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Fashion: Hairstyles

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The common belief about the hairstyle of a royal—and sometimes a person of lower class—is that they are shaved of the head and bewigged. However, this is just a generalization of the ancients’ style. It is true that most of the royal Egyptians shaved their heads, men making up a large percentage of the shaven populace. Some Egyptians, especially priests and holy men, were obligated to shave their heads and other places of the body—legs, arms, underarms, beard and otherwise. For a priest or holy person to shave their selves bare meant they were purified and clean; one could not be purified if one was not shaven. Another reason most Egyptians shaved their heads was to prevent the invasion of head lice.


For both male and female children, it was custom to wear the highly recognizable hairstyle called the side-lock of youth. Here, most of the area of the head was shaved, where one area of the head was left with a tuft or a lock of hair at the side of the head; this hairstyle was representative of that which the child Horus wore. However, the style could have just been a distinct style of the age group. Generally, the duration of wearing this hairstyle is not certain, but it has been suggested that from a very young age, children wear it just until they reach the age of ten. On the other hand, it has been reported that King Merenre wore the side-lock all of his life. Furthermore, royal sons from the New Kingdom were said to have worn the style until they hit their golden years.


Whatever the reason for shaving the head, one thing is certain, most Egyptians—both poor and wealthy—wore wigs. Mind you, not all Egyptians did, but a vast portion did, as it was the sign of the times. In addition, wearing a wig did not mean that the wear shaved their head in order to do so; in some cases, the hair was only cut very short—like a buzz-cut—whereupon the wig was placed over the head.


In cases where an Egyptian wore a wig, the composition of it might be any of the following: resembling natural colors, blacks, blues and other-colors; made of real hair or of false; for the cheaper wigs, wool, flax, palm fiber, or felt might be used. Just as there was a variety of compositions for wigs, so was there a variety of lengths. Throughout most of the Old Kingdom, short wigs were employed. Styles of wigs of short length were thus: composed of tiny horizontally rowed squared or triangular curls, resembling a roof made of tiles. This wig made the shape of the face different; an illusion of a rounded or an upside down v-shaped forehead was made when short wigs of this kind were worn.


Styles of long wigs were thus: composed of lightly waved or straight real or false hair. Wigs of this length usually framed the face and rounded the forehead. The edges of long wigs were rounded and reached as far down as below the waist and as short as the rounds of the shoulders. It should be noted that women composed most of the populace who wore long wigs, especially waist-length wigs; men tended to wear shorter-in-length wigs, but could also wear wigs as long as the rounds of the shoulders.


Even though, during the Middle Kingdom, only royals really wore wigs whereas the lower classes let their hair grow out naturally, wig wearing was not reserved for just the former party; royalty and compatriots alike wore wigs. However, wigs of the royals were more elaborate than the simple wigs of the lower classes. On the other hand, those Egyptians who grew out their hair naturally—leaving it where it was long—only did so during times of mourning. On the other hand, women where the ones who did this the most, as their role in mourning a decedent consisted of them bearing their upper bodies, throwing dirt on their persons and on their heads, and tugging at their [long] hair. It is certainly easier to tug at long hair than it is at short hair.


The final bit of information in this category concerns the beard—or facial hair [of men, obviously not of women]. Here, the situation is similar to that of the all-round shaven priest: even the beard was considered unclean. Since this was the mind-set, most Egyptian men shaved off their facial hair, which means leaving no signs of a beard or even a mustache. In fact, it was very rare to see a royal Egyptian wearing a real beard; it was even rarer to spot a royal Egyptian wearing a mustache, especially in depictions. Only shepherds and lower-class men wore facial hair. Then, how come some depictions of rulers show them with beard? This is just a false beard, as most of you already know. The situation is somewhat juxtaposed, however, because the ancient Egyptians considered facial hair/beards as a symbol or manly dignity and that which commanded respect from others. Yet, they also considered it unclean; wearing a real beard was forbidden. Thus, Pharaoh and other officials of higher order adopted wearing the well-known false beard. During the Old Kingdom, this was especially true. False beards from this era were thus: generally tiny in size; longer for high official and longer still for gods who were depicted with beard—usually longer and wider, with a curl at the end that was bent slightly up--; a short bit of hair that was tightly plaited or braided, with two straps to wind behind the ears. However convenient this false beard was, the rulers from the Old Kingdom abhorred them; they wore them only for special occasion, but sometimes not even at these moments. Furthermore, most rulers were reticent to allow a sculptor or artist to include him with a false beard.


Then one comes to the Middle Kingdom, where high officials and the like wore a false beard. However, Pharaoh and those like him became reticent to wear these falsie beards again, during the New Kingdom.

Bunson, Margaret.  The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York:  Gramercy
     Books, 1991.
Oakes, Lorna and Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt:  an illustrated reference to the
     myths, religions, pyramids and temples of the land of the pharaohs. New York:
     Hermes House Anness Publishing Inc, 2002.
Tortora, Phyllis and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume:  A History of Western
     Dress. 3rd ed. New York:  Fairchild Publications, 1998.

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