What is “archeological dress”? That term refers to the historical and prehistorical garments or (more commonly) textile fragments during archeological excavation, but for my purposes this section has to do with extant clothing garments from before the 5th century, of which there are precious few, due to the challenges of preservation.
Here are just a few of the most remarkable finds that exist, but certainly there are more. Book sources in English are included when relevant, for further research.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology, London
Often credited as the “oldest dress in the world,” this linen tunic from c.2800 BC was excavated by Petrie in 1913 but not discovered until 1977, when a conservator discovered it in a pile of linen in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Conservation Workshop. Because it was found turned inside-out and showed signs of creasing under the arms and in the elbows, it is thought to have been worn in life. This in addition to the sophisticated pleating details are remarkable elements of one of the world’s oldest surviving garments. The link above includes patterns and instructions for construction.
2. Egtved Girl
National Museum, Copenhagen
The Bronze Age “Egtved Girl” was a 16-18 year old girl whose well-preserved burial site was excavated near Egtved, Denmark, in 1921. Her garments consist of a woven woolen tunic, string skirt, woven belt, and hair net. Prehistoric textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber discusses the possible meanings of her string skirt in her excellent book Women’s Work. Several replicas have been made and are exhibited alongside the original.
3. Mummies of Ürümchi
Urumqi Museum China
The mummies found in the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang, China, date from 1800 BC – 100. They were discovered on display by western archeologists in the late 1980’s, and caused a great deal of interest due to the mummies’ more typically European characteristics, such as height, angular features, and red or blond hair, provoking further study on the geographical movement of people from this time period. Their well-preserved clothing, such as the “Chärchän Man’s” red twill tunic and tartan leggings, has also been studied by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, and discussed in her book The Mummies of Ürümchi. I can’t find a website for the museum where they’re exhibited, but this New York Times article about them is an interesting read about the challenge for American scholars to be allowed to study these remarkable finds.
The Egyptian Museum of Cairo, Egypt*
Little was known until relatively recently of the vast trove of clothing and textiles found in the tomb of Egyptian Boy-King Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt ca. 1332 BC – 1323 BC. His mostly-intact tomb was discovered by famed archeologist Howard Carter in 1922, and while the gold jewelry and death masks made international news, the textiles were stuck rotting in a pile in storage at the Cairo Museum until the 1990’s, when Yorkshire-born textile historian Dr Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood discovered them and began a conservation project based at the Stitching Textile Research Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands. Included in this amazing collection were (among many other things) a dozen tunics, and more than 100 loincloths. The book published from this nearly decade long project, Tutankhamun’s Wardrobe: garments from the tomb of Tutankhamun (1999) is difficult to find, but a fascinating read! An international tour of the garments took place starting in 2000, in partnership with the Swedish School of Textiles at the University of Borås, which was also involved with recreating some of these garments with traditional weaving and dyeing techniques.
*I’m not entirely sure that these objects are still at the Museum in Cairo – let me know if you know otherwise!
This is really a list of clothing. Click here (coming soon!) for more information on archeological textiles.