Ancient History of Clothing in India, Egypt and China

Hindu Indian lady wearing sari, painting by Raja Ravi Varma. One of the most ancient and popular clothing in the Indian subcontinent.

The study of the history of clothing and textiles traces the development, use, and availability of clothing and textiles over human history. Clothing and textiles reflect the materials and technologies available in different civilisations at different times. The variety and distribution of clothing and textiles within a society reveal social customs and culture.

The wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic and is a feature of most societies of humans. Man and woman began wearing clothes after probably the last Ice Age. Anthropologists believe that animal skins and vegetation were adapted into coverings as protection from cold, heat and rain, especially as humans migrated to new climates.

Ancient India

We do not know what the people who constituted the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the earliest civilizations of the world, actually wore. Any cloth that might have been worn has long since disintegrated and we have not yet been able to decipher the Indus script. However, historians and archaeologists have managed to piece together some bits of information from clues found in sculptures and figurines.

Terracotta figurines uncovered at Mehrgarh show a male figure wearing what is commonly interpreted to be a turban; female figurines depict women with elaborate headdress and intricate hairstyles. In certain cases, these headdresses have led historians to attach a religious connotation to the figurines and to the interpret the headdresses as symbols of a mother goddess.

One of the most important recovered figurines is that of the “Priest King” from the site of Mohenjo-daro. It is not only important because scholars have called it a representation of an assumed authority or head of state but also because of what it is wearing, however, it was recently discovered to be an interpretation of a wealthy trader. The calmly seated Priest-King is depicted wearing a shawl with floral patterns. So far, this is the only sculpture from the Indus Valley to show clothing in such explicit detail. However, it does not provide any concrete proof to legitimize the history of clothing in the Harappan times. Harappans may even have used natural colours to dye their fabric. Research shows that the cultivation of indigo plants (genus: Indigofera) was prevalent.

Another important sculpture is of a dancing girl, also excavated from Mohenjo-daro. She is depicted with no clothing other than a number of bangles upon her arm. B. B. Lal has managed draw parallels between the dancing girl and women today in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. He notices how contemporary women continue wearing those bangles even today. Harappans may not have left any evidence of what clothing or textiles they had at that time but they did leave remains of jewellery and beads in large amounts. For instance, the graves of Harappans have yielded various forms of jewellery such as neckpieces, bracelets, rings, and head ornaments. Multiple beads of varying shapes and sizes have also been recovered. This jewellery incorporates various materials such as gold, bronze, terracotta, faience, and shells; imported materials including turquoise and lapis lazuli were used too. This suggests that the Harappans might have engaged in long-distance trade. Long, slender carnelian beads were highly prized by the Harappans. Harappans were also experts in manufacturing microbeads, which have been found in various locations from hearths and graves. These beads were extremely hard to work with and needed extra precision to produce. A special drill has been found both at Lothal and Chanhudaro. Chanhudaro was a centre exclusively devoted to craft production.

Ancient Egypt

Evidence exists for production of linen cloth in Ancient Egypt in the Neolithic period, 5500 BCE. Cultivation of domesticated wild flax, probably an import from the Levant, is documented as early as c. 6000 BC. Other bast fibers including rush, reed, palm, and papyrus were used alone or with linen to make rope and other textiles. Evidence for wool production in Egypt is scanty at this period.

Spinning techniques included the drop spindle, hand-to-hand spinning, and rolling on the thigh; yarn was also spliced. A horizontal ground loom was used prior to the New Kingdom, when a vertical two-beam loom was introduced, probably from Asia.

Linen bandages were used in the burial custom of mummification, and art depicts Egyptian men wearing linen kilts and women in narrow dresses with various forms of shirts and jackets, often of sheer pleated fabric.

China

The earliest evidence of silk production in China was found at the sites of Yangshao culture in Xia, Shanxi, where a cocoon of bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm, cut in half by a sharp knife is dated to between 5000 and 3000 BC. Fragments of primitive looms are also seen from the sites of Hemudu culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dated to about 4000 BC. Scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 BCE. Other fragments have been recovered from royal tombs in the Shang Dynasty.

Under the Shang Dynasty, Han Chinese clothing or Hanfu consisted of a yi, a narrow-cuffed, knee-length tunic tied with a sash, and a narrow, ankle-length skirt, called shang, worn with a bixi, a length of fabric that reached the knees. Clothing of the elite was made of silk in vivid primary colours.

Source: Britannica, Wikipedia, History of Clothing-Cambridge Press

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