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Egyptomania

Engaging the conflicted obsession
Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Assistant Curator of Fashion
March 1, 2023
Sketch for "The Revolt at Cairo", c. 1809. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (French, 1767–1824).  1965.310 

A central component of curating the exhibition Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession was to uncover the nuances of fashion’s appropriation of ancient Egyptian culture, a topic hotly debated in academia and the mainstream. That process brought me to new findings I had never considered. Cultural appropriation implies the taking of cultural property by an outsider entity. As I completed my research, I understood that the important question is not whether cultural appropriation happens but whether a specific form of cultural appropriation is ethical or unethical. My conflict became about assessing who is entitled to freely appropriate ancient Egyptian culture. Traditionally in cultural appropriation, the insider culture appoints their successors. But if there aren’t any named successors, who then takes on the responsibility of protecting specific cultural properties? Must it be those who can identify in some way with ancient Egypt?

Researching what it meant to be an Egyptian in ancient times led me in circles. I discovered that acceptance of the ancient Egyptian religion was the only requirement for identification rather than any ethnic qualifications. Additionally, ancient Egypt is a bedrock of many societies across Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Therefore, ownership of ancient Egyptian culture is very hazy.  

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Cyra c. 2000–2022. Yasmine Yeya (Egyptian, b. 1981) for Maison Yeya. Image courtesy of Maison Yeya. © Maison Yeya. Photo: Ziga Mihelcic

 

In contemporary fashion, there is a great deal of appropriation of ancient Egyptian culture, particularly in the collections of Paris-based fashion houses. There is a complicated relationship between Paris and Egypt because of Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian invasion, which opened the door for Egyptomania to thrive. After the French came the British, who occupied Egypt throughout the 1800s. European explorers and visitors sent back illustrations and studies of what they saw. Elements from those drawings were reinterpreted and incorporated into art and fashion, resulting in the phenomenon we call Egyptomania. 

Earlier fascination with ancient Egyptian art also derives from ongoing engagement with ancient Egyptian artifacts brought back by ancient Romans from their conquest of Egypt, and the subsequent Egyptian-inspired ancient Roman architecture across Europe. Thus, there is an argument to consider about the sensitivity of Parisian creative outlets who participate in Egyptomania-influenced art. Significantly, Western societies have succeeded in part because of ancient Egyptian ingenuity. For example, in addition to discovering Egyptian blue, the first earliest synthetic pigment, the ancient Egyptians laid the foundations for math, science, and engineering used in Western culture. In many ways, subsequent European artistic interpretations of ancient Egyptian culture are inevitable.

I came to realize that the debate over cultural ownership of ancient Egypt is a pretext for interrogating prejudicial dialogues that demean the contributions of Black people. European Egyptology was born during the height of imperialism in the 1800s. Because of racial constructs perpetuated in that society, Egyptologists were quick to conflate discrimination, particularly against Black people, with their research. Early Egyptology led to the whitewashing of ancient Egyptian history and the academic separation of ancient Egypt from Africa. Because most blindly accepted such academic research as fact, European and American fashion industries have approached Egyptomania, knowingly or unknowingly, with prejudicial perspectives, such as the erasure of the public representation and celebration of Black bodies and culture through academic, political, and social means. 

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Gown, Couture Spring 2004 2004. Christian Dior (France, est. 1946), photographed by Guy Marineau (French, b. 1947). Image courtesy of Christian Dior

 

Egyptology has evolved and some contemporary researchers are crafting a more accurate history of ancient Egypt and Africa. Yet, European and American luxury fashion inspired by ancient Egyptian art continues to blur the line between fact and fiction. Approaching ancient Egyptian inspiration through theatricality is commonplace for fashion designers, as evidenced by John Galliano’s Dior Spring Couture 2004 collection or Zuhair Murad’s Spring Couture 2020 collection. Through fashion, creatives pull together global inspirations in work from magazine editorials to clothing. Fashion, just like history-inspired films or series, can influence how audiences approach cultural subjects, including ancient Egyptian art. This has pros and cons. For example, a fashion designer may conflate different ancient Egyptian elements in adoration of the ancient culture’s prowess. Or, audiences may interpret the designer’s inspiration as fact, resulting in the depreciation of the forms and symbols that once held significance to an entire civilization.

Another conclusion of my research highlighted the glaring omission of modern Egyptian voices. Over the centuries, Egypt has undergone many political changes, including being governed by a Christian body and eventually an Islamic one. As mentioned, the ancient Egyptians believed that accepting their religion was paramount to being considered Egyptian. Still, citizens of the current nation of Egypt champion ancient Egyptian culture as part of their heritage, justifying their claim to freely appropriate the older culture. Contemporary Egyptian designers unabashedly incorporate ancient Egyptian interpretations in literal and conceptual ways, reaffirming the reclamation of ancient Egypt as their own. For instance, the Egyptian accessories company Sabry Marouf designed a handbag, displayed in the exhibition, that uses the Nemes headdress depicted in King Tut’s funerary mask as its primary inspiration. 

Remembering that ancient Egypt is the bedrock of many global contemporary societies, I pass on my conflicted obsession to you for consideration as you visit Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, on view from April 1, 2023, to January 28, 2024. Does any singular culture have the right to claim ancient Egypt, or does ancient Egypt belong to everyone?