic; the second way was realising the garment from scratch creating a net , which later on would have probably been worn on top of a linen garment. Some of those dresses, such as the one preserved at the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, were realised with blue-green beads made out of majolica, representing an imitation of turquoise and lapis lazuli stones.
Beads dresses in art and literature
Thanks to the highlights into the artistic representations there is a knowledge of when and how those types of dresses were used in ancient Egypt. A statue of Nut, goddess of the sky coming from the 3rd millennium BC, shows the goddess wrapped by a garment very similar to a net dress.
Beside the figurative arts it is possible to find proofs of such particular and precious dresses even in literature. In the well known tales of “Tales of King of Khufu”, 4th dynasty between 2589 and 2566 BC, also known as “tales of the Westcar papyrus”. Especially in the “story of the green jewel” it is mentioned the dress.
The story was described by the son of Baufra, set in the Kingdom of his grandfather Sneferu. The King was bored and his main reader Djadjaemankh suggested him to gather up 20 young woman and use them as rowers to navigate across the lake of the Palace. Sneferu commissioned then the construction of 20 beautiful oars and gave to the girls net dresses to be utilised during the navigation. One of the girls though lost an amulet, a fish- shaped charm made out of malachite. The woman was very much attached to it so not even part of the Royal treasure could compensate her so both her and the other girls along with it decided to stop rowing until the amulet was given back. The King started to complain so Djadjaemankh managed to rise the waters and create a lane, which allowed the recovery of the lost jewel.
Some ancient dresses have been found in burial sites of Egyptian noble individuals. The one in Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London comes from a tomb of the 5th or 6th dynasty of Qau, ancient city of the Upper Egypt which dated back to 2400 BC. The garment was found in 1923 and it is believed to belong to a dancer due to its shells attached on the sides, which produce a rhythmic sound.
Below: the dress from the Petrie Museum of London. Picture by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
Once the dress has been restored though it appeared to the researchers that the garment was rather heavy, detail which doesn’t get very much along with the hypothesis of a minute thin person supposed to move sinuously. Its real purpose is therefore controversial even though some suggested it could have been just a funeral garment.
Below: mummy covered by a net garment