Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Those fashionable pharaohs

Can't possibly work without a bottle of hand lotion in your desk drawer? Workers building the tomb of Ramses III went on strike to get moisturizer.

Intrigued by the big '80s hair styles that have come back? Egyptians had huge hair thousands of years before Delta Burke even looked at a can of hairspray.

All in all, the people of ancient Egypt cared as much about their looks and being in style as any modern fashionista, said Joann Fletcher, a freelance Egyptologist from England. Dr. Fletcher, whose doctorate is in the study of ancient Egyptian hair, came to the Toledo Museum of Art last weekend to speak about hair, dress, and makeup in ancient times, a program related to the museum's new exhibition: “Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from The British Museum,” on view in Toledo through May 27.

Not only did they care about their own looks, they judged others by theirs, she said.

“How you appeared told everyone about your stature,” Dr. Fletcher said. “They were very into class demarcation.”

Of course, one can't find parallels between all ancient and modern trends.

Few folks, except maybe competitive swimmers, shave their entire bodies nowadays, yet many Egyptians routinely did so, Dr. Fletcher said. The reason? Lice prevention. Lice carried disease, and the Egyptians wanted no part of that.

So where did they get the big hair? Wigs, the earliest of which date back to about 3,400 B.C., Dr. Fletcher said. If people didn't wear hair extensions, they wore elaborate wigs. To keep the wearers cool, the bases of the wigs were made of mesh. Date palm fibers lay under the human hair to give the hairpieces volume. The more impressive and massive the wig, the higher its wearer's stature. Men sometimes had longer hairstyles than women.

Even soldiers wore wigs, Dr. Fletcher added. The mass of hair and date palm fronds helped soften the blows during combat.

Hair was only one aspect of ancient beauty. Cosmetics and perfumes also played a major role in how people presented themselves to the world - and men used just as much makeup and scent as women, Dr. Fletcher said.

“Eyeliner, perfume, wigs - you name it, they had it,” she said. “It was so important to look one's best. All Egyptians bathed once a day, in a bath or in the Nile.

“It wasn't just about vanity. Eye makeup was developed to reduce the desert sun's glare. They used two streaks below the eyes, like American footballers.”

Because of makeup's protective properties, soldiers tended to slather it on - “They would have been a beautiful bunch of guys, really,” Dr. Fletcher commented - and manual workers demanded it. Hence the tomb strike.

When they did not get their oil ration to use as moisturizer, the workers had this to say: “No oil ration, no tomb.” Ramses III gave it to them.

“It's a wise investment,” Dr. Fletcher said. “You make the workers happy, you get the tomb.”

As for clothing, most ordinary clothes were made of linen and worn in simple, wrap-around styles. Clothing styles, unlike those of wigs, tended to change at a glacial pace. Egyptians did only basic sewing, so most variations involved pleats, Dr. Fletcher said.

So what about all those elaborate styles seen in Egyptian art? That's easy to explain, Dr. Fletcher said:

“In art, they wear their Sunday best. Tomb scenes show them at their best.”

Just like modern photographs. Some things never change.

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