Clothing in the ancient world

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The clothing of men and women at several social levels of Ancient Egypt are depicted in this tomb mural from the 15th century BC

The clothing used in the ancient world strongly reflects the technologies that these peoples mastered. Archaeology plays a significant role in documenting this aspect of ancient life, for fabric fibres, and leathers sometimes are well-preserved through time. In many cultures the clothing worn was indicative of the social status achieved by various members of their society.

Ancient Egyptian clothing[edit]

Women entertainers perform at a celebration in Ancient Egypt; the dancers are naked and the musician wears a typical pleated garment as well as the cone of perfumed fat on top of her wig that melts slowly to emit its precious odors; both groups wear extensive jewelry, wigs, and cosmetics; neither wear shoes - Thebes tomb c. 1400 B.C.

In Ancient Egypt, flax was the textile in almost exclusive use. Wool was known, but considered impure as animal fibres were considered taboo, and could only be used for coats (they were forbidden in temples and sanctuaries). People of lower class wore only the loincloth (or schenti) that was common to all. Shoes were the same for both sexes; sandals braided with leather, or, particularly for the bureaucratic and priestly classes, papyrus. The most common headgear was the kaftan, striped fabric square worn by men. Feather headdresses were worn by nobility.

Certain clothing was common to both genders such as the tunic and the robe. Around 1425 to 1405 BCE, a light tunic or short-sleeved shirt was popular, as well as a pleated skirt.

Clothing for adult women remained unchanged over several millennium, save for small details. Draped clothes, with very large rolls, gave the impression of wearing several items. It was in fact a hawk, often of very fine muslin[dubious ]. The dress was rather narrow, even constricting, made of white or unbleached fabric for the lower classes, the sleeve starting under the chest in higher classes, and held up by suspenders tied onto the shoulders. These suspenders sometimes were wide enough to cover the breasts and were painted and colored for various reasons, for instance to imitate the plumage on the wings of Isis.

Clothing of the royal family was different, and was well documented; for instance the crowns of the pharaohs (see links below), the nemes head dress, and the khat or head cloth worn by nobility.

Perfume and cosmetics[edit]

Embalming made it possible to develop cosmetic products and perfumery very early. Perfumes in Egypt were scented oils that were very expensive. In antiquity, people made great use of it. The Egyptians used make-up much more than anyone else at the time. Kohl, used as eyeliner, eventually was obtained as a substitute[dubious ] for galena or lead oxide that had been used for centuries. Eye shadow was made of crushed malachite, and lipstick of ochre. Substances used in some of the cosmetics were toxic and had adverse health effects with prolonged use. Beauty products generally were mixed with animal fats in order to make them more compact, more easily handled and to preserve them. Nails and hands also were painted, with henna[dubious ]. Only the lower class had tattoos[dubious ]. It also was fashionable at parties for men and women to wear a perfumed cone on top of their heads. The cone usually was made of ox tallow and myrrh and as time passed, melted and released a pleasant perfume. When the cone melted it was replaced with a new one (see the image to the right with the musician and dancers).


Queen Ahmose, Pharaoh Thutmose I, and daughter Neferubity - note the youthful sidelock on the child and the royal attire and wigs on the adults

Wigs were used by both sexes of the upper class. Made of real hair, they contained other decorative elements. In the court, the more elegant examples had small goblets at the top filled with perfume. Heads were shaven; shaved heads are a sign of nobility.[1] Usually children were represented with one lock of hair remaining on the sides of their heads (see the image to the right).


Wigs contained ornamental decorations. A peculiar ornament which the Egyptians created was gorgerin[dubious ], an assembly of metal discs which rested on the chest skin or a short-sleeved shirt, and tied at the back. Some of the lower-class people of this time also created many different types of piercings and body decorations[dubious ]; some of which even included genital piercings, commonly found on women prostitutes of the time[dubious ].


Jewels were heavy and rather bulky, which would indicate an Asian influence[dubious ]. The lower classes wore small and simple glassware; bracelets also were heavy. The most popular stones used were Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian, and Turquoise. They wore a large disk as a necklace of strength, sometimes described as an aegis. Gold was plentiful in Nubia and imported for jewelry and other decorative arts.

(Egypt) See also[edit]

Ancient Minoan clothing[edit]

As elsewhere, Cretan clothes in the ancient times were well documented in their artwork where many items worn by priestesses and priests seem to reflect the clothing of most. Wool and flax were used. Spinning and weaving were domestic activities, dyeing was the only commercial process in keeping with everywhere else in antiquity. Fabrics were embroidered. Crimson was used the most in dyeing, in four different shades.

Female Minoan dress[edit]

Fresco of three Cretan women in the open blouse that was typical in the later Minoan Culture - their skirts would have begun at the waist, were flounced, and of many colorful patterns

Early in the culture, the loincloth was used by both sexes. The women of Crete wore the garment more as an underskirt than the men, by lengthening it. They often are illustrated in statuettes with a large dagger fixed at the belt. Undoubtedly providing for personal safety was one of the characteristics of female clothing in the Neolithic era[dubious ], because one also found traces of it in the peat bogs of Denmark up to the Bronze Age.

From 1750 BC, the long skirt was trimmed and began to resemble the blouse in appearance. The belt, a long or short coat and a hat supplemented the female outfit. The Cretan clothing for women was the first true bent garment in history. Ancient brooches, widespread in the Mediterranean, were used throughout the period.

Dresses also were long and low-necked such as that of the 19th century. They were so low that the bodice was open almost all the way to the waist.

Male Minoan dress[edit]

The loincloth worn by both men and women of Crete is shown in this fresco of a religious event where the women are light-skinned and the man is deeply tanned

Practically all men wore a loincloth. Unlike the Egyptians, the shanti varied according to its cut and normally was arranged as a short skirt or apron, ending in a point sticking out similar to a tail. The fabric passed between the legs, adjusted with a belt, and almost certainly, was decorated with metal. It was worn by all men in society.

In addition to Cretan styles, Cycladelic clothing was worn as pants across the continent. A triangular front released the top of the thighs. One could say it was clothing of an athletic population, because of this and the fact that the chest always was naked. It was sometimes covered with a cask, probably ritualistically. However, long clothing was worn for protection against bad weather and eventually a coat of wool was used by the Greeks.

Men had long hair flowing to the shoulders; however several types of headgear were usual, types of bonnets and turbans, probably of skin. Shoes were boots of skin, probably of chamois, and were used only to leave the house, where one went barefoot, just as in the sanctuaries and the palaces. People studying this matter have noticed the outdoor staircases are worn down considerably, interior ones hardly at all. It's known that later, entering a house - this habit already was in use in Crete. The boots had a slightly raised end, thus indicating an Anatolian origin, similar to those found on the frescoes of Etruria

Ancient Israelite clothing[edit]

In a rare depiction of Hebrew clothing, King Jehu, or possibly Jehu's ambassador, kneels at the feet of Shalmaneser III on the Black Obelisk.

Israelite man[edit]


The earliest and most basic garment was the 'ezor (ay-ZORE)[2] or ḥagor (khag-ORE),[3] an apron around the hips or loins,[4] that in primitive times was made from the skins of animals.[5] It was a simple piece of cloth worn in various modifications, but always worn next to the skin.[4] Garments were held together by a belt or girdle, also called an 'ezor or ḥagor.[5]

The 'ezor later became displaced among the Hebrews by the kuttoneth (keth-O-neth).[6] an under-tunic.[4][5] The kuttoneth appears in Assyrian art as a tight-fitting undergarment, sometimes reaching only to the knee, sometimes to the ankle. [4] The kuttoneth corresponds to the undergarment of the modern Middle Eastern agricultural laborers: a rough cotton tunic with loose sleeves and open at the breast.[4] Anyone dressed only in the kuttoneth was considered naked.[5]

Outer garments[edit]


The simla (sim-LAW)[7] was the heavy outer garment or shawl of various forms.[4] It consisted of a large rectangular piece of rough, heavy woolen material, crudely sewed together so that the front was unstitched and with two openings left for the arms.[4][5] Flax is another possible material.[5]

In the day it was protection from rain and cold, and at night peasant Israelites could wrap themselves in this garment for warmth[4][5] (see Deuteronomy 24:13). The front of the simla also could be arranged in wide folds (see Exodus 4:6) and all kinds of products could be carried in it[4][5] (See 2Kings 4:39, Exodus 12:34).

Every respectable man generally wore the simla over the kuttoneth (See Isaiah 20:2-3), but since the simla hindered work, it was either left home or removed when working.[4][5] (See Matthew 24:18). From this simple item of the common people developed the richly ornamented mantle of the well-off, which reached from the neck to the knees and had short sleeves.[4]


The me'il (meh-EEL)[8] or cloak was generally worn over the undergarment,[5] (See 1Samuel 2:19, 1Samuel 15:27). The me'il was a costly wrap (See 1Samuel 2:19, 1Samuel 18:4, 1Samuel 24:5, 1Samuel 24:11) and, according to the description of the priest's me'il, was similar to the sleeveless abaya (Exodus 28:31).[4] This, like the me'il of the high priest, may have reached only to the knees, but it is commonly supposed to have been a long-sleeved garment made of a light fabric, probably imported from Syria.[5]

Religious wear[edit]

The Torah commands that Israelites wear tassels or fringes (ẓiẓit, tsee-TSEETH[9] or gedilim, ghed-EEL)[10] attached to the corners of garments (see Deuteronomy 22:12, Numbers 15:38).

Phylacteries or tefillin (Hebrew: תְפִלִּין) are in use by New Testament times (see Matthew 23:5). Tefillin are boxes containing biblical verses that are attached to the forehead and arm by leather straps.[11]


Depictions show some Hebrews and Syrians bareheaded or wearing merely a band to hold the hair together.[4] Hebrew peasants undoubtedly also wore head coverings similar to the modern keffiyeh, a large square piece of woolen cloth folded diagonally in half into a triangle.[4] The fold is worn across the forehead, with the keffiyeh loosely draped around the back and shoulders, often held in place by a cord circlet. Men and women of the upper classes wore a kind of turban, cloth wound about the head. The shape varied greatly.[4]


Sandals (na'alayim) of leather were worn to protect the feet from burning sand and dampness.[5] Sandals might also be of wood, with leather straps (Genesis 14:23, Isaiah 5:27).[4] Sandals were not worn in the house nor in the sanctuary[4][5] (see Exodus 3:5, Joshua 5:15).

Israelite women[edit]

A woman's garments mostly corresponded to those of men: they wore simla and kuttoneth.[4][5] Women's garments evidently differed too from that of a men[4][5] (see Deuteronomy 22:5). Women's garments were probably longer (compare Nahum 3:5, Jeremiah 13:22, Jeremiah 13:26, Isaiah 47:2), had sleeves (2Samuel 13:19), presumably were brighter colors and more ornamented, and may also have been of finer material.[4][5]

Further, mention is made of the mițpaḥațh, a kind of veil or shawl (Ruth 3:15). This was ordinarily just a woman's neckcloth. Other than the use by a bride (Genesis 24:65) and other cases (Genesis 38:14, Ruth 3:3), a woman did not go veiled (Genesis 12:14, Genesis 24:15). The present custom in the Middle East to veil the face are due to Islam. According to ancient laws, it reached from the forehead, over the back of the head to the hips or lower, and was like the neckerchief of the peasant woman in Palestine today.[4]

Ancient Greek clothing[edit]

Ancient Greece is famous for its philosophy, art, literature, and politics. As a result, classical period Greek style in dress often has been revived when later societies wished to evoke some revered aspect of ancient Greek civilization, such as democratic government. A Greek style in dress became fashionable in France shortly after the French Revolution (1789–1799), because the style was thought to express the democratic ideals for which that revolution was fought, no matter how incorrect the understanding of the historical reality was.

Clothing reformers later in the 19th century admired ancient Grecian dress because they thought it represented timeless beauty, the opposite of complicated and rapidly changing fashions of their time, as well as the more practical reasoning that Grecian-style dresses required far less cloth than those of the Rococo period.

Clothing in ancient Greece primarily consisted of the chiton, peplos, himation, and chlamys. While no clothes have survived from this period, descriptions exist from contemporary accounts and artistic depiction. Clothes were mainly homemade, and often served many purposes (such as bedding). Despite popular imagination and media depictions of all-white clothing, elaborate design and bright colors were favored.[12]

Ancient Greek clothing consisted of lengths of linen or wool fabric, which generally was rectangular. Clothes were secured with ornamental clasps or pins (περόνη, perónē; cf. fibula), and a belt, sash, or girdle (zone) might secure the waist.

Peplos, Chitons

The inner tunic was a peplos or chiton. The peplos was a worn by women. It was usually a heavier woollen garment, more distinctively Greek, with its shoulder clasps. The upper part of the peplos was folded down to the waist to form an apoptygma. The chiton was a simple tunic garment of lighter linen, worn by both genders and all ages. Men's chitons hung to the knees, whereas women's chitons fell to their ankles. Often the chiton is shown as pleated. Either garment could be pulled up under the belt to blouse the fabric: kolpos.

Strophion, Epiblema, Veil

A strophion was an undergarment sometimes worn by women around the mid-portion of the body, and a shawl (epiblema) could be draped over the tunic. Women dressed similarly in most areas of ancient Greece although in some regions, they also wore a loose veil as well at public events and market.


The chlamys was made from a seamless rectangle of woolen material worn by men as a cloak. The it was about the size of a blanket, usually bordered. The chlamys was typical Greek military attire from the 5th to the 3rd century BC. As worn by soldiers, it could be wrapped around the arm and used as a light shield in combat.


The basic outer garment during winter was the himation, a larger cloak worn over the peplos or chlamys. The himation has been most influential perhaps on later fashion.

Athletics and nudity

During Classical times in Greece, male nudity received a religious sanction following profound changes in the culture. After that time, male athletes participated in ritualized athletic competitions such as the classical version of the ancient Olympic Games, in the nude as women became barred from the competition except as the owners of racing chariots. Their ancient events were discontinued, one of which (a footrace for women) had been the sole original competition. Myths relate that after this prohibition, a woman was discovered to have won the competition while wearing the clothing of a man—instituting the policy of nudity among the competitors that prevented such embarrassment again.

Ancient Roman and Italic clothing[edit]

Etruscan dancers in the Tomb of the Triclinium near Tarquinia, Italy (470 BC)

The clothing of ancient Italy, like that of ancient Greece, is well known from art, literature & archaeology. Although aspects of Roman clothing have had an enormous appeal to the Western imagination, the dress and customs of the Etruscan civilization that inhabited Italy before the Romans are less well imitated (see the image to the right), but the resemblance in their clothing may be noted. The Etruscan culture is dated from 1200 BC through the first two phases of the Roman periods. At its maximum extent during the foundation period of Rome and the Roman kingdom, it flourished in three confederacies of cities: of Etruria, of the Po valley with the eastern Alps, and of Latium and Campania. Rome was sited in Etruscan territory. There is considerable evidence that early Rome was dominated by Etruscans until the Romans sacked Veii in 396 BC.

In Ancient Rome, boys after the age of sixteen had their clothes burned as a sign of growing up.[13] Roman girls also wore white until they were married to say they were pure and virginal.[14]

Toga and tunics[edit]

The tunic was adapted into many styles and was the basic garment of adults in ancient Rome after the 2nd century BC

Probably the most significant item in the ancient Roman wardrobe was the toga, a one-piece woolen garment that draped loosely around the shoulders and down the body. Togas could be wrapped in different ways, and they became larger and more voluminous over the centuries. Some innovations were purely fashionable. Because it was not easy to wear a toga without tripping over it or trailing drapery, some variations in wrapping served a practical function. Other styles were required, for instance, for covering the head during ceremonies.

Historians believe that originally the toga was worn by all Romans during the combined centuries of the Roman monarchy and its successor, the Roman Republic. At this time it is thought that the toga was worn without undergarments.[citation needed] Free citizens were required to wear togas.[13] because only slaves and children wore tunics.[15] By the 2nd century BC, however, it was worn over a tunic, and the tunic became the basic item of dress for both men and women. Women wore an outer garment known as a stola, which was a long pleated dress similar to the Greek chitons.

Although togas are now thought of as the only clothing worn in ancient Italy, in fact, many other styles of clothing were worn and also are familiar in images seen in artwork from the period. Garments could be quite specialized, for instance, for warfare, specific occupations, or for sports. In ancient Rome women athletes wore leather briefs and brassiere for maximum coverage but the ability to compete.[15]

Girls and boys under the age of puberty sometimes wore a special kind of toga with a reddish-purple band on the lower edge, called the toga praetexta. This toga also was worn by magistrates and high priests as an indication of their status. The toga candida, an especially whitened toga, was worn by political candidates. Prostitutes wore the toga muliebris, rather than the tunics worn by most women. The toga pulla was dark-colored and worn for mourning, while the toga purpurea, of purple-dyed wool, was worn in times of triumph and by the Roman emperor.

After the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire in c. 44 BC, only men who were citizens of Rome wore the toga. Women, slaves, foreigners, and others who were not citizens of Rome wore tunics and were forbidden from wearing the toga. By the same token, Roman citizens were required to wear the toga when conducting official business. Over time, the toga evolved from a national to a ceremonial costume. Different types of togas indicated age, profession, and social rank. Roman writer Seneca criticized men who wore their togas too loosely or carelessly. He also criticized men who wore what were considered feminine or outrageous styles, including togas that were slightly transparent.

The late toga of adult citizens, the toga virilis, was made of plain white wool and worn after the age of fourteen. A woman convicted of adultery might be forced to wear a toga as a badge of shame and curiously, as a symbol of the loss of her female identity.

The ancient Romans were aware that their clothing differed from that of other peoples. In particular, they noted the long trousers worn by people they considered barbarians from the north, including the Germanic Franks and Goths. The figures depicted on ancient Roman armored breastplates often include barbarian warriors in shirts and trousers.

Symbolism and influence[edit]

Bust of Marianne, a French national symbol, adopting a Phrygian cap in imitation of freed slaves of Rome - Palais du Luxembourg, Paris

Roman clothing took on symbolic meaning for later generations. Roman armour, particularly the muscle cuirass, has symbolized amazing power. In Europe during the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), painters and sculptors sometimes depicted rulers wearing pseudo-Roman military attire, including the cuirass, military cloak, and sandals.

Later, during the French Revolution, an effort was made to dress officials in uniforms based on the Roman toga, to symbolize the importance of citizenship to a republic. Adopted by the rank and file revolutionaries, the 18th-century liberty cap, a brimless, limp cap fitting snugly around the head, was based on a bonnet worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome, the Phrygian cap.

The modern Western bride also has inherited elements from ancient Roman wedding attire, such as the bridal veil and the wedding ring.

This article incorporates information from this version of the equivalent article on the French Wikipedia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Hebrew lexicon: 'ezor; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  3. ^ Hebrew lexicon: chagowr; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "Dress and Ornament, Hebrew". Schaff–Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Baker Book House. 1907. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p "Costume: In Biblical Times". Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk & Wagnalls. 1901. 
  6. ^ Hebrew lexicon: kethoneth; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  7. ^ Hebrew lexicon: simlah; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon. See also salmah.
  8. ^ Hebrew lexicon: meiyl; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  9. ^ Hebrew lexicon: ẓiẓit; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  10. ^ Hebrew lexicon: meiyl; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  11. ^ Tefillin, "The Book of Jewish Knowledge", Nathan Ausubel, Crown Publishers, NY, 1964, p.458
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 20
  14. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 23
  15. ^ a b Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 21