Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tutmania in the Roaring Twenties: When Ancient Egypt was in Vogue

When archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, it set off a global firestorm.  The beginnings of the decade's Egyptomania started five years earlier with Cleopatra starring Theda Bara.  Bara's transparent, wispy costumes became iconic at a time when fashion was turning away from corseted silhouettes.  The press had covered Carter's earlier six seasons of excavations in the Valley of the Kings before his find, so there was a move towards Egypt in fashion and architecture before Carter actually found Tutankhamen's tomb.  Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, for example, opened a mere five weeks after Carter's discovery in 1922.  The design plans had originally been Spanish style, but those plans were mostly scrapped and replaced with an Egyptian design.  But the real craze came after the discovery.

 Unbroken seal of King Tut's tomb

Applications swamped the Patent and Trademark Office.  A whole slew of companies wanted to trademark Tutankhamen for products targeting women.  Businesses were eager to cash in on the craze and there were advertisements with Egyptian references.  The Saturday Evening Post ran Palmolive ads with ancient Egyptian imagery.

The New York Times reported on America's Tutmania:

"There is only one topic of conversation…One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs, and tomorrow probably genuine Tut-Ankh-Amen antiquities. Every hotel in Luxor today had something a la Tut-Ankh-Amen…There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag."

A sheer evening ensemble with Egyptian inspired patterns from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American fashion shows of 1923 in were filled with Egyptian inspired garments. Silk merchants saw a typically slow period improve. Silk company Cheney Brothers sent one of their designers to Egypt for inspiration, and designers from other companies went to the Metropolitan Museum for ideas. The 1925, International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris featured clothes that used Egyptian patterns to influence geometric shapes and simple, basic lines.  Colors came in shades like Nile green.  There were ancient Egyptian patterns on handbags, cigarette holders, and jewelry. Images of sphinxes, lotuses, camels, and palm trees could be found in stores across the country. Fashionable women wore headpieces.  Scarab-shaped jewelry mimicked Egyptian jewelry, and the trend influenced jewelers like Boivin, Lalique, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany, and Cartier. Cartier used striking, bright precious and semi-precious stones like emeralds and lapis lazuli on some of its designs.

 Egyptian revival Cartier ring, circa 1928 from FD

 Evening dress with ibis or vulture motif, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps as a way to cope with the rapid changes of 1920s society, Americans noticed the similarities they shared with ancient Egyptians. One Egyptologist saw the era's shortening hemlines in the dress lengths of Egyptian art. A headline in the Los Angeles Times read "Ancient Egypt Lives Again in Hollywood: Even the Bobbed Hair Reincarnated From the Flappers Who Lived When Tombs Were Built. The article included what were thought to be parallels between Hollywood and Egypt - scarab jewelry, bobbed hair, makeup. If ancient Egyptian women bobbed their hair, how bad could it be? Art and Archaeology noted the similarities between modern and ancient vanity that were unearthed in the excavations - jars and boxes for cosmetics and metal hand mirrors. Kohl was fashionable as eyeliner in the 1910s and 20s, and this vampish look was altered to a heavier, more authentic Egyptian look.

 Louis Brooks

These interpretations of ancient Egyptian art and design were of course, not entirely accurate either. Some attempts at hieroglyphics were pure gibberish. And there were skeptics about the longevity of the Egyptian trend. Art and Archeology called it a "passing fancy. National Geographic agreed. And while announcing increased silk sales in July 1923, the chairman of the Dress Fabric Association called the trend a "thing of the past".

1926 flapper dress with Egyptian inspired lotus detail from Vintage Seekers

In many ways these skeptics were right. The frivolity and decadence of the Egyptian revival began to taper off with the 1929 stock market crash. And while more toned down styles came with the Great Depression, the Egyptian revival is one of the most recognizable fads of the 1920s.

 Egyptian inspired showgirl costume

"Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion" in Art and Archaeology by Mary McAlister
Ancient Style Icon: King Tut Returns
Cleopatra & Egyptian Fashion in Film by Tove Hermanson

Egyptian Influences on Dress in the 1920s
Egyptian Theatre by Howard B. Haas and Ken Roe
Egyptian Revival in Art Deco by Aileen M. Mason
Fashions of a Decade: The 1920s by Jacqueline Herald
Old World, New World: America Meets Tutankhamen by Mary Rekas


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