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Civil Costume - Coptic Wiki


Fabrics preserved in public collections are very often in fragments, whether because they were discovered in a poor state of preservation or because a single garment was divided at the end of the excavation. The dating of these textiles is generally agreed to be a sensitive matter, since they most frequently come from clandestine excavations. Their classification therefore depends on the style and not the archaeological context. Some official excavations, such as those at Akhmim, the Fayyum, and Antinoë (ANTINOOPOLIS), have enriched the museums. Most often, unfortunately, these discoveries have not been published or are mentioned only in passing in the publications (excavations of Clédat at Bawit), or are not reproduced in photographs. Finally, certain important collections have regrettably not yet been published systematically (Coptic Museum, Cairo; Metropolitan Museum, New York).

Comparing preserved remains and representations of clothed is also helpful in analyzing Coptic civilian costume. Stelae and reliefs treat garments in rather summary fashion, but they are richer in information when painted details have survived. Wall paintings, generally more precise, portray civilians only rarely. Some textiles depict clothed figures, and may thus be used to determine the arrangement of the pieces that composed the costume.

Finally, the clothes in use in Egypt in the first centuries of the Christian era are abundantly represented by portraits, masks, and funerary cloths.


The custom of Coptic women wearing a headdress was respected from the beginning of the Christian era until well after the Arab conquest. This custom, common to the peoples of the Mediterranean basin, had a symbolic significance in Christian eyes, according to CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, since it represented the power of man over woman (Paedagogus 3.11). Hence in paintings and on stelae, women are always depicted with their heads covered and are generally draped in a large shawl or veil. Pieces of clothing specially intended for the head were also manufactured by the Copts.

If they appear only rarely in paintings or on stelae, bonnets are frequently mentioned by the archaeologists (Quibell at Saqqara, Gayet at Antinoë), who describe their material (linen, wool, or silk) and their decoration. These bonnets, put together from several parts, may according to the wealth of their owner have been cut from coarse linen cloth or decorated with a subtle combination of colored ribbons sewn on a background of linen of extremely fine texture (fragmentary head, Louvre). Others are adorned with chenilles of colored wool or tapestry motifs.

Corresponding, no doubt, to the period during which discriminatory measures were taken against the by the caliph al-Rashid, some bonnets carry a sewn decoration of two stripes that form a cross (Louvre, TC 2479). It was from the tenth century on that bonnets of multicolored silk were manufactured for women as well as children. Their use, obviously reserved for the highest classes in the population, continued beyond this period. There are only very few bonnets in the collections, and they are generally fragmentary (Louvre, 8241).

Museums do possess head bands (fillets) executed in a plaiting often given the name sprang in unbleached linen and colored wool. Such textiles were often called “net,” “lace,” or “filet de dentelle.” Their use is mentioned by Gayet, who says he has even discovered some worn under a bonnet. If the fillets of conical form indisputably belong to this category of headdress (Louvre, TC2486, TC2483, TC2474; Victoria and Albert Museum, 32, 142, 143, 144; Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels), it is more difficult to classify the rectangular fillets whose form, like their technique and decoration, may lead to some confusion with headbags.

If fillets and bonnets do not appear in evidence, a feminine fashion widespread in the Byzantine period is attested by plaster statuettes, which show women wearing a thick pad surrounding the head and knotted at the nape of the neck or under the chin. This arrangement is confirmed by the tombs of women discovered at Antinoë by Gayet and then Donadoni. Some pads consist of tufts of multicolored wool threaded on a cord (Louvre, AF6258). Others, executed in fabrics either plaited or in the sprang style, are stuffed with horsehair or wool (Louvre, 868, B149); others again, stuffed in the same way, are made of a thick web of discarded pieces of material (Louvre, no. C350).

According to archaeological evidence, these pads could be worn over head fillets. If these pads seem to be a survival of the crown of justification deposited on the mummies in the pharaonic period, it is more probable in the Coptic period that the head pad was a simple piece of civilian dress. In fact, women are depicted in paintings dressed in a shawl bulging out on the forehead, as if this part of the head was upholstered with a pad. Moreover, some pads have been found sewn to a small shawl. This fashion could have been introduced into Egypt from Palmyra, where it was much in favor, as witnessed by the female funerary busts found at this site. It is more difficult to determine the use of small leather pads with openwork and gilded decoration, which have been discovered at the neck of some mummies and whose dimensions are sensibly smaller than those of the fabric examples (Louvre, X4852; British Museum, 26563).


The shawl, together with the tunic, is the piece of clothing best represented in the collections, and its almost systematic use is confirmed both by the evidence and by the archaeologists. Different types of shawls seem to have been in use. One most frequently represented consists of a large rectangular piece of fabric draped around the shoulders and the waist (covering the head when it is worn by women), leaving one arm free. This arrangement is reproduced on a painting from Antinoë representing the deceased Theodosia in her tomb and on a number of cloths. This type of shawl could equally be used as a blanket, as is shown by several Coptic terms employed indiscriminately in the sense of “outer garment.” This practice should be compared with the Greek habit of using the himation (outer garment) in the same manner. However, all Coptic shawls are not of the same impressive dimensions, and some of more modest size seem to have been more readily worn by women. They were simply placed on the head, with the two sides crossed over in front and thrown back behind the shoulders, or folded diagonally and knotted on the breast.

The mantle appears to have enjoyed only little success among the down to the Muslim period, since they preferred to wear the large draped shawl. The mantle and shawl were never worn at the same time. If a cloth (Metropolitan Museum, 08.181.8) perhaps shows a woman clad in a mantle, it is from the eighth century and later that this garment is portrayed. There were two types in existence at the same time. The first and more common was a rectangular piece of fabric, without sleeves, large enough to cover the arms about 3¾ to 5 feet (1.15 to 1.50 m), but not falling much lower than the knees. An opening for the head was contrived by a momentary interruption of the weaving, and hence appears as a simple horizontal slit (stela in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, 8705). The other is longer and provided with sleeves woven at the same time as the body of the garment. It is equipped with a hood formed by a rectangle folded in two and sewn to the slit at the neck (Louvre, H183; Bode-Museum [former Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum], Berlin, 17521).

The decoration of these mantles was patterned on that of the tunics and underwent a parallel evolution. It consists of clavi (vertical bands framing the neck opening on back and front), edgings to the sleeves, and eventually orbicula (medallions placed at the shoulders, and at the knees in front and behind) and horizontal bands running along the lower edge of the mantle and going up at a right angle on the sides (Louvre, G205). From the tenth century, the use of the mantle became general to the point of rivaling that of the shawl, which tended to disappear.

In parallel with the tunics, we may note the increasing use of wool both for the background (instead of linen) and for the decoration, and by way of consequence the extension of the technique of tapestry and of color to the background of the garment. At the same time, a very clear taste asserts itself for overlay and the use of decoration selvages (Louvre, 2051, 2057). It is difficult to decide whether we should classify a curious garment reproduced on certain stelae as a mantle (British Museum, 1523; Coptic Museum, Cairo, 8689). It comes to a point on the front of the body, which might indicate that, being circular in form (whereas all woven Coptic garments were basically rectangular or square, since they were woven to shape and not cut from a piece of fabric to be sewn up afterward) and without any slit for the arms, it could be thrown back on the shoulders to allow greater freedom of movement.


From the discoveries made in the cemeteries, it is known that both men and women wore scarves. This is confirmed by cloths, stelae, and even fabrics (one deriving from Akhmim and preserved at the Abegg Stiftung). Long, narrow, and often ending in fringes, these scarves were most often carelessly thrown over the shoulders or round the neck. Sometimes they were draped in a fairly complex manner, like large shawls (stela in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, 8687). While many scarves discovered are of wool of plain color, the majority of those preserved in the museums carry a decoration placed at the extremities, which consists of simple stripes (Louvre, MG738; stela in the British Museum, 1533), squares, medallions, stars, or flowers (Louvre, MG1260), always executed in tapestry. Some are entirely covered with registers of tapestry: decorations of animals passant, or of geometrical or floral motifs, with subtle variations of color at the heart of a single motif, effected by gradually lightening of the colors (Musée des Beaux Arts, Orléans, 54; Louvre, MG426, MG449, MG730). Some techniques appear to have been used less. That of weaving a boucle decoration is very rarely seen, although it was a technique familiar to the Coptic weavers (Louvre, MG613). In other cases, lines of color traced by using warp and woof of different colors marked out squares on the background of the material. This technique was employed well after the Arab conquest for some tunics. Finally, the technique, used exceptionally for the decoration of Coptic materials, of printing with a stencil plate is attested for a scarf found at Antinoë by Gayet and now preserved in the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels (44).


The tunic is the piece of clothing most often represented, as well as the one of which the largest number are found in the collections. This abundant documentation is explained by the fact that this garment was in use among the from the beginning of the Christian era until long after the Arab conquest. Furthermore, the discoveries made at the time of the official excavations testify that civilians were often buried with several tunics one on top of another. This is not a specifically funerary custom, since wall paintings, like portraits, masks, and cloths, frequently depict persons wearing at least two tunics. In fact, it is usual to notice two series of clavi at the level of the neck opening, or again to see a longer tunic extending beyond the outer tunic.

The form of Coptic tunics is constant until the tenth century. They form a T with sleeves, and are woven of a single piece, beginning with a sleeve, the decoration being executed at the same time (orbicula, tabula, clavi, sleeve-bands, decoration at the neck or the bottom of the garment). Whether they are long—reaching to the ankles—or short—stopping at the knees—all had an impressive breadth of shoulder compared with the narrowness of the sleeves. The excess fabric fell back on the arm at the level of the elbow (as is shown by a painting from the tomb of Theodosia at Antinoë), and the fullness of the garment was caught in at the waist by a belt. It is for this reason that many tunics had a stitched fold at the waist. Decorated tunics were worn both by women and by men, and children were dressed like adults. These precious garments were manufactured by specialists, and it is common to find a used tunic decoration employed again as an economy measure and sewn on a new tunic.


Some tunics, particularly fine and almost transparent, have been found by archaeologists as having been worn under thicker tunics, in female tombs (Antinoë, Saqqara). Their form is in no way different from that of the outer tunics. The decoration, however, is characteristically a series of flowers or floral buttons arranged at the edge of the sleeves, of clavi, or of orbicula, and sometimes enriched with large triangles filled with the same motifs placed at the neck opening or at the bottom near the edge (Louvre, F189, F190).

Whether from an excess of modesty or negligence, archaeologists do not mention other undergarments, although their use is attested both by the vocabulary and by some representations. For example, Saint Thecla is portrayed on stela no. 8693 in the Coptic Museum in Cairo with her loins draped in a linen cloth. This is no doubt the perizôma mentioned in the Coptic martyr narrations. It must have consisted of a rectangular piece of fabric simply draped, unless it was formed by a triangular loincloth in the manner of those found in Nubia in certain monastery cemeteries. In addition to this, women wore a linen cloth swathing the breasts. The only references to undergarments are by Gayet and Quibell. These are pantaloons worn by women, which probably correspond to a rather late date. In fact, by the complexity of their execution (they are composed of several parts put together by an expert set of seams) as well as by the materials used (silk and cotton), the examples preserved (Louvre, AF6093; Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, 425) indicate a very advanced stage in the evolution of Coptic civilian dress.


We have seen that the use of belts was rendered indispensable by the great width of tunics. Archaeologists mention different kinds of belts found during excavations, and it is possible to compare with their descriptions several fragments of fabric cataloged as “galloons” in the museums; these might just as well have served as belts as braid sewn on a garment. Some are simple twisted or plaited belts, sometimes in two colors (Louvre, MG1120); others are regular galloons woven to patterns or stitched (Louvre, MG45, MG368; F21, MG594). Finally, Gayet at Antinoë and Quibell at Saqqara have discovered belts of multicolored knitting (Louvre, AF6027.)


On a few stelae (Coptic Museum, Cairo, 8705) and in certain paintings (Wadi Sarjah), people are depicted carrying a handbag of approximately rectangular form, the surface of which is decorated with geometrical motifs. During the excavations at Antinoë Gayet in fact discovered some bags that had been made in the sprang style, in wool of different colors, or in unbleached linen. While some pieces of network preserved in the museums may, by their form, their decoration, and their close-woven texture, have been used as handbags (Louvre, E12599; Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 477), this is not the case for the majority of those preserved, since their mesh is much too large for this purpose. We must therefore consider them as head fillets, inasmuch as this item of Coptic dress is much more frequently attested by the discoveries of the archaeologists than handbags.


The use of socks by the Copts is confirmed both by the excavations carried out at Antinoë or Bahnasa and by some cloths, generally representing women (Louvre, AF6440; Metropolitan Museum, 08.181.8). To judge from the specimens preserved in the museums (Victoria and Albert Museum, 592, 2085) and the archaeological evidence, these socks were of wool worked in knit stitch. Unlike our modern socks, they were shaped in such a way as to isolate the great toe from the other toes, no doubt to make room for sandal laces. These socks are most often colored, and some were adorned with stripes. At Antinoë, Gayet found some socks with top and heel of a different color from that of the main body. The description he gives and the fact that they were discovered in very rich tombs prompt one to think that these were socks worn by the members of the Byzantine administration stationed at Antinoë. In addition, Gayet mentions stockings of wool and socks of stitched cloth, of which no example is preserved in the public collections.

Sandals and Shoes

The use of sandals, frequent in pharaonic Egypt and in particular from the New Kingdom on, was maintained in Coptic Egypt. The Copts, however, diversified the categories of footwear and employed leather almost exclusively, whereas in ancient Egypt vegetable fibers were preferred. Coptic sandals, like their more ancient prototypes, were always provided with a strap separating the big toe from the others. However, instead of being fastened directly to the sides of the sandal, as in the simpler models (Romans Museum, 176), this thong may have been attached to one or more transverse bands, which may have been richly decorated (Romans Museum, 173). Sometimes a strap passing behind the heel was added (Romans Museum, 171).

Shoes properly so called are mentioned much more often than sandals by the archaeologists, and appear in larger numbers in the collections. The sole was always composed of several layers, while the upper and the sides may have been either of one piece (Louvre, B294) or in three pieces (Louvre, D1335). The heel was always reinforced by a semicircular piece of leather. The upper may be rounded (Louvre, C740, D1747, B130), straight (Louvre, B217), or pointed (Louvre, C740, C342, D942). More rarely, laces were knotted around the ankle (Louvre, D942, C342; Romans Museum, 180; Coptic Museum, Cairo, stela no. 8685). The decoration, generally rather rich, played on the contrast between the background color—red (Louvre, B130, C740), black, or more rarely white (Louvre, C342, C352)—and that of the bands sewn on the periphery of the shoe.

Gilding was frequently employed as a decoration either for the band or in the form of motifs in cutwork sewn on the upper. This decoration consisted most often of squares (Louvre, C352, B130) or circles (Romans Museum, 177), sometimes set off as a free-hanging decoration on the point of the toe or at the heel (Romans Museum, 175 and 177). Some cloths (Cairo Museum, 33281) present shoes laced upward, which is confirmed by the discoveries made by Gayet at Antinoë. It should, however, be noted that no shoe of this type is preserved in the collections.

Finally, Cledat at Bawit and Gayet at Antinoë have found boots, generally worn by men. An example in the Romans Museum (1886b) shows that boots, like shoes, were made of several parts sewn together and that they ended with a pointed toe curved upward as well as at the top of the boot. Like the shoes and sandals, the boots have no heels; the use of heels appears to have been totally unknown in Coptic Egypt.

From the beginning of the Christian era to the twelfth century, Coptic civilian costume varied little in its components. It is, however, possible to detect that in the course of time some elements formerly in fashion fell into disuse. Thus it is that the large shawl of the early centuries was replaced by the small shawl, itself later rivaled by the mantle. It is the permanence in the use of these different garments that attracts attention when one studies the Coptic civilian dress. We note during several centuries the custom of putting tunics (normally two or three) on top of one another and covering them sometimes with a shawl, sometimes with a mantle. The use of headdresses for women is also a constant. It must be stated that, on the whole, the Arab conquest does not seem in any way to have overturned the habits of the Copts in matters of dress. These appear to have been modified only well after the conquest under pressure from Muslim fashion, after which the Coptic community was considerably diminished. It is not possible at present to determine with any precision the fluctuations of fashion among the Copts and their impact on this or that piece of Coptic dress. The documents are too often lacking, and our ignorance of the archaeological context of the pieces preserved means that it is possible only for the tunics and shawls to trace a chronological evolution supported by study of the materials, the techniques, and the decoration.

[See also: Textiles, Coptic.]


The origin of the dalmatic is not very well known. The word itself seems to indicate that it is a garment deriving from Dalmatia, a province of the Roman Empire from the second century B.C. But at present, we do not know any example of the ancient Dalmatian costume. The only documents at our disposal are Latin and Greek texts in which the word “dalmatic” is used and some graphic representations in which certain wear a costume close to the literary descriptions. Unfortunately, there is no tangible proof of the concordance of these sources; no inscription on the frescoes of the Roman catacombs affirms that the orants are clothed in dalmatics, and conversely no ancient text offers a diagram of the vestment. Caution is therefore required.

The dalmatic was a long white garment falling to the feet. It could be woven in wool, silk, or linen. It was adorned with two clavi (bands) of purple-red (the intensity of which varied with the dye employed) descending on either side from the neck to the lower part of the garment. It was worn without any waistband and was provided with long full sleeves.

It was adopted by the Romans from the second century A.D., when the habit of wearing garments of foreign origin was introduced, and the emperors themselves (for example, Commodus and Heliogabalus) often set the example. But at this period the wearing of the dalmatic was considered the act of men of peculiar and effeminate habits. This was no longer the case two centuries later, and the Edict of the Maximum, proclaimed by the emperor DIOCLETIAN in A.D. 301 to resolve an economic crisis, gives a list of prices for dalmatics for men and women.

The dalmatic was finally adopted by the Christian clergy. According to the Liber Pontificalis, it is said to have become an ecclesiastical vestment in the fourth century A.D., in the pontificate of Pope Sylvester (314-335), who made it the official vestment of deacons. According to the Vita Sylvestri, however, the dalmatic became a liturgical vestment only under Liberius (352-366). In fact, it was probably in the course of the fifth century A.D. that it became a mark of the Roman deacons, although the pope sometimes accorded the right of wearing it to clergy of other churches.

From the third century A.D. we find in the Roman catacombs (cemetery of Saint Agnes, cemetery of Saint Priscilla, cemetery of Saints and Marcellinus) frescoes representing male and female orants clothed in a white garment adorned with purple-red clavi and with very full sleeves (about half the total length of the garment); here we may recognize the dalmatic described by the texts. It should be mentioned, however, that some of these dalmatics are in color, and that the majority of them have one or two bands of purple-red at the wrist, although the texts speak only of a white garment adorned with clavi.

This same term “dalmatic” has been used to describe the tunics brought to light in excavations carried out since the nineteenth century in the necropolises of Egypt (at Saqqara, Bawit, and Antinoë), but that is a misuse of the term.

Toward the middle of the third century A.D. the mode of burial in Egypt was completely changed. The dead no longer underwent mummification. They were buried dressed in their finest garments, sometimes with three or four tunics one on top of another. Thanks to the exceptional climate of the country, these textiles have survived to our own day. These tunics, most often with long sleeves—and making a real break with the traditional loincloth of the pharaonic period and the Rameside robe—were sufficiently long and full for the term “dalmatic” to come at once to mind. But a simple description proves that they are completely different: their clavi are most often linked together by a yoke edging the opening for the neck; they are wider, no longer self-colored, and end in a circular or spear-shaped decorative motif. Finally, they generally stop in the middle of the chest. Alongside them appear the orbicula, circular or square medallions, plain or decorated, set on the shoulders and at the level of the knees. A decorative band on the lower part of the garment sometimes picks up, in the opposite direction, the arrangement of the clavi and the yoke that links them. These Coptic tunics seem to be shorter, although we do not know the exact stature of their owners.

The Coptic tunic, as just described, has thus nothing in common with the dalmatic. On the other hand, it is identical with the design worn at the same period throughout the Mediterranean basin, of which the mosaic of the great hunt at Piazza Armerina (Sicily) furnishes examples. Moreover, it presents some similarities with the tunics found at Palmyra, metropolis of the desert of Syria—to which R. Pfister (1932) traces the origin of the Coptic garment—and from there with Persia.

One point, however, remains obscure: the presence at Akhmim (ancient Greek Panopolis) of two tunics identical with the Roman dalmatic. One is mentioned by A. S. Cole (1881-1895); the other is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (description by Kendrick, 1920). A third example is the dalmatic in the Louvre (TC2463), the provenance of which is unknown (perhaps Antinoopolis). Akhmim and Antinoopolis sheltered a Greco-Roman population, and Akhmim was a great textile center, known throughout the civilized world of the period. Did these imported dalmatics or Coptic dalmatics imitate the Roman pattern? Were they reserved for the use of the Greco-Roman population, or were they equally worn by the Copts? We do not know. But we have concrete proof of the existence of the garment of which the ancients tell us and of which the frescoes of the Roman catacombs provide the first picture.


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