For ancient Egyptians, appearance was an important issue. Appearance indicated a persons status, role in a society or political significance. Egyptian hairstyles and our hairstyles today have many things in common. Like modern hairstyles Egyptian hairstyles varied with age, gender and social status.
Children had unique hairstyles in ancient Egypt. Their hair was shaved off or cut short except for a long lock of hair left on the side of the head, the so-called side-lock of youth. This s-shaped lock was depicted by the hieroglyphic symbol of a child or youth. Both girls and boys wore this style until the onset of puberty. Young boys often shaved their heads, while young girls wore their hair in plaits or sometimes did up their hair in a ponytail style, hanging down the center of the back. Young girl dancers used to wear long thick braided ponytails. The edge of the tail was either naturally curled or was enhanced to do so. If the ponytail was not curled at the end, it was weighted down by adornments or metal discs.
Egyptian men typically wore their hair short, leaving their ears visible. Men often kept these hairstyles until their hair began to thin with advancing age. Another hairstyle for men was distinctive short curls covering the ears shaping a bend from temple to nape. It is doubtful that this hairstyle was natural. It was more likely a result of a process of hair curling that was done occasionally.
Women's hairstyles were more unique than those of men. Women generally preferred a smooth, close coiffure, a natural wave and long curl. Women in the Old Kingdom preferred to have short cuts or chin length bobs. However, women in the New Kingdom wore their hair long or touted a wig. Women tied and decorated their hair with flowers and linen ribbons. A stylized lotus blossom was the preferred adornment for the head. This developed into using coronets and diadems. Diadems made of gold, turquoise, garnet, and malachite beads were discovered on an ancient Egyptian body dating to 3200 BC. Poorer people used more simple and inexpensive ornaments of petals and berries to hold their hair at the back. Children decorated their hair with amulets of small fish, presumably to protect from the dangers of the Nile. Children sometimes used hair-rings or clasps. Egyptians wore headbands around their heads or held their hair in place with ivory and metal hairpins. Beads might be used to attach wigs or hair extensions in place.
Egyptians threaded gold tubes on each tress, or strung inlaid gold rosettes between vertical ribs of small beads to form full head covers. The also used combs, tweezers, shavers and hair curlers. Combs were either single or double sided combs and made from wood or bone. Some of them were very finely made with a long grip. Combs were found from early tomb goods, even from predynastic times. Egyptians shaved with a stone blade at first, later with a copper, and during the Middle Kingdom with a bronze razor.
Slaves and servants were not able to dress the same as Egyptian nobility. The way that they adorned their hair was quite different. Commonly, they tied their hair at the back of the head into a kind of loop. Another type of hairstyle was to tie it in eight or nine long plaits at the back of the head and to dangled them together at one side of the neck and face.
In ancient Egypt, men and women used to shave their heads bald replacing their natural hair with wigs. Egyptian women did not walk around showing their bald heads, they always wore the wigs. Head shaving had a number of benefits. First, removing their hair made it much more comfortable in the hot Egyptian climate. Second, it was easy to maintain a high degree of cleanliness avoiding danger of lice infestation. In addition, people wore wigs when their natural hair was gone due to old age. However, even though the Egyptians shaved their heads, they did not think the bald look was preferable to having hair.
Priests were required to keep their entire bodies cleanly shaved. They shaved every third day because they needed to avoid the danger of lice or any other uncleanness to conduct rituals. This is the reason why priests are illustrated bald-headed with no eyebrows or lashes.
There is evidence of influence from other cultures on Egyptian hairstyles. One example is the cultural union of the Roman Empire and the Egyptian empire. There is evidence of a female mummy wearing a typically Roman hairstyle yet the iconography on her death mask was plainly Egyptian. At Tell el-Daba in Egypt, there was a statue portrayed wearing a mushroom hairstyle that was typical of Asiatic males. There is a statue of young woman in the Ptolemaic periods exhibiting a typical Nubian hairstyle consisting of five small clumps of hair.
Wigs were very popular and worn by men, women and children. They were adorned both inside and outside of the house. Egyptians put on a new wig each day and wigs were greatly varied in styles. The primary function of the wig was as a headdress for special occasions, such as ceremonies and banquets.
Wigs were curled or sometimes made with a succession of plaits. Only queens or noble ladies could wear wigs of long hair separated into three parts, the so-called goddress. However, they were worn by commoners in later times. During the Old and Middle Kingdom, there were basically two kinds of wig styles; wigs made of short or long hair. The former was made of small curls arranged in horizontal lines lapping over each other resembling roof tiles. The forehead was partially visible and the ears and back of the neck were fully covered. Those small curls were either triangular or square. The hair could be cut straight across the forehead or cut rounded.
On the contrary, the hair from a long-haired wig hung down heavily from the top of the head to the shoulders forming a frame for the face. The hair was slightly waved and occasionally tresses were twisted into spirals. In the New Kingdom, people preferred wigs with several long tassel-ended tails, while shorter and simpler wigs became popular in the Amarna period.
Wigs were very expensive. People who could not afford to buy wigs had to use the cheaper hair extensions. Hair extensions were often preferred because they could be tied up in the back. Egyptians considered thicker hair as ideal, so hair extensions were also attached to the wigs to enhance ones appearance.
Wigs were meticulously cared for using emollients and oils made from vegetables or animal fats. Those wigs that were properly cared for lasted longer than those without proper care. Although Egyptians preferred to wear wigs and took care of them, they also did take care of their natural hair. Washing their hair regularly was a routine for Egyptians. However, it is not known how frequently Egyptians washed their hair. Wigs were scented with petals or piece of wood chips such as cinnamon. When wigs were not used, they were kept in special boxes on a stand or in special chests. When it was needed, it could be worn without tiresome combing. Wig boxes were found in tombs and the remnants of ancient wig factories have been located. Since it is believed that wigs were also needed for the afterlife, the dead were buried in the tombs with their wigs.
Wigs were usually made from human hair, sheep's wool or vegetable fibers. The more it looked like real hair, the more expensive it was and the more it was sought after. Wigs of high quality were made only from human hair, while wigs for the middle class were made with a mix of human hair and vegetable fibers. The cheapest wigs were made fully from vegetable fibers. Both wig making specialists and barbers made the wigs and wig making was considered to be a respectable profession. It was one of the jobs available to women. People cut or shaved their hair by themselves or went to the barbers. A barbershop scene is depicted in the tomb of Userhet at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, where young men are forming a waiting line, sitting on the folding chairs and tripods while the barber is working.
Egyptians used a material called henna (used for nails and lips, too) to dye their hair red. Scientific studies show that people used henna to conceal their gray hair from as early as 3400 BC. Henna is still used today. There is a body of evidence from paintings that depict the existence of people with red hair, such as the 18th Dynasty Hunutmehet. She had distinctive red hair mentioned by Grafton Smith.
Like today, ancient Egyptians were also facing the same problem of hair loss, and they wanted to maintain their youthful appearance as long as possible. There were many kinds of suggested remedies targeting primarily men. In 1150 BC, Egyptian men applied fats from ibex, lions, crocodiles, serpents, geese, and hippopotami to their scalps. The fat of cats and goats was also recommended. Chopped lettuce patches were used to smear the bald spots to encourage hair growth.
Ancient Egyptians also made use of something similar to modern aromatherapy. Fir oil, rosemary oil, (sweet) almond oil and castor oil were often used to stimulate hair growth. The seeds of fenugreek, that plant herbalists and pharmacologists still use today, was another remedy.
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By Kozue Takahashi
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