An over-5,000-year-old linen dress was recently confirmed as the world’s oldest woven garment. The Tarkhan Dress, named for the Tarkhan cemetery south of Cairo in Egypt where it was excavated, had a long road to its title, from its use as clothing and then a shroud, and later being lost amidst a grimy bundle of overlooked textile.
The V-neck dress is on view at the University College London (UCL) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, with its flax fiber linen stitched carefully over a modern silk shirt, so as to exhibit it in its intended dimensions. The “dress” title is a bit of speculation, as no one can confirm the original length of the textile. Flinders Petrie (for whom the Petrie Museum is named) unearthed the dress from a tomb in 1913. It wasn’t identified until 1977, when it was transported with other weathered textiles to the Victoria & Albert Museum for conservation.
In its release, UCL states that radiocarbon testing last year at the University of Oxford affirms, with 95% accuracy, that the dress dates from between 3482 and 3102 BCE. Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum, and Michael W. Dee, who led the Oxford testing, published their study in the Antiquity review, writing that due “to its association with a First Dynasty tomb, as well as Naqada IIIC1-type stone vessels, the Tarkhan Dress (as it became known) has been claimed to be Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest extant woven garment in the world. In the absence of a secure context, however, its date has been contentious.”
Among its rivals, they cite a pair of pants from the late second-millennium BCE found in Central Asia, cord skirts from Bronze Age Denmark, and a linen kilt from early fourth-millennium BCE Jordan. However, the dress bests them all. The creasing, as well as its discovery inside-out, also indicates it was worn in life, and its detailed stitching and tailoring, for either a teenager or a slender woman, suggests it was for a member of the elite. Janet Johnstone at UCL has a handy “How to make the Tarkhan dress” step-by-step guide relaying the elaborate process of turning three pieces of fine linen into the pleated garment.
Most textiles from antiquity were preserved through the arid cemeteries of Egypt, such as those now on view in Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The Tarkhan Dress is among those rare textile survivors that reveal life in the ancient world through the fashion of the departed.
The Tarkhan Dress is on view at the University College London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (Malet Place, London).