Sawdust and Skin Folds: The Fashions of Ancient Egypt
Courtesy of Pacific Science Center
Running through January 6 at the Pacific Science Center, the Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs show is strewn with images of beige landscapes, mystical instrumentals, and visitors using camera phones to make videos of placards that no one will ever watch, ever. There's also a giant collection of artifacts from squillions of years ago. The fashions depicted in the ancient reliefs and sculptures present the free fall of ancient trends: simple sheaths worn with nothing up top; fake beards affixed with chin straps; sheer linen capes dense with accordion pleats; blunt cuts dyed black; piled-on eyeliner; fantasy arm bands, disc earrings, forehead pendants, and jeweled collars in dazzling gold; nipples painted gold to match; and wigs shaped into angular mounds, designed to give "the head an enlarged and often literally 'pyramidal' shape," write Michael and Ariane Batterberry in Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion.
Although they seem so glamorous to you and me, many of the wealthy Egyptians were not actually the white-hot babes their portraits suggest. Men and women were balding, and they had dissolving teeth or faces malformed by incest and disease. Sometimes, the pharaohs were obese, as indicated by the mummified skin folds garlanding the midsections of rulers such as Ramses III and Amenhotep III. (Look for the latter's statue on display. He's presented as a lithe, handsome man, staring at some regal memory, wearing a textured headdress that's all dome-shaped and seemingly "caked with tumid Cheerios," as my notes indicate.)
Egyptians were probably very weight-conscious, according to Mirror, Mirror, because "with very few exceptions, only foreigners are ever represented in Egyptian art as 'fat.'" (An asshole maneuver, but charming at the same time.) Egyptian women were regularly depicted not as they actually were, but as they wanted to be: slim bodies, long limbs, and marvelous large breasts. And as it happens, these ideals are so grounded in our current mental architecture, they can strike us only as customary. An augmented figure made a popular accessory for the voyage into eternity: "One female mummy presented to posterity a completely remolded body, constructed of bandages and resinous paste, like papier-mâché." Mud and linen also brought shapely contours. These were packed inside the body through a "flank incision, and involved the embalmer working 'blind' with his hand inside the body cavity" (John Taylor, Unwrapping a Mummy). Fake tits were a hot item, too. From Mirror, Mirror: "Mummies of elderly women have been found in which the sagging breasts of old age have been plumped out with wax and sawdust."
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