Sunday, 1 April 2012

The World's Oldest Dress - Petrie Museum

[All photos my own.] 
A beaded dress from 2800BC.

Last week I was at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, assisting with a blogger event on the theme of #InspireTravel. I didn't expect to find many fashion connections, but suddenly in front of me was this amazing beaded outfit, which my colleague described as Madonna-esque. You can see what she means - those paltry chest coverings leave little to the imagination and the structure of the piece makes it look like an early attempt at fishnets. However it's an incredibly small mannequin that was used to pass off the pre-Madonna look, and that makes things slightly worrying. This would have been worn by a very young teenager or child who needed to secure a husband. And you thought high street childrenswear shops selling push-up bras was scary?

 An ivory comb - because even ancient women liked to look good.

It's crazy to think how long beauty rituals have been going. Acts like brushing your hair or teeth, and applying make-up, have been a part of human existence for essentially as long as civilised societies have formed. You could say that we've evolved very little in the sense that many of our carefully prepared cosmetic regimes are still as important as they were thousands of years ago, albeit without applying chemicals directly to our face - arsenic face powder, anyone? - just as Botox and specialised peels instead.

The world's oldest garment, c.3000-2300BC.

Apologies for the bad photo, but flash photography isn't allowed due to the delicate nature of this shirt. It's the oldest known example of a (relatively intact) piece of clothing in the world, which I found utterly fascinating. You could easily think that it was a peasant costume from a recent period drama, and not something that was sewn thousands of years before the Roman and Greek Empires even existed. 

How can something look so normal when it's so dated? I guess there are practical fashion considerations that really are timeless, such as the need for sleeves and also enough movement for the arms to be able to carry out full movement. The use of linen as a durable and breathable material, chosen for its effectiveness throughout the seasons. It's amazing to think that the needs of a person in a hot country are still met today by the simple linen shirt, which has never found itself as one of the modern world's throwaway garments. This is definitely the triumph of slow fashion.

The Petrie Museum isn't just full of clothing for trendspotters; it's a fascinating museum that showcases the finds of Flinders Petrie, a leading Egyptologist, and his team. Will it inspire people to travel to Egypt? Definitely. But if you can't afford a holiday then this is the next best thing.

Malet Place/Gower Street, University College London

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