See the World’s Oldest Dress

A 5,000-year-old Egyptian garment provides a glimpse into the fashions of yester-yester-yesteryear.

There’s vintage, and then there’s vintage.

New tests show that a linen dress found in an Egyptian tomb dates backmore than 5,000 years, making it the oldest woven garment yet found. Beautifully stitched and pleated, it signals the complexity and wealth of the ancient society that produced it.

The garment, known as the Tarkhan dress, is a find of surpassing rarity. Few pieces of early clothing, which was made from plant fibers or animal skins, escaped disintegration. Textiles recovered from archaeological sites are generally no older than 2,000 years, says Alice Stevenson, curator of London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and an author of a new study in the journal Antiquity about the dress’s age.

The world’s oldest woven garment, called the Tarkhan Dress, probably fell past the knees originally. At 5,100 to 5,500 years old, it dates to the dawn of the kingdom of Egypt. [Image: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London]

A handful of garments of similar age have survived to the present day, but those were simply wrapped or draped around the body. The Tarkhan dress, on the other hand, is ancient haute couture. With its tailored sleeves, V-neck, and narrow pleats, it would look perfectly at home in a modern department store.

Such fine detail could only have been turned out by a specialized craftsperson. And such people arise only in a prosperous and hierarchical society, such as the ancient Egypt of 5,000 years ago, a time when the kingdom was first united under a single ruler.

Creases at the elbows and armpits also hint that someone once wore the dress; it wasn’t just ceremonial.

LEARN MORE: Victorian Jewellery Was Made From Human Hair]

The woollen trousers are another record-setter: the world’s oldest known pants. They were found in the grave of a nomadic herdsman buried 3,000 or so years ago in what is now western China, and may have been invented for horseback riding. 

The woollen trousers are another record-setter: the world’s oldest known pants. They were found in the grave of a nomadic herdsman buried 3,000 or so years ago in what is now western China, and may have been invented for horseback riding. [Image: German Archaeological Institute]

After spending five millennia in an Egyptian tomb, the dress was sent to the Petrie by archaeologists in the early 1900s. But it was entwined in a bundle of filthy rags and overlooked. Not until conservation experts sorted through the bundle in 1977 did they stumble across the garment. It looks like a tattered shirt, but similar attire from a few centuries later is floor-length, and it’s likely the Tarkhan garment was originally longer, Stevenson says.

Only the upper crust could’ve afforded such a dress. Tombstones of roughly the same age as the dress depict people wearing similar robes, says Jana Jones of Australia’s Macquarie University, adding that the hieroglyph for “dress” features on lists of items taken to the afterlife, along with food and cosmetics.

“I am delighted to read that the Tarkhan Dress has been securely radiocarbon dated and that science has restored it to its rightful place as the earliest woven garment,” Jones says via email.

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