The Courtly Toilette

Most people probably started the day with a dawn prayer, a rough comb, and possibly a rough wash, before setting off to work. The rich arose and pottered about their bedroom suites. For the elite classes, life was somewhat different from the norm, even slightly unreal—which of course was the desired effect. Pleasure and play were a serious business in early societies, and pleasuring themselves was what the Bronze Age aristocracy did best, most of their time.33 For Egyptian aristocrats, the first rising was followed by 'the hour of i'w', the hour of the bath, the (unspecified) breakfast-grooming hour which forever afterwards was the mark of the well-to-do;after which they would emerge perfectly fresh, trim, and ready to meet, greet—and administer—the world. Courtly afternoons were usually reserved for outings, games, and sports; but as the sun went down, preparations in the private suite would begin for the full evening toilette, le grand tenue, which would outshine everything else.

By c.1500 bce, court and city fashion demanded a highly cleansed and polished naked skin, framed by immaculate cloth; with a carefully modified repertoire of the old adornments of nakedness especially concentrated on the frontal erogenous zones.34 Personal hygiene consisted of very careful attention to the skin, and equally careful attention to the body's artificially costumed 'second skin'. Hot-water bathing and perfumery went together. Subtly perfumed unguents and oils were used lavishly on all the warm parts of the body, wet or dry—in the bath or out. Oiling the skin was just as important as washing, if not more so. Perfumery reached new technical heights— literally, in Egypt, in the famous head-cone of perfumed wax that was allowed to drip through high-class hair down the neck and shoulders on festive occasions. (When washed afterwards, both the hair and linen would be supple and shining.)35 The top-of-the-range rubbing oil around the Mediterranean was the famous Egyptian 'Mendesian unguent', originally consisting of rare oil of ben and resinous myrrh, but which by the later Tutankhamun period was made up to a more exotic recipe of oil of bitter almonds, olive oil, cardamoms, sweet rushes, honey, wine, myrrh, seed of balsam, galbanum, and turpentine.

3 The renowned Egyptian beauty Queen Nefertari, pictured on her tomb in the Valley of the Queens in Egypt, at a feast, wearing her royal headdress, a figure-hugging sheath tunic and gauze overgarment, face paint, immaculate nails and hair, with shoulder, wrist, and ear ornaments.

(Cheaper local vegetable oils—castor oil, olive oil—served the poor, and even animal fats would do the job.)36

In India both male and female head-hair was treated with a perfumed paste that held it in hundreds of different styles, ready to be garlanded and adorned. The Tamil woman 'bathed her fragrant black hair soft as the flowers till it shone, in the perfumed oil prepared by mixing up ten different kinds of astringent, five spices and thirty-two herbs soaked in water;she dried it in fuming incense, and perfumed the different plaits with the thick paste [called] musk deer'. Because of all the different perfumes and odoriferous applications, the ordinary morning toilette of an 'affluent citizen' in India, 'desirous of keeping good health', might consist of a dozen or more different operations:

A man as soon as he got up cleaned his teeth with the toothbrush, washed his mouth and eyes... applied collyrium [kohl] to his eyes and chewed a few betel leaves. At the time of his bath he anointed his hair with oil... and his body, thoroughly massaged and rubbed it, took physical exercises and finally took his bath, after which he combed his hair... shaving and paring his nails. [He anointed] the body with scented paste and then he put on gems, flowers, and clean clothes after which he put scent on his face.37

Among the treasures rescued from the grave of Queen Hete-pheres were her golden razors. Shaving and depilation was a social insignia in the ancient world. Some societies shaved more than others, or in different ways;according to one Roman author the Celts 'wash their hair constantly in lime-water, and they scrape it back from the forehead to the crown of the head . . . The nobles keep their cheeks smooth but let their moustaches grow.'38 From anciently being fully bearded and braided (like the Mesopotamians) the Egyptian male became clean-shaven, kept his hair short or shaven, shaved, plucked, or used depilatory unguents on his entire body, as did Egyptian women. Egyptian and Indian tastes and habits in this respect were very similar. The ten-day cleansing and deodorizing regime for Vatsyayana's 'affluent citizen' (undoubtedly a Brahman) included the full depilatory ordeal:

He should bathe daily, anoint his body with oil every other day, apply a lathering substance to his body every three days, get his head (including face) shaved every four days, and the other parts of his body every five or ten days [ten days are allowed when the hair is taken out with a pair of pincers]. All of these things should be done without fail, and the sweat of the armpits should also be removed.39

Civilized body-art neglected none of the body parts. Tooth care was evidently a problem;tooth decay from excess honey or sugar is one of the so-called 'diseases of civilization' that probably even then affected the wealthy, but many ancient Egyptians (for example) had teeth worn to the quick by poorly milled flour. Aromatic pastes, aromatic gums, leaves and washes, and scented wood (or gold or ivory) toothpicks were used throughout Eurasia. In both Egypt and India the eye paints used on the eyes were considered essential in the same way as we regard modern toothpaste, and used as widely. At some point very early in their history, the Egyptians made a green-blue pigment derived from green malachite, a copper ore which they called vaz and used exclusively as an eye paint. All the eye paints of the early dynasties are green; sometime later the fashion changed to a dark grey powder from an ore of lead which they called mestem and was later known as kohl. In India it was known as collyrium; the Indian author Susruta said that collyrium 'alleviated the burning and itching sensation, removed local pain, increased the range of vision . . . furthered the growth of beautiful eyelashes, cleansed the eyes by removing unhealthy secretions, made the eyes more wide and graceful and also [when a touch of poisonous antimony was added] imparted a brilliant lustre to the pupils'.40

High-class bodies were now more often gowned than not; nakedness was reserved for intimate household occasions, or for work, or for the poor. Elite Egyptian women of the Old Kingdom wore clinging, heavily pleated, white linen dresses that revealed every curve of their body;but later high-quality, semi-transparent linen gauzes were worn, and the pictures of Nefertiti and her daughters in the Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1575-1308 bce) show their beautiful naked skin tantalizingly revealed by gowns that are mostly completely open down the front.41 Similar, but entirely differently designed, swathes of semi-concealing, semi-revealing, pleated cloth lengths were being created from the new animal and plant fibres discovered in various ecological niches throughout Eurasia, notably the new lightweight linen from flax (and nettles etc.), cotton in India, and silk in China. But when, as so often, we see ancient Egyptian, Greek, or Roman images wearing pure 'white' bleached or undyed robes, we should spare a thought for the expensively coloured cloths of the ancient world, still wonderfully and intensely displayed in ancient costumes on all continents. The Egyptians in particular extended their pigment colour range to include deep blue, green, vermilion, and purple (echoing the colours of the new cut-and-polished precious and semi-precious gems—lapis lazuli, turquoise, emerald, ruby, quartz, and topaz); and were very fond of mixing the pastel colours pale gold, pale blue, and especially pale pink. In the matter of colour the Min-oan Cretan islanders were particularly resourceful. They were famous for their dyes: a crimson red dye collected from the 'kermes' insect; yellow dyes from the saffron lily; and a famous deep purple dye, collected from local sea snails. They became the cloth experts of the Mediterranean, developing new dyes, patterned dye stamps, coloured embroidery, and hand-cut tailoring, with a large trade into Egypt.42

The perfection, purity, colours, and strong perfume of natural flowers gave the final sensual touch to the Eurasian toilette. You

4 The Ladies in Blue. These famously decorative Minoan frescoes were also advertisements for high-quality fashion products using local resources and labour.

might set out wearing flowers for a social engagement, but you also would very likely be given flowers or a floral garland when you arrived, as a sign of peaceful hospitality. Flowers were strongly attached to Eurasian religious observances, particularly funeral rites. The lotus was the sacred flower of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and northern India;in southern India, the marigold and jasmine;in Bali and Java the traditional annual religious calendar has a different scent for every season of the year—'a calendar of scents'—and a great deal of money was and still is spent on flowers. All classes in ancient India wore flower garlands, particularly in north-west India, where there were flower chaplets for the waist, flower chaplets for the ears, and 'strings of flowers falling from the back of the hair were known as prabhrastaka and those falling from the front as lalamaka. Pralamba and rajulamba were the chaplets falling on the forehead, and the garland worn across the chest under the right arm and over the left shoulder was known as vaikaksika.'43

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