Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Though many of our female ancestors were given no end of trouble over their penchant for cosmetics, jewels and other fripperies, the ladies of Ancient Egypt never seem to have had that problem.  From the earliest recorded times they were not only encouraged but expected to maintain a clean, lean, healthy appearance.  Elegance was over the top by the dawn of the New Kingdom, around 1,550 BCE, and this was especially true at the royal court where both ladies and gentlemen primped, plucked and groomed like modern celebrities.

One of the most interesting things about Ancient Egyptian culture, at least to me, is its unusual lack of change.  Things were pretty well set in place for close to 3,000 years as far as politics, religion, etiquette and so on.  This was true of fashion as well and so, with only a few fluctuations, we can look at the Ancient Egyptian’s beauty regimen as being fairly static throughout the culture.

Women in particular but men as well had a mania for removal of body hair.  This may have been due to a combination of the hot, arid climate of the Nile Valley, the ever-present threat of parasites and the cult of the body developed in Ancient Egypt.  Bodies, even those of the common folk, were worked over with a pumice stone virtually daily to remove all possible hair.  Among the working poor it was not unusual to remove one’s clothing to attend to heavy labor.  Bodies were easy to wash; linen was not.

Bathing was considered a must, even if it only meant pouring water over the body in the evening.  Many queens were notoriously addicted to bathing; Queen Nitocris required an hour long bath in cool water sprinkled with a pinch of natron every morning.

The head and hair were particular focuses of care.  Men routinely shaved and wore either wigs or cloth headdresses.  Depending on the era, women either did the same or wore their natural hair intricately dressed with jewels, metal and extensions of human or horse hair.  By the middle of the 18th dynasty, baldness for women had become the norm.  Ladies polished their heads with precious oils and wore long, intricately plated wigs to formal occasions while wrapping their heads in elegant scarves at home. 

During the reign of Akhenaton, his daughters’ unusually elongated heads became a fashion icon.  The rumor was that a sorcerer had reshaped the girls’ heads in the womb to spare their beautiful mother Nefertiti the worst pains of childbirth.  Whatever the case, fashion historian Mila Contini tells us that court ladies tried to emulate the princesses’ unusually shaped heads by wearing false headpieces of vegetable fiber or wood.

Cosmetics were applied to face and body with regularity.  A fashionista would not think of leaving home without her hair in a perfect coif and her limbs perfumed with oils of lotus, myrrh or acacia.  Her complexion would be whitened with a lead-based paste followed by a delicate sienna blush at cheeks and temples.  The lips would be tinted the same red-orange color, as would the finger and toenails.  Eyes were heavily painted, usually with three or four different colors.  Black kohl rimmed the eyes and elongated the eyelashes while sparkling green malachite was swept over the eyelids.  The eyebrows were extended with antimony powder which was dark gray in color.  Very wealthy women might sweep a bit of gold dust just over the brow as a final highlight.

The ladies must have cut a very beguiling figure as they swept into a temple festival or royal feast.  It is no wonder that we are to this day fascinated by the beauty of Ancient Egypt.

Header: Two of Akhenaton’s daughters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Timmy! said...

Just some of the many things to admire about Ancient Egypt, Pauline.

If only there was an easy way to get rid of all that annoying hair...

Pauline said...

Exactly and yes; the pumice stone routine sounds like it would hurt... A lot.