In 1913, amidst the sands of Egypt, a discovery lay waiting, veiled in the mundane. William Matthews Flinders Petrie ¹, an archaeologist, was excavating the cemetery of Tarkhan.
His expectations were dashed upon finding a tomb that offered little more than a collection of mundane objects: calcite jars, wooden tool handles, a small pot lid, and a pile of dirty linen.
Yet, hidden within this unassuming pile was a treasure that would rewrite history – the Tarkhan Dress.
The Tarkhan Dress
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Fast forward to 1977, and the seemingly insignificant ‘dirty laundry’ discovered in 1913 revealed its true worth. Museum conservators unearthed the Tarkhan Dress ², an incredibly well-preserved, nearly complete linen garment.
Dating back to between 5,100 and 5,500 years ago, this dress from the dawn of the kingdom of Egypt is currently the oldest known woven garment.
Originally falling past the knees, it features tailored sleeves, a V-neck, and narrow pleats, indicating sophisticated textile craftsmanship.
The dress, found inside out in the tomb, was likely worn in life, as evidenced by creases at the elbows and armpits. This discovery showcases the complexity and wealth of ancient Egyptian society and raises questions about the evolution of clothing and fashion in human history.
The Tarkhan Dress, a testament to ancient haute couture, was likely an elite article, hinting at the social stratification of the time.
Its existence challenges our understanding of early clothing, pushing us to reconsider the origins and evolution of personal attire in ancient civilizations.
Tracing the Origins of Clothing
The quest to pinpoint the inception of clothing leads us to the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia. Here, archaeologists uncovered woven fabric fragments dating back 8,500 to 8,700 ³ years.
Contrary to previous beliefs that the inhabitants wore wool and imported linen, recent studies reveal these textiles were made from bast fibers, specifically from oak trees.
Bast fibers, found between the bark and the wood of trees like oak, willow, and linden, were also used to create rope.
Oak trees, abundant in the region and used as building material, provided the raw material for these ancient textiles.
This discovery at Çatalhöyük not only pushes back the date of early textile use but also sheds light on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of Neolithic societies in fabric production, using locally available materials.
Beyond the Fabric
In the Dzudzuana Cave ⁴ in Georgia, a groundbreaking discovery was made that significantly altered our understanding of the origins of clothing. Archaeologists found the oldest known colorful flax fibers on Earth, dating back to 36,000 years ago.
This remarkable find suggests that the earliest clothing, which was likely made of animal skins and used by early humans more than 70,000 years ago, evolved into the use of woven plant fibers.
The dyed flax fibers from Dzudzuana Cave indicate that early humans in this region had developed the skill of weaving textiles and dyeing them using local plants.
This discovery pushes back the timeline of clothing production and highlights Georgia as a potential site where the first clothing was invented.
The sophistication of these early textiles reflects a significant leap in human innovation and cultural development, marking a pivotal moment in the history of clothing production.
The Indirect Clues: Tools & Lice
Sometimes, the story of clothing is told through indirect evidence. In the Sibudu Cave in South Africa, a bone implement consistent with sewing needles, dating back to around 61,000 years ago, was discovered.
This needle, part of the Middle Stone Age deposits, suggests using animal hides for clothing. The needle’s existence implies a sophisticated understanding of garment making, including using animal sinew or plant material as thread.
But perhaps the most intriguing evidence comes from an unlikely source – lice. Research ⁵ indicates that the divergence of human head louse and body louse occurred at least 83,000 and possibly as early as 170,000 years ago.
This divergence is significant because body lice thrive in the microenvironment of garments, suggesting the adoption of clothing by Homo sapiens during this period.
The emergence of clothing lice provides a more specific estimate of the origin of clothing use, reinforcing the idea that clothing likely originated with anatomically modern humans in Africa.
The Future of Fashion History
The journey to uncover the origins of clothing is far from over.
New discoveries and innovative research methods continue illuminating this aspect of human history. The answers may lie hidden, from museum collections to archaeological sites, waiting to be rediscovered.
And who knows, perhaps the next clue to our sartorial past will emerge from an unexpected source.
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.