Style From The Nile: Egyptomania in Fashion from the 19th Century to the Present Day

REVIEW: Cathie Bryan

Fashion is a neglected subject in reception studies of ancient Egypt, with the exception of the Egyptianising vogue inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (1922). Campagnol, a teacher of the history of fashion in Milan, goes beyond ‘Tutmania’ to survey Egyptomania in Western women’s fashion from 1802 through to the present. Her book is organised into six chronological chapters, interspersed by three thematic sections. The latter include an excursus about Egyptianising fashion at costume balls, stylish tourists in Egypt through the 1920s, and beauty ‘secrets’ from the land of the Nile.

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801) and its publications inspired Egyptomania in architecture, art, and the decorative arts. An early example in textile design was Les Monuments d’Égypte, by Oberkampf (1808). However, Kashmiri shawls bought in Alexandria as souvenirs for Napoleon’s wife Josephine were mistakenly dubbed ‘Egyptian’, and became popular in early 19th-century French fashion. Fabric colours named after Egypt were introduced in shades of green, blue-green, and umber, with pale yellow inspired by the Egyptian giraffe given to France in 1827.

The inauguration of the Suez Canal (1869) resulted in Egyptian-inspired gowns (not illustrated), but the premiere of Verdi’s Aida, with costumes designed by Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, seemingly did not influence fashion. From the mid-19th century, popular Cleopatra-inspired fashion and hairstyles demonstrate marketing persuasion, but Campagnol acknowledges that these were Egyptian in name only. Egyptianising jewellery of the period featured sphinxes, gods, heads of pharaohs, scarabs, and hieroglyphs. This obvious Egyptomania in jewellery was not matched by the fashion couturiers, and the author should have discussed this discrepancy.

The Egyptianising fashion and ornament of the Belle Époque was increasingly informed by museum exhibitions and archaeological discoveries. For example, Schiaparelli’s excavations motivated the Milanese couturier Rosa Genoni to design a gown inspired by Nefertari (1908). Tutankhamun’s obvious influence on Art Deco fashion is the longest chapter in the book and is well illustrated. ‘Cleomania’ in fashion during the 1960s was inspired by the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. Egyptianate fashion was apparently not a feature of the 1970s, however, although the English artist John Jones did create the ‘Akhenaten Coat’ (1976). Egyptian influence has featured in recent couturier designs, such as Dior by Galliano (2004) and Chanel’s Métiers d’Art 2018/2019 Collection.

This book is an eclectic study of Egyptomania in fashion that will interest general and academic readers. Work on the book started in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the research and illustrations took advantage of online sources and digitised 19th- and 20th-century fashion magazines. Style from the Nile is not comprehensive, but – as an introduction to the Egyptian influence on fashion, with an extensive bibliography – it supports further study. Written in English by a non-native speaker, the book would have profited from better proofreading. It is illustrated with 40 colour and 98 greyscale images.

Style From The Nile: Egyptomania in Fashion from the 19th Century to the Present Day
by Isabella Campagnol
Pen & Sword History, 2022
ISBN 978-1-39909-807-6
Hardback, £25