Our December sale is a truly exciting one, with star lots ranging from THE infamous Diana dress, to some stunning early Galliano pieces, to show-stopping contemporary Japanese fashion and classics from the golden age of couture. With such a wealth of lots to choose from, it might be easy to overlook the other star attraction in our sale: ancient Egypt.
Fashion has long looked to Egypt for inspiration, with each successive wave of ‘Egyptomania’ sparked by the events of the day. The grand tours undertaken by gentlemen of the 17th and 18th century meant that pyramids and obelisks began appearing on fabrics shortly thereafter; Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt brought back to Europe ‘Mameluke’ turbans and tunics; Champollion’s deciphering of the hieroglyphs in the 1820s inspired the production of dresses printed with them; and the succession of excavations of tombs throughout the nineteenth century ensured that fashion magazines were talking about mummy-cloth and scarab jewellery season after season.
Lot 111, a tulle tabard beaded with Egyptian motifs, circa 1922, estimate £250-400
Lot 111 (estimate £250-400) tells the story of the defining moment in 20th-century Egyptomania: the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. This event heralded an eruption of so-called ‘Tutmania’ which manifested itself in a plethora of marketable items, from King Tut lemons to beauty products. Yet, nowhere was this craze more evident, nor more sumptuously rendered, than in the realm of fashion. Our beaded tabard was clearly a product of Tutmania: with its serpents, lotus flowers and figures seen in profile, as well as the vivid colours of the beads and the simple, loose silhouette of the garment - the designer clearly had ancient Egypt in mind! The original wearer, Gwendolyn James, would have been bang on trend when she wore this in the early twenties.
Lot 121, a Jeanne Lanvin couture purple-blue silk crêpe evening gown, S/S 1938, estimate £1500-2500
Yet Egyptomania did not exhaust itself then. There followed art deco, which proved a perfect marriage with Egyptomania, combining simple but strong lines with flashes of colour. On the screens too, ancient Egypt was still omnipresent: in 1934 Claudette Colbert starred as Cleopatra, resplendent in her long gowns worn with ostentatious gold headpieces, collars and cuff bracelets. When lot 121 (estimate £1500-2500) was produced by Jeanne Lanvin for her Spring-Summer collection of 1938, she no doubt had some of this glamour in mind: the jewel colour of the evening gown is set off by contrasting reds and greens at the sleeves which echo the bold colours and graphic shapes of ancient Egypt. And like lot 111, a simple silhouette and construction is favoured, so that it is the detail which takes centre stage. In fact, the sequins which outline the cuffs are another nod, as sequins were found on clothing in Tutankhamun’s tomb - proving that some fashions remain in style for millennia!
Lot 178, an Yves Saint Laurent Egyptian revival maxi dress, late 1960s, estimate £600-800
The swinging sixties were not immune to the lure of the ancients either - in fact, it was another Hollywood production which arguably set off yet another Egyptian revival: Elizabeth Taylor’s star turn as Cleopatra in 1963. The long columnar shape of lot 178 (estimate £600-800), teamed with its striking embroidered collar, could have come straight out of King Tut’s tomb. Not only that, but when accessorised with a heavily kohl-rimmed 60s eye, the illusion would have been complete!
Lot 169, an Alice Pollock ancient Egypt-inspired printed cotton jacket, circa 1970, estimate £300-500
For many British people, their earliest memory of ancient Egypt may have come courtesy of the British Museum’s seminal 1972 exhibition ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’. It fired the imaginations of generations of children, adults and crucially for us, designers, for whom King Tut’s golden treasures would prove a rich seam of inspiration. This Alice Pollock cotton jacket was photographed that same year for Cosmopolitan, with the model wearing it as a mini-dress. Featuring the winged sun symbol, lot 169’s large bell sleeves display the graphic print to full effect (estimate £300-500).
Do let us know if you would like to leave bids with us directly on any of these pieces – you might have the chance to take home your own piece of Egyptomania!