O ne of the most important ways that people in ancient Egypt showed their wealth and status was through the display of jewelry. In the early stages of Egyptian civilization known as the

40 ■ fashion, costume, and culture i

Old Kingdom (c. 2700-c. 2000 b.c.e.), jewelry was quite simple, consisting primarily of beaded collars worn by the very wealthy. By the time of the New Kingdom (c. 1500-c. 750 b.c.e.), however, as conquering Egyptian armies came into contact with surrounding areas of the Middle East, jewelry became more common and more complex. A variety of tombs, both from the upper classes and from kings, or pharaohs, such as King Tutankhamen, who ruled briefly in the fourteenth century b.c.e. and whose tomb was discovered in 1922, reveal that Egyptians loved all types of jewelry, but especially gold.

Egyptians adorned all parts of their body with jewels. They wore anklets, bracelets, armlets, and necklaces. These might contain strings of beads, shells, or precious and semiprecious stones, including gold, pearl, agate, and onyx. The tomb of Queen Amanishakheto, who is believed to have ruled at the very end of the Egyptian Empire, in about 10 b.c.e., revealed that the queen wore stacks of bracelets. She also had several rings, some of which she wore attached to her hair. Women also wore crowns, breastplates, and dangling earrings.

Gold was a favorite material of the Egyptians. According to Mila Contini, author of Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, gold was "thought of as the brilliant and incorruptible flesh of the Sun" and was believed to have the power to offer eternal survival. Kings and queens were buried in golden masks to guarantee their immortality. Though many of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs were robbed over the centuries, the tomb of King Tutankhamen, or King Tut, revealed the fascination with gold. King Tut was buried in three coffins, the outer two covered in gold leaf and the inner coffin made of solid gold.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.

Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

[See also Volume 1, Ancient Egypt: Collars and Pectorals]

Egyptian Influenced Fashion Shows
This wall painting of Queen Nefertiti shows her eyes outlined in the deep black kohl worn in ancient Egypt. Reproduced by permission of© Christel GerstenberglCORBlS.

Kohl is a black powdery substance made from galena, an ore that is the source of the mineral lead. Galena ore was found near the Nile River at the city of Aswan, in present-day southeast Egypt, and on the banks of the Red Sea, among other places.

Egyptian rulers sent expeditions to bring back the ore, which was made into sticks of the dark powder and used to make thick dark lines around the eyes. Cosmetics were an important part of the ancient Egyptian costume, and rich and poor alike used kohl to darken their eyes. The kohl used by poorer workers was made in sticks, while the wealthy kept their kohl in ornate boxes made of precious materials and often carved in beautiful shapes. Small amounts of kohl were taken from the box and mixed with animal fats to make it easier to paint on the face.

In ancient Egypt kohl was used as a cosmetic to outline the eyes with a dramatic black line. While makeup was valued as a beauty aid, most cosmetics had other uses as well. The dark eyeliner gave some protection from the bright Egyptian sun, and the galena also helped to keep insects away from the eyes. Kohl had a religious purpose, too. Ancient Egyptians used large drawings of an eye to symbolize the eye of the god Horus—the Egyptian god of healing, among other things—and believed that the drawings would protect them. Many historians think that Egyptians believed that outlining their own eyes would help them carry the protection of the gods with them. Kohl became a popular cosmetic once again during the 1920s, when an "Egyptian look" came into fashion in the United States and Europe, and it is still used as eyeliner in many Eastern countries.


Balkwill, Richard. Clothes and Crafts in Ancient Egypt. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Harris, Nathaniel. Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1994.

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