Guðrún Sveinsdóttir – Old Kingdom Egyptian Sheath Dress

Location: Shire of Mountain Freehold


SCA Blog:

How did this project come about?
I have been wanting to make a set of Ancient Egyptian clothing for several years, ever since I saw Princess Sithathoryunet’s feline-headed girdle and jewelry set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More recently, I was inspired by some of the exhibits in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and by Daisy Viktoria’s YouTube tutorial on her own interpretation of an Egyptian sheath dress. While mine differs from hers, I did reference some of her sources and patterning while creating my own.

What sources informed my choices on the style of dress I wanted to create?
I decided I wanted to start with a basic sheath dress, or kalasiris, to either be worn by itself or as a base layer for a beaded dress (another project I eventually want to make) or a Middle Kingdom pleated overdress. I looked at a number of sources: extant textiles, statues, and paintings; and scholarly research on the evidence for various styles of dress. Most scholars seem to agree that the skin-tight representations of dresses in paintings and some statues are stylistic rather than realistic.

Unfortunately, not many textile examples survive, especially from the Old Kingdom. We do have several long-sleeved dresses, which I discuss in detail in my documentation. They come from Tarkhan, Deshashah, Naga ed-Der, and the Tomb of Nywty in Saqqara.We also have a sheath dress that may be a “false dress” from a tomb: these are pieces of fabric cut to resemble the fronts of sheath dresses, and laid over the mummy in the tomb. This dress is from a tomb in Giza (Fifth Dynasty). Due to early archaeological techniques (I will keep my comments to myself regarding these techniques) used in the excavation, modern archaeologists haven’t been able to determine whether the dress was a false dress or a real one, since it was damaged by the original team.

Another style of sheath dress, although not textile, is the beaded dress, of which around twenty have been found. I discuss several of these finds in my documentation. I believe, based on the extant bead dresses, that if a linen sheath was worn underneath, it is plausible that, like in paintings and sculptures, the linen dress would be shaped similarly to the beaded net that would go on top.

It is possible that those beaded dresses were only worn for burial for religious purposes, since goddesses are shown wearing them, and it could signify the transition from the living world to that of the dead. However, since many paintings and statues that portray similarly-shaped linen dresses without the bead nets on top seem to be portraying human rather than divine figures, I find it plausible that with or without the beaded dress on top, that shape of linen sheath may have existed as a wearable garment.

I have found in my search for evidence that this style of dress is recorded in images from the Old Kingdom all the way through the Ptolemaic Period, a span of over 3,000 years. However, as time passes, it seems to become more stylized in art and used for deities or deified humans rather than representations of living people.

For now, I decided that I would focus on the Old Kingdom representations and evidence, since that seems to be the most likely time period for this style of dress to exist as a common garment.What informed my choices on the materials?

The ancient Egyptians had beautiful linen textiles. The Met Museum catalogs of Egyptian linen include “loose,” “fine,” “very fine,” and “close” weaves. The threads are additionally described as “coarse,” “irregular,” “medium,” “fine,” and “very fine.” A loose-woven linen of very fine thread is described as “gauzy.” In extant ancient paintings and descriptions, some linens appear or are described to be so fine that they are transparent when worn. I chose a gauze-weight bleached linen, which is semi-sheer and very light and breezy to wear.

What were my patterning choices, and why?
Based on the evidence, I wanted to make a dress that was shaped similarly to the beaded dresses and other extant depictions in art. I reviewed the examples of the extant textiles and several artistic representations which include seam lines, and settled on a dress consisting of a main body, with straps (instead of sleeves) sewn on separately.

I decided to make the main body a tube with side seams that was fitted at the underbust, but flared to a width at the bottom hem that would allow me to walk comfortably. I credit Daisy Viktoria’s tutorial with the idea of making the top hem more fitted; it seemed like a practical way to help create some bust support. While I’m not sure how historically plausible it is to shape the fabric in this way, it has the practical effects I wanted, as well as being more aesthetically similar to the extant Old Kingdom paintings and statues.

For the straps, I chose to pattern them mainly based on the beaded dresses in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts: they seem to have the most coverage of the extant strap styles. I also referenced the “false dress” from Giza G2220B in the shaping, as that seemed to be the closest textile equivalent to those beaded dresses. I left the straps narrow enough to have a gap on the sides, as depicted in the beaded dresses, and left the deep “V” in the front that is shown in the extant textile finds and artistic representations. I did close the back “V” slightly to help with the fit of the straps and bust support, and that seems to have been successful.

Since my linen is so sheer, I decided to leave the main body as one layer, but to double it for the straps. This serves the dual purposes of more structural integrity in the section that is under the most physical stress, and for modern modesty choices.

I used the sewing machine for the structural seams on the skirt and straps to save my hands (tendonitis), but everything else was hand-sewn, since it would be visible. I used whip stitch to finish most seams, and stab stitch to connect the straps with the body of the dress (solely to hide the stitches as best as I was able). I am pleased by the results!

Please see my full documentation for more details, my references, and pictures.

7 thoughts on “Guðrún Sveinsdóttir – Old Kingdom Egyptian Sheath Dress

  1. I made an Egyptian dress for the heat down here, and it is a GAME CHANGER when you’re outside all day at Crown Tournament or other big fighting events. It’s a bit different than this one, I think what I made is a sack tunic, but anyway, the V-neck and back? Magic air conditioning. Totally worth it for water-bearing at Pennsic, too.

    You look great and comfy! Have a wonderful time rocking the Bronze Age.

    -Magistrissa Anna Syrakousina, OL. Trimaris

    1. Thank you! The Bronze Age has been my newest set of explorations — it’s so much fun to research!

      Also, I agree — it definitely helps to have the built-in air conditioning for hot events like Pennsic, etc. And sack tunics are great! My next Egyptian piece will probably be one of those (for a bit more coverage from the sun).

  2. Wow! This is really interesting research and the dress looks amazing! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. Yet another fascinating and well-researched project on a new topic! Thank you for sharing your work and your enthusiasm. It’s such fun to see all the things you are doing.

    1. Thank you! I have a lot of fun researching and creating things, so I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Very well done! As you’ve shown, these seemingly simple items are often quite sophisticated. It can take a lot of work to get these to look right and you look just like the statues and images that inspired you.
    And if you do choose to make a beaded dress to go with it, please share! I’d love to see a recreation of one of those.

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