Costumes, much like many other things in human history, are constantly undergoing changes to suit the current generation’s lifestyle and taste. Observing costumes throughout the ancient world is one way of unraveling how people lived in the past. It tells us about their culture and gives us a glimpse of what life must have been like during those times.
Let’s take a peek at the costumes throughout history beginning in the ancient civilization that flourished beside the Nile River.
Egypt’s hot climate limits the kind of clothes people wear, but in general costumes were minimal and required little sewing. Linen was the fabric of choice, but wool capes would be worn on cold evenings.
Both men and women wore jewelry made from semi-precious stones and a ceramic material called faience. Eye makeup was also applied. This was made from kohl, a dark pigment used to outline the eyes not only for aesthetic purposes but also to protect the eyes from the sun. Footwear was in the form of sandals made from leather, papyrus, or palm leaves. The Egyptians used these for special occasions as they usually walked about barefoot.
Women wore long linen dresses. Men – usually servants, peasants, and scribes – wore kilts or loincloths and in later times, skirts. Their wealthier counterparts had more luxurious costume choices.
Important people wore robes, and only the wealthy could afford wigs. The nobles also wore pectorals, which are trapezoidal-shaped pieces of decorative metal and gemstones. Head-dresses came in varied and elaborate symbolic forms.
Animal skins were sometimes worn by men of high status and priests when they performed religious ceremonies and festivals. The scarab beetle, and other sacred emblems, were reserved to be worn only by priests and the royals. Meanwhile, the postiche, a false beard made of leather, felt, or metal, was reserved for the Pharaoh.
People in Mesopotamia, from all classes, generally wore the same style of clothing, although the rich had the luxury of brighter colored fabric or more luxurious materials. Flax and wool were common, although linen was also used.
Men wore skirt-like clothes tied around the waist. Women’s garments had an asymmetrical cut, running from their left shoulder down to their ankles. The right shoulder and arm were left uncovered.
Many ancient civilizations thrived in the region, the most prominent of which were the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. Let’s look at their distinctive costumes next.
The Sumerians were the first ancient people identified as living in Mesopotamia. In their early days, they wore the typical Mesopotamian clothing.
Later on men wore a wraparound skirt that went down to the knee or below and was fastened by a thick, rounded belt tied in the back. Fringe or pieces of petal-shaped fabric decorated these skirts.
Early Sumerian women wore a shawl, decorated with a simple border or allover patterns, which they wrapped around their bodies. Later on, they wore skirts and shawls or tops sewn and decorated with fringe.
Women had long hair, carefully curled into ringlets, with false hair if needed. They wore headdresses when entertaining guests. Men grew their beards long and carefully curled as well.
As in Egypt, both men and women wore jewelry. The wealthy among the Sumerians wore bracelets and earrings made of gold and silver and necklaces set with bright, precious stones like lapis, lazuli, and carnelian.
Sandals or boots made from fabric or soft leather were the usual footwear among both sexes.
Babylonians seemed to have worn skirts and shawls similar to the Sumerians, based on scant evidence that exists. Some men wore loin skirts with fringe. The women, based on depictions of goddesses, seemed to have worn sleeved dresses with fitted bodices, V necks, and straight skirts.
Assyrian men and women wore fringed shawls with belts to hold them in place. These they wrapped over their shoulders, around their waists, and dropped to their ankles.
Later on, men wore short-sleeved, knee-length tunics with belts. Military officers and other men of status also wore blue, red, purple, or white woolen cloaks.
When the Persians conquered them, the Assyrians adopted the Persian trousers.
The Minoans lived on the island of Crete in the southern Mediterranean. They liked vivid coloring, sewed their clothes, and even decorated them with embroidery.
Both men and women had long, looped, and braided hair which they adorned with jewels, pearls, and ribbons. They wore sandals or shoes, but exchanged them for calf-length boots during the winter. They would also wear short, woolen, fur-lined cloaks, which were fastened by pins around the shoulders, during the cold months.
Early Minoan men wore loincloths made from a wide variety of materials, such as linen, leather, or wool, and fastened them at the waist with a belt. The loincloths were decorated with bright colors and patterns. Some even had long aprons in the front and back with tassels or fringe. Later on, men wore simple tunics and long robes.
Minoan women were said to have worn long bell-shaped skirts, often with flounces. This they wore over a loincloth. They paired the skirt with a bolero-like jacket which sleeves went up to their elbows and had an open front baring their breasts. Sources say, however, that such clothing might be associated more with priestesses or goddesses than ordinary women.
This ends part 1 of our series titled “Costumes Throught the Ancient World”, which is part of a larger series “Costumes Throught History”. Here’s part 2.