Sunday, June 7, 2009

Protection and Eternity:Ancient Egyptian Fashion

An excellent Gallery Talk at the Met, " Fashion in Ancient Egypt: Clothing, Cosmetics, Coiffures" explored changing fashions in ancient Egyptian hair, makeup, and jewelry. Because contemporary views of these scenes are limited to walls of temples and tombs or painted interpretations of walls of temples and tombs, styles of dress, hair, and faces appear static. But subtle changes in length and styling and each kingdom's unique definition of beauty are visible, and the guide showed how these differences offered insight into that particular period's ideals.

Like today, a person's social status was displayed through such things as hairstyle and the quality of their linen. As time progressed, the aesthetic preferences became longer and thinner, and youth was depicted more often for implications of vigor and energy in the after life. Because drawings were made to represent how the buried would be perceived in the next life, everyone is healthy and young. Wigs were used for ceremonial and everyday purposes, and in sculptures, a person's real hair was sometimes shown underneath. One modern presentation of a wig with braids and gold tabs took weeks for modern hairdressers to recreate. The craftsmanship of curved alabaster and ceramic cosmetic vessels seems to be as sacred as the art of applying the makeup. Jewelry was worn for religious and/or superstitious reasons as well as for ornamentation. Though I may have mangled this interpretation, jewelry with a "sa" symbol was for protection and circular "shen" objects refer the idea of eternity.

An "Orientalish quandary": during the Middle Kingdom, upper class women began wearing their hair in the style of the Nubian people they were conquering. It's human nature perhaps that power struggles and war brings fascination between cultures; only in recent time have we become uncomfortable and questioning of this fascination. Walking through the museum's stunning Egyptian collection, I was struck by how these ancient depictions fascinate me most not for their goal of glorifying their gods (or their own wealth), but rather how they glorify and embrace and strive to understand everyday life. The tour will be repeated in August.

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