Clothing in the ancient world

This article deals with clothing in the ancient world.

In antiquity, the ways of producing clothing and the types of clothing that each civilisation used strongly reflect the technologies that these peoples mastered. Archaeology plays a big part in looking at this aspect of ancient life, for fabric fibres and leathers are sometimes well-preserved through time. They are, in addition, witnesses to where their wearers stood in society and on what rung of the social ladder.

Egyptian clothing

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). Only people of the leisured classes wore clothes; peasants, workmen and people of lower class only wore the loincloth (or shenti) that was common to all. Shoes were the same for both sexes; sandals braided with leather, or, particularly for the sacerdotal class, papyrus. The most common headgear was the ''klafta striped fabric square worn by men.

Certain clothing was common to both sexes 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.

Female clothing remained unchanged over several millennia, save for small details. Draped clothes, with very large rolls, gave the impression of wearing several items. It was in fact a haïk, often of very fine muslin. 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 were sometimes wide enough to cover the breasts, and were painted and coloured 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

The practice of the embalming made it possible to develop cosmetic products and perfumery very early. Perfumes in Egypt were scented oils, and were very expensive. They were most needed in antiquity, during which the people made great use of it. The Egyptians used make-up much more than anyone else at the time. Kohl, used as eyeliner, was obtained as a substitute for galena or lead oxide. Eye shadow was made of crushed malachite, and lipstick of ochre. Beauty products were generally mixed with animal grease in order to make them more compact, more easily handled and to preserve them. Nails and hands were also painted, with henna. Only the lower class had tattoos. It was also fashionable at parties for men and women to wear a perfumed cone on top of their heads. The cone was usually made of ox tallow and myrrh and as time passed melted and released a pleasant perfume.


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. The heads were having; the Egyptians are the only people of antiquity to have systematically practiced depilation. For them, the wigs represented humanity, not animality; as might be suggested from the origin of the hairs. Most people in ancient Egypt would have no hair.


Jewels were heavy and rather bulky, which would indicate an Asian influence. The middle classes wore small and simple glassware; bracelets were also heavy. The most popular stones used were Lapis Lazuli, carnelian and turquoise. They wore a big disk around their neck like a necklace.


Wigs contained ornamental decorations. A peculiar ornament which the Egyptians created was gorgerin, 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; some of which, surprisingly even included genital piercings, commonly found on women (prostitutes of the time).

(Egypt) See also

Cretan Clothing

As elsewhere, Cretan clothes in the ancient times were well documented, and were used by priests and priestesses. 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.

Male Dress

Practically all men wore was a loincloth. Unlike the Egyptians, the shanti varied according to its cut, and was normally arranged like a short skirt or apron, ending in a point sticking out like a tail. It was a primitive piece of clothing; the fabric passed between the legs, adjusted with a belt, and decorated almost certainly with metal. It was worn not only by princes but also working men. In addition to Cretan, 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 was always naked. It was sometimes covered with a cask, probably ritualistically. However, long clothing was worn for protection against bad weather; a coat of wool later used by the Greeks.

Men had long and flowing hair on the shoulders; however several types of headgear were usual, types of bonnets and turbans, probably of skin. Shoes were in fact boots of skin (probably Chamois) 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, the Greeks took off their sandals after entering a house - this habit was already 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

Female Dress

Before , the loincloth was used by both sexes. The women wore it more like an underskirt than the men, by lengthening it. They are often illustrated in statuettes with a large dagger fixed at the belt. It was undoubtedly one of the characteristics of female clothing in the Neolithic era, because one also found traces of it in the peat bogs of Denmark up to the Bronze Age.

From 1750, the lengthened skirt was trimmed and became more like a blouse in appearance. The belt, the long or short coat and a hat supplemented the female outfit. The Cretan female clothing was the first true bent garment in history. Ancient brooches, widespread in the Mediterranean, were used throughout the period. Dresses were also long low necked such as that of the nineteenth century. It was so low it went almost all the way to the waist.

Clothing in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is famous for its philosophy, art, literature, and politics. As a result, classical Greek style in dress has often 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. 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.

Ancient Greek clothing consisted of unsewn lengths of linen or wool fabric, generally rectangular and secured with a fibula (ornamented clasp or pin) and a sash. Typical of such garments were the peplos, a loose robe worn by women; the chlamys, a cloak worn by men; and the chiton, a tunic worn by both men and women. Men’s chitons hung to the knees, whereas women’s chitons fell to their ankles. The basic outer garment during winter was the himation, a larger cloak worn over the peplos or chlamys.

Women dressed modestly in ancient Greece, and in many areas they wore a veil whenever they left the house. By contrast, male nudity received religious sanction, and male athletes participated in ritualized athletic competitions, such as the ancient Olympic Games, in the nude.

Clothing in ancient Rome

The clothing of ancient Rome, like that of ancient Greece, is well known from art, literature, and archaeology. Aspects of Roman clothing also have had an enormous appeal to the Western imagination.


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. Historians believe that the toga was originally worn by all Romans, and that it was worn without undergarments. 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. Only men who were citizens of Rome wore the toga. Women wore an outer garment known as a stola, which was a long pleated dress similar to the Greek chiton.

Women, slaves, foreigners, and others who were not citizens of ancient Rome 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. The toga of adult citizens, the toga virilis, was made of plain white wool and worn by men over 14 years of age. A woman convicted of adultery might be forced to wear a toga as a badge of shame and a symbol of the loss of her female identity. 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 was also 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.

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 covering the head during ceremonies. 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 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

Roman clothing took on symbolic meaning for later generations. Roman armour, particularly the cuirass (breastplate), 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. 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 modern Western bride has also inherited elements from ancient Roman wedding attire, such as the bridal veil and the wedding ring.

Clothing in ancient China

Clothing in ancient India

Clothing in ancient Africa


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