Although Cleopatra was the most famous Egyptian queen, her ancestry was not Egyptian. She descended from Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death, Ptolemy claimed Egypt for himself. His family ruled for several hundred years. Cleopatra was the last in this line. Unlike her predecessors, Cleopatra spoke Egyptian and identified with Egyptian culture. On the other hand, she had a classical Greek education and seduced several powerful Romans. Her clothing reflected these dual cultures that characterised her life.
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In her early years, Cleopatra most likely dressed in the lightweight clothing Egyptians had adopted to deal with the heat. The staple item in an Egyptian woman's wardrobe was a long, sleeveless tunic woven of linen, often worn with a gauzy cape over the shoulders. It was common for noblewomen's dresses to be embroidered with silver, gold or brightly coloured thread and studded with beads. Colourful dyes in shades of red, yellow, purple and green also were popular in Cleopatra's time.
When Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar's son, the event coincided with the Egyptian feast of Isis. Cleopatra capitalised on this timing by minting coins that depicted her son as the son of Isis. She also began to dress as the goddess for ceremonial occasions. The iconic costume of Isis consists of a form-fitting sheath dress of scarlet, yellow and white, topped by an iridescent, fringed mantel that wraps around her shoulders and hips and meets in a knot between her breasts.
Cleopatra's decision to dress as Isis proves she valued clothing as a means to increase her prestige. Because her time was divided between ruling Egypt and romancing Roman lovers, she likely alternated between Egyptian and Greco-Roman fashion. One popular style for Egyptian royalty was a pleated, mermaid-style tunic called a kalasiris. It sheathed the body over the torso and hips, opening out a little below the knees. These dresses often were so low cut that the woman's breasts were bare. By contrast, Greco-Roman fashion was modest with a flowing, ankle-length gown worn underneath a calf-length robe. Various mantles or capes were draped over this ensemble.
Coin portraits and Roman busts of Cleopatra depict her hair as curly or braided in cornrows and gathered into a bun at the back of her head. She often wore a wide ribbon wrapped around her head and tied in the back. When dressing as Isis, she donned an elaborate headdress, which may have been a feathered, cobra and vulture crown or a floral wreath with corn ears and a moon disc. Cleopatra was known for her extravagant jewellery, particularly pearls. She also wore eye make-up, rouge and lip colour.
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