Upper-class Egyptian men and women considered wigs an essential part of their wardrobe. Wearing a wig signaled a person's rank in Egyptian society. Although a shaved head was a sign of nobility during most of the Egyptian kingdoms, the majority of Egyptians kept their heads covered. Wigs were worn in place of headdresses or, for special occasions, with elaborate headdresses. Egyptian law prohibited slaves and servants from shaving their heads or wearing wigs.
The base of an Egyptian wig was a fiber-netting skullcap, with strands of human hair, wool, flax, palm fibers, felt, or other materials attached. The wig hair often stuck straight out from the skullcap, creating large, full wigs that offered wearers protection from the heat of the sun. Most often black, wigs were also other colors. Queen Nefertiti, who lived during the fourteenth century B.C.E. , was known for wearing dark blue wigs, and festive wigs were sometimes gilded, or thinly coated in gold.
Wig hair was arranged in decorative styles throughout all the kingdoms of Egypt. During the earliest dynasties (which began around 3200 B.C.E. ) and the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2700–c. 2000 B.C.E. ), both men and women wore closely cropped wigs with rows of short curls or slightly longer straight hair. In later kingdoms, some women began to grow their hair longer and wore wigs of greater length and bulk that showed their natural hair beneath. By the time of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–c. 1500 B.C.E. ), bulky wigs with hair coils draping forward over each shoulder were favored. During the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750 B.C.E. ) men's wigs became much longer in the front than in the back and less bulky, but women's wigs became larger, completely covering the shoulders. For special occasions, wigs were decorated with gold, braided with colorful ribbons, or adorned with beads. Wigs were made even more elaborate with the addition of golden bands, caps, and fancy headbands.
The hot climate of Egypt made it uncomfortable for men to wear beards. However, Egyptians believed that the beard was manly, so they developed artificial beards, or beard wigs. Men of royal rank tied stubby beards on their chins for official or festive occasions. The king's beard was longer than that of other men and was usually worn straight and thick. Gods were depicted with thinner beards that curled up at the tip. Egyptians believed that kings were descended from the gods, and in some ceremonies kings would wear a curved beard to show that they represented gods.
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