Fashion is King


While King Tutankhamun took the world stage in the press, he also took over in the fashion world. In a February 25 article in the New York Times, one fashion guru pronounced that America was in a better mood to produce styles than Europe due to World War I, and this year the American shows were dominated by Egyptian fashions. A Feb. 27 article proclai med a "complete change in furniture, decorations, jewelry and women's dress... as a result of the discoveries in the tomb of Tutankhamun." By July 18, silk trade businessmen announced that the Egyptian fashions had lifted a normally dry silk season to ne w heights. Yet even announcing this, he noted that the "fad" was over.

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The largest archaeological find in history had become the best way to make money. First, the tomb benefited the locals in Luxor. The discovery helped transport owners, hotels, liveries and shopkeepers. One tradesman said to a reporter: "'Insh Allah [Please God], they find a new tomb next year also.'"(59) From there, the sensation spread like wildfire. In the same day that the Times reported that a New Yorker had bought the rights to filmed tomb scenes,(60) the newspaper also reported that Washington D.C.'s Patent office received a flood of applications for the use of Tut-Ankh-Amen as a trademark--objects chiefly for "women's use."(61) In fact, commercially, Tutankhamen made the biggest impact on women's fashion.

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Egypt had been "advertised almost to the point of saturation," but the new interest manifested mostly with dress styles, according to one Art and Archaeology article.(62) "Printed materials sometimes of frightful vividness attempt to reproduce the scenery of Egypt with patterns of sphinxes, camels and palm trees. Dangling earrings and colored sandals help to complete the oriental picture."(63) For better or worse, Egyptian motifs had invaded America. "What was worn in the days of the Pharaoh was made to seem new," said another Art and Archaeology article.(64) The first signs that the fashion industry would pick up on the trend came as designers examined works at the Metropolitan Museum to glean ideas for designs.(65)

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Just days later the Egyptian influence exploded at the Hotel Savoy's design show by the Fashion Review of United Cloak and Suit Designers' Association of America. Designers used the show as a chance to remark on their superiority to European fashion: "'America is in a better mood to produce styles today than Europe'" because they are "'war mad.'"(66) One designer also said that the "Egyptian trend in clothes was on before the discovery of the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen."(67) The Americans were determined not only to show their strength in the fashion world, but thought Tut-Ankh-Amen was the way to do it. Fashions, for the moment, shifted strongly toward Egyptian styles.

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By February 26, 1923, H.R. Mallinson and Co., a silk firm, probably motivated by its own desire to expand, predicted that the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb would change furniture, decorations, jewelry and women's dress. Furthermore, the firm said that the tomb could possibly lead to a more extended revival--"a distinct epoch of Egyptian fashions, the adoption of flowing robes, a complete change in our jewelry, furniture and decorations."(68) The Chairman of the Dress Fabric Association, a silk group, said in July that the Egyptian fashions had created "through publicity an entirely new silk season…one of the liveliest the silk business has experienced in years." Yet alas, the chairman, F. B. Patton, dismissed the vision of a permanent Egyptian epoch envisioned by H.R. Mallinson and Co. (69)

Headdress The Egyptian fad, Patton said, was now a "thing of the past."(69)

(Above left, a garment of coptic Egypt, fourth to sixth century A.D., Metropolitan Museum, New York. Right, an Egyptian feathered Head-dress and a gold diadem of a Princess. (April 1923, Art and Archaeology)
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Others seemed to agree that Tutankhamen's time in the fashion world had come and gone like his short reign in Egypt, even before it was over. Art and Archeology's readers learned from the magazine that "fortunately for the true lover of art all this is but a passing fancy rather amusing while it lasts."(70) The National Geographic Magazine affirmed this opinion: "It is unlikely that the comparatively small tomb itself will have more than passing interest."(71) Still others deplored that the king was being used by entrepreneurs as a commercialized fad. Fashion Ad"It is pathetic to think that the man who once ruled …is today but a mummy, a centre of acute interest…in a phrase, a 'new stunt.'"(72) Englishmen, in particular, for reason mentioned previously, were disgusted by the commercialism surrounding the find. "It is vulgar…for a man to aim do laboriously at carrying beyond the grave the magnificence of life. But it is at least as bad to exploit this old vulgarity of pride in the interests of the new vulgarity of commercialism."(73)

Even as the New York Times reported the spread of the Egyptian motif in fashion, advertising copy in the 1920s shows how Tutankhamen influenced advertisers as well. In a series of advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post, Palmolive compared their product to that of Cleopatra's own beauty products.(74) The ads featured scenes of a queen and a king in full regalia, waited on by servants and dressed richly. An ad in the New York Times, placed next to an article about Tutankhamen, showed the latest fashions--"The decorative splendors of the Tut-ankh-amen period are reflected in the rich embroidery motif on this distinguished Wrap-Over Coat with its aristocratic collar of bisque squirrel."(75) Yet at $95, only the most elite could feel like a queen for a day. Still, these kind of clothing ads offered everyday people the dream of being royalty in a time long gone. Still other ads testified to the longevity of Egypt. "Achievements that endure are the milestones along the great highway of progress," said a typewriter company's ad in the Saturday Evening Post that featured a picture of a typewriter beside a pyramid.(76) The message was longevity, which Americans identified with Egypt rather than their own civilization.

Full paper and footnotes.

Related Article: Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion (1923) by Mary MacAlister.

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At left "Mrs. Asquith, wife of the British Prime ex-Premier, appeared in London recently wearing this gown draped in the manner popular when King Tut ruled." (Literary Digest, March 10, 1923.)

Photo Sources:

"At the Tomb of Tutankhamen." National Geographic Magazine XLIII: 5, May 1923: 467. (At left)

McAlister, Mary. "Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion." Art and Archaeology 15, April 1923: 167-175.

New York Times. 8 March 1923: 6.
New York Times. 25 Feb. 1923: 6.
New York Times. 9 March 1923: 5, 6.
New York Times. 27 March 1923: 7.
New York Times. 8 March 1923: 6.


Uncovering Tutankhamen I The Boy King I Buried Treasure I Metropolitan Connections
Cinematic Contribut ions I Stop the Presses I Literary Illusions I Fashion is King
Americans Abroad I Main