Today, when clothes are mass-produced and hardly survive a couple of years, it’s difficult to imagine that our ancestors wove garments that still look good after thosuands of years.
Elaborately stitched and pleated, a linen dress found in an Egyptian tomb demonstates the complexity and wealth of the ancient society that produced it. New tests show that the beautiful piece of clothing dates back more than 5,000 years, making it the oldest woven garment ever found.
As very few pieces of ancient clothing made of plant fibers or animal skin have escaped disintegration, the Tarkhan dress – as the garment is known, after the Tarkhan cemetery south of Cairo in Egypt where it was excavated in 1913 – is a discovery of surpassing rarity. According to Alice Stevenson, curator of London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and author of a study establishing the dress’s age, textiles recovered from archaeological sites are generally no older than 2,000 years.
Unlike the handful of similarly old garments that have survived the steep attrition of the ages, the Tarkhan dress is a beautiful example of ancient high-end fashion. While the other survivors were simply wrapped or draped around the body, this ancient piece of perfection would look flawlessly at home even in a modern department store.
And we’ve almost missed its beauty… After spending five millennia in an Egyptian tomb, the dress was sent to the Petrie Museum by archaeologists in the early 1900s, just to be entwined in a bundle of filthy rags and overlooked for many decades to come. Then, in 1977, some conservation experts looked through the bundle and came across the garment, luckily recognizing what a rarity they were looking at. And that is the only reason why we can admire it today.
Although most probably the Tarkhan dress was originally longer, in it’s present form it would be a perfect fit for the world’s oldest trousers. This pair of wool pants was recently discovered in a graveyard in western China’s Tarim Basin and dates back to around 3,300 years ago.
According to a report by scientists investigating the find, the primeval piece of clothing was created by nomadic herders in Central Asia to provide bodily protection and freedom of movement for horseback journeys and mounted warfare.
This shows in the design, too. It features straight fitting legs (no bell-bottom here) and a wide crotch with a sewn reinforcement, complete with elegant bands of patterned decoration. Instead of the modern method of cutting down large pieces of fabric, these early pants were woven on a loom in precisely-sized segments to form the final garment, like nomad couture.
Here’s how they would probably be advertised today:
The amazing find indeed “supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists,” University of Pennsylvania China expert Victor Mair confirmed to Science News. But if pants were invented to ride horses in China 5,000 years ago, what excuse do we have for the Borat thong?