“The costumes of Egypt could be the key link in the chain that ties us to the ancient Egyptian intangible heritage,” said Shahira Mehrez, a researcher renowned for her pioneering efforts to preserve Egypt's heritage.
Mehrez’s statement came during the one-week spring fair Stitches of Egypt in the courtyard of Bayt Yakan, in El-Darb El-Ahmar last week.
Mehrez gave an enchanting presentation on the traditional costume map of Egypt.
The fair that was organised by Turath Conservation Group (TCG) showcased artworks by more than 15 talented Egyptian designers and artists working in the fields of modern cultural fashion, clothing, and accessories inspired by Egyptian heritage.
“In collaboration with Raquda Foundation for Art and Heritage, the fair also hosted the first Camp for Heritage Development Projects. The camp aimed to raise awareness among young people and the community of the importance of heritage, and how to market projects, introduced new safeguarding heritage initiatives, such as the ikWindi Nubian initiative, and encouraged El-Darb El-Ahmar’s creative members to exhibit their handicrafts,” explained Alaa El-Habashi, a professor of architecture and heritage conservation, founder of TCG, and owner/saviour of Bayt Yakan.
Bayt Yakan reflects the architecture of Late Mamluk and Turkish Baroque belonging to Yakan Pasha, who was the wali of Mecca, general governor of Hijaz, and high commander of the army in the Arab peninsula between 1819 and 1836.
“We start with Nubia, they used to wear gergar (Dangler), which is a transparent cotton dress and beneath it they would wear colourful costumes. Gergar is designed so that when dressed by a woman it leans backwards and dangles and touches the ground,” explained Mehrez.
However, the gergar in its original form has gone extinct since the 1940s due to the introduction of the Western costumes through the booming tourism in Upper Egypt in the 19th century. Moreover, since the beginning of the 19th century, the Mohamed Ali royal family left their traditional costumes and adopted Western ones.
Middle Egypt’s costumes
The Assiut attire was the blue-black clothing of high-class women. It was dyed with El-Nila, which is a plant used by ancient Egyptians as a natural dye that colours hair and fabric blue-black. This dye was a rare commodity, hence the colour black was affiliated with the rich, like the Spanish families in the 17th century whose portraits were all in black. It was not a sign of anything but wealth and the latest fashion back then.
“However, El-Nila along with this kittan (Egyptian linen) were gradually replaced by cotton during the British occupation that encouraged cotton plantations of Egypt in order to serve the British empire’s needs. Also by the invention of chemical dyes, the planting and use of El-Nila became extinct. The last village to wear this costume was Beni Adi in Assiut,” Mehrez noted.
Talli of Assiut and Shandaweel
“Talli is an authentic stitch art of Upper Egypt. The Geniza Documents found in the Jewish temple, in Old Cairo, revealed a booming trade of Talli between the 11th and 12th centuries. It was often the gifts circulated between Byzantine and Mamluk kings,” Mehrez added.
Middle Egypt’s Malas
Made out of pure silk, Malas (robe) originated in Upper Egypt and became quite popular nationwide. The draped design of the Malas has a wavy sense similar to the Fatimid costumes. In the icons of baby Jesus and Virgin Mary, baby Jesus is drawn wearing a Malas, which was also worn by high rank men.
In Abu Rawash village, women wear beaded accessories called kirdan or namisa. They resemble the ancient Egyptian necklace known as the Shidou or the Usekh. These women never went to the Egyptian Museum, which shows that this is a genuine inheritance from their ancestors.
In the Delta
Delta peasants used to wear the costumes of Upper Egypt, a large black gown with white embroidery that resembles that of the shimmering effect of Talli but with different patterns.
“Siwan women wore the Tidiri colourful dress by the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, however since the 1970s it was not to be seen. It is more of a long shirt that is dressed with baggy underpants,” explained Mehrez.
Another interesting Siwa costume is that in shades of blue stripes that resembles very much the attire of ancient Egypt.
“The multiple braids hairstyle and the silver accessories are all reflections of the ancient Egyptian princess, for 70 percent of the accessories and costumes are ancient Egyptians.”
“This is the dress of the Bahareya Oasis and it is embroidered with coins to have the same shimmering effect of Talli. Women of Bahareya Oasis wear their traditional khozam or shnaf (nose-ring). This reflects the traditional piercing common among ancient Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptians used to pierce specific acupuncture points in the body to promote general wellness, especially among the heirs of their thrown,” Mehrez noted, adding that Bahareya embroidery is the most colourful in all oases for they use a variety of colour pallets that range from violet to brown.
The customary dress of women of Dakhla is stripes and their hairstyle is the one long braid. That looks exactly like the hair and attire of king Tutankhamun.