Fashion and Mummies: Styles of the Ancient World

Anya Grubber '17 News Editor 

Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s talk last week, “The Mummies Speak: Why We Dress the Way We Do,” was as captivating as its attention-grabbing title.  Barber, who has written a number of books, including “The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance” which was published in 2013, combines her loves of archaeology, textiles and dance by studying ancient clothing fragments and comparing them to traditional costumes that have stood the test of time in various corners of the world.

Barber began her talk by showing Paleolithic “Venus” figures that date to about 20,000 B.C. These small figurines exemplify the clothing of the time (though their outfits are rather skimpy by modern standards) – thin bands around the torso and stringed skirts. These stringed skirts are one of the most important historical garments that experts study, and appear in archaeological contexts all across Central Asia to Europe.

In places such as Denmark, Scandinavia and Archaic Rome, the stringed skirt was worn by young women who had reached puberty and were available to become brides. After they were married, they swapped their fringed skirts for different garments. In modern Albania, girls still wear similar fringed skirts when they are ready to be married – Barber herself owns one that an Albanian woman sold her in the 1990s.

Barber also spoke about what is considered the most “classic” garment; the precursor to the tee-shirt, which in the ancient world was little more than a simple tunic with two tubes sewn on either side for sleeves. A pleated linen shirt found in Egypt which dates to about 3,100 BC — the oldest garment that has ever been found — exemplified this, showing just for how many millennia this basic style has persisted.

Most garments found in ancient Egyptian contexts are white. Ancient Egyptians bleached their garments often, to keep them fresh in such a dusty environment. To add color, they’d wear jewelry with bright stones and shining metals.

Barber also mentioned how garments varied drastically between urban and rural settings; people in more pastoral villages continued to wear the simple tunic that had been worn for thousands of years, while those in cities such as Athens and Rome wore other, perhaps fancier, garments such as chitons in more luxurious fabrics.

She also discussed the evolution and spread of plaid – the pattern first appeared in Central Asia, and spread across the continent, into the rest of Asia, and into the Middle East and Europe. Plaid died out essentially everywhere except in what is now the United Kingdom, where it has become synonymous with the Celtic people.

The ancient world was filled with colors and patterns that rival the fabrics of today, if we take a moment to appreciate the nuances of the past. But the question remains, what would the people of the past think of jeggings and crop tops?