Net Dresses in Ancient Egypt and Elsewhere – Then and Now

Beadnet dresses seem to have been common in ancient Egypt.  They are generally  made of several compounds (e.g., beads and shells), examples being found in the 21st Dynasty (1069-747 BC), as seen on the line drawing of a coffin painting of the Priestess Iwesemhesetmwt, which is shown in the above heading.  The practice of making or depicting  beadnet dresses continued for hundreds of years, as seen on a small, painted sarcophagi dated ca. 600 BC., discussed later in this blog.

This entry is especially for Karen Resta and her daughter Kristen Bateman, who has recently designed and made a lovely net dress combining several materials – a dress that is very much in keeping with dress style aficionados – both modern and Ancient Egyptian.  Adding historical depth to one/s couture enriches both understanding and value of the final product.  Tremendously.  Here is Kristen’s design –

Net dress designed by Kristen, via Karen Resta.

Net dress designed by Kristen Bateman containing several materials, via Karen Resta.

Now, on to the historical depth part –

Reconstructed beadnet dress,Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Khufu, 2551–2528 B.C. .  Source - Giza, tomb G 7440 Z. 1927: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1927: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.

Reconstructed beadnet dress,Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Khufu, 2551–2528 B.C. . Source – Giza, tomb G 7440 Z. 1927: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1927: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.  Accession No.  27.1548.1

Depictions of women in Egyptian art occasionally feature garments decorated with an overall lozenge pattern. This design is believed to represent beadwork, which was either sewn onto a linen dress or worked into a separate net worn over the linen.

This beadnet dress is the earliest surviving example of such a garment. It has been painstakingly reassembled from approximately seven thousand beads found in an undisturbed burial of a female contemporary of King Khufu.

Although their string had disintegrated, a few beads still lay in their original pattern on and around the mummy, permitting an accurate reconstruction. The color of the beads has faded, but the beadnet was originally blue and blue green in imitation of lapis lazuli and turquoise.

Source – Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Beadnet Dress

Another beadnet dress of the Old Kingdom, it was excavated by by Guy Brunton at Qau, Upper Egypt, in 1923-24 and now resides in the museum of University College London, where information on the dress states that –

Beadnet dress now in the museum of University College London.  Source - UCL

Beadnet dress now in the museum of University College London. Source – Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London

The dress may have been worn for dancing in Dynasty 5 (c. 2400 BC). Each of the 127 shells around the fringe are plugged with a small stone so that it would have emitted a rattling sound when the wearer moved. When it was being conserved, it was thought to fit a girl of about 12 and to be worn naked.  

Guy Brunton commented that the dress reminds us of the story of King Sneferu going on a sailing trip on the palace lake, recorded on a papyrus dating from around 1800 BC. The King gets twenty young women to row a boat and, to relieve his boredom, orders:

“Let there be brought to me twenty women with the shapeliest bodies, breasts and braids, who have not yet given birth. And let there be brought to me 20 nets. Give those nets to these women in place of their clothes!”

Directions are given on the UCL site for making a similar beadnet dress, which contains both beads and shells (reference below) –

How to make a bead-net dress
By Janet Johnstone

Beads (cylinder beads 1.5 to 3cm long and round beads)
Shells drilled with holes for threading (optional)
Strong polyester thread natural or cream and a long needle

See this link for the rest of the instructions and accompanying graphs.

Small mummy case of the 26th Dnyasty, ca. 600 BC.  Source - Swansia Egypt Center.

Small mummy case of the 26th Dynasty, ca. 600 BC. Source – Swansea Egypt Center.

Important to note – that linen dresses could be worn below net dresses in ancient Egypt.  This would enhance warmth during the winter cool months as well as (perhaps) rendering the dress more conservative.  Kristen/s net dress could also be modelled with a sheer shift underneath, perhaps of a contrasting color.

In addition to actual beadnet dresses in ancient Egypt, drawings of beaded costumes were painted on mummy coffins.  Examples of two ladies who seem to be wearing net dresses appear in the drawing at the very top of the blog.

Another example – the little wooden coffin shown to the left, now in the Swansea Museum, contains a foetus that is dated to the 26th Dynasty, ca. 600 BC.  It is decorated with what appears to be a beadnet dress – approximately 2000 years after the two museum examples pictured above.  So dressing in net remained the vogue for many centuries in Egypt.

The baby-mummy has recently been scanned and shown to contain a small foetus, a touching end to the near-life of an ancient infant.  The case was collected by Sir Henry Wellcome who, as commonly was the case during the era of Egyptomania and related artifact collecting in the 19th Century, did not provide the item with a provenance – with a place of origin, which helps enormously in determining just who was the child, to whom, and so forth.

(In fact, he may have purchased it locally from a dealer who himself was not knowledgeable of the items origin.  This unfortunate practice of  context-free artifact-collecting continued into the 20th Century and unhappily continues today.)

Interesting to note, the hieroglyphs on the little coffin are nonsense, having no meaning, but this was not an unusual practice and perhaps was employed in the less expensive coffins.

Here is pictured the recent scanning of the little mummy from Swansea, wearing her net dress –

Baby Mummy being scanned.  Source - Swansea Egypt Centre.

Baby Mummy wearing a net dress, who is being scanned. Source – Swansea Egypt Centre.

 Moral of the tale – I hope that Kristen will continue her lovely design work – both imaginatively and with historical depth.  Imaginative couture is so often historically grounded – being multidimensional, not just a simple paste-up.  Wearers of her items will surly appreciate purchasing an item that is described as being in a long and famous tradition – whether it is from Ancient Egyptian net dresses or another tradition.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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