By Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Assistant Curator of Fashion
In mainstream culture, fashion design is a realm where the conversation about the differences between appropriation and appreciation often rears its head. Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, on view from April 1, 2023, to January 28, 2024, in the Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery (234) and the Egyptian gallery (107), explores the implications of interpreting ancient Egyptian culture in fashion. Because fashion in the West is tied to the history of European and American imperialism, protecting the cultures of historically oppressed communities from denigration has become a major issue. Nonetheless, creative inspiration derives from all around us, making the line between inspiration and misappropriation blurry.
In the Egyptian gallery, a viscose sheath dress is displayed with an accompanying brooch by Italian designer Riccardo Tisci for the Givenchy Fall 2016 collection (fig. 1). Inspired by the abstract way imagery is represented in ancient Egyptian art, the dress is symmetrically printed with floral motifs, including lotuses and reeds. The print appears almost psychedelic, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. The brooch’s silhouette is reminiscent of the Udjat, Horus’s all-seeing eye. Tisci longed to produce an ancient Egyptian–inspired collection while he was the creative director of Givenchy, reverencing the ancient culture as a cradle of civilization. Egyptomania has a long history in the Givenchy brand, dating back to the house’s founding. The original logo, designed by Pierre Dinand in conjunction with Hubert de Givenchy, incorporates the Egyptian hieroglyph that was used for expressing either the letter h or the word house. Relatives of designer Hubert de Givenchy’s former employer Elsa Schiaparelli were famous Egyptologists; their work inspired the house’s logo.
The textile gallery features the golden crepe and tulle Cyra gown by Egyptian-born, Dubai-based designer Yasmine Yeya (fig. 2). Made for her eponymous label Maison Yeya, the garment has a cape with a striped pattern that alludes to the striped essence of the nemes. Although technically not considered a crown, the nemes is a headpiece seen only in depictions of pharaohs. It comprises three sides: two decorative flaps hanging in the front on each side of the face, and a third that is tied and hangs at the back of the head. In life, nemes were made from striped or crimped linen, hence its striped depiction in art. Most famously, King Tutankhamun’s death mask vividly depicts the nemes headpiece as stripes of gold contrasted with lapis lazuli. As seen in the Cyra gown, the nemes is a highly accessible way for designers to convey their ancient Egyptian inspiration to general audiences.
The question of appropriating ancient Egyptian art is at the heart of why both creatives’ designs are in the exhibition. Since Yeya is Egyptian born, one may feel that she has more of a claim to interpreting ancient Egyptian art and culture than the Italian-born Tisci. But is that opinion accurate, or does it negate nuance? Typically, the terms of cultural appropriation are dictated by the original artistic producer or their heir. Therefore, exploring how the ancient Egyptians defined themselves and who qualifies as their heir is necessary to understand who can claim ownership of ancient Egyptian intellectual property. Despite fictionalized media representations of ancient Egyptians over the past centuries, they were not genetically one race as we understand the concept of race today. The ancient Egyptians believed that adopting their religion was the qualification for being seen as Egyptian. Additionally, many ancient Egyptian artworks and artifacts that have survived were state-sanctioned works that rejected realistic representation in favor of an artistic, codified appearance.
Nonetheless, in today’s terms, the ancient Egyptians were as multiracial as many countries are currently. Early Egyptologists sought to whitewash ancient Egyptian history to align with common prejudices against Africans and African descendants and their cultural contributions. Contemporary scholars believe that the earliest people in the Nile region migrated from what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan during the Predynastic period, creating the population for the first generation of ancient Egyptians. Throughout the ensuing millennia, many regional groups migrated or were forced by conquest or famine to move to Egypt, including the Kushites from modern-day Sudan, Libyan groups, Semitic-speaking peoples, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. Moreover, contemporary researchers assert that ancient Egyptians would reject our notions of race today because, again, religion and culture, not physical identity, defined their society.
Keeping in mind that the only requirement to having been an ancient Egyptian meant unequivocally accepting their religion and culture, the prominence of ancient Egyptian culture began to phase out by the time of Egypt’s annexation by the Roman Empire. Overlapping with the establishment of the Byzantine Empire was the rise of the Coptic Orthodox Christian authority founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria around AD 40 to 70. The Coptic language that was formalized at the time emanated from the ancient Egyptian language but has morphed over the centuries. Currently, outside of art, the Coptic language is the only cultural link to ancient Egypt. The Copts wielded considerable power until the Arabs invaded Egypt in the early seventh century. Arabic then became the predominant language in Egypt, and Islam emerged as the prevailing religion and remains so today.
Regardless of the contemporary social and cultural ramifications that separate modern from ancient Egyptians, there is a powerful movement in modern Egypt to preserve ancient Egyptian art and architecture. This manifests itself through Egyptological research by Egyptians and through interpretations of the ancient culture within contemporary mediums, such as fashion. These acts help solidify claims that ancient Egyptian culture is a part of the heritage of contemporary Egyptians.
Whether ancient Egyptians would agree that anyone can make sole claim to their culture based on geographical or ethnic connection is a consideration to ponder. Many neighboring nations and empires were directly influenced by ancient Egyptian mythology, architecture, and religious practices, making ancient Egypt an eventual bedrock of many cultures worldwide. Therefore, if ancient Egypt is a foundation of societies across Europe, America, Africa, and the Middle East, the question of succession becomes even more challenging.
Because no road map exists on how the ancient Egyptians would feel about what they would see today regarding interpretations of their culture, the intentions of the creator of the interpretation become the focus. Looking again at Yeya’s or Tisci’s dresses, they wanted to celebrate ancient Egypt’s impact by emphasizing their knowledge of the ancient culture through design elements integrated in their fashions. Their creations serve not only as functional objects or artistic endeavors but also as educational resources, meant to motivate further exploration of their ancient inspiration. Even though defining an heir to the ancient Egyptians is subjective, determining the intentions and the implementation of an ancient Egyptian–inspired creation will establish where it falls on the spectrum of appreciation and misappropriation.
Generous support of Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession is provided by Maison Yeya. Additional support is provided by the Textile Art Alliance.
All exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art are underwritten by the CMA Fund for Exhibitions. Principal annual support is provided by Michael Frank and the late Pat Snyder and by the late Roy L. Williams. Major annual support is provided by the Womens Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Generous annual support is provided by an anonymous supporter, the late Dick Blum and Harriet Warm, Gary and Katy Brahler, Cynthia and Dale Brogan, Dr. Ben and Julia Brouhard, Brenda and Marshall Brown, Mr. and Mrs. Walter R. Chapman Jr., Richard and Dian Disantis, the Jeffery Wallace Ellis Trust in memory of Lloyd H. Ellis Jr., Leigh and Andy Fabens, Janice Hammond and Edward Hemmelgarn, Carl T. Jagatich, Cathy Lincoln, Eva and Rudolf Linnebach, William S. and Margaret F. Lipscomb, Bill and Joyce Litzler, Carl and Lu Anne Morrison, Tim O’Brien and Breck Platner, William J. and Katherine T. O’Neill, Henry Ott-Hansen, Michael and Cindy Resch, the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation, and Margaret and Loyal Wilson.