by C. David Claudon, copyright 1999-2008

The following eight pages attempt to provide the researcher with an extensive look at how the character of Cleopatra has been visualized both on stage and in film. The paper began as a major project for The History of Theatrical Costumes at University of Illinois in 1967 and obviously continues to hold my attention.

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What the real Cleopatra wore

Perhaps one of the most well-known Egyptian pharaohs, Cleopatra VII Philopater ("father-lover") has captured the imaginations of countless artists and authors. In William Shakespeare's The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, (better known as Antony and Cleopatra), John Dryden's All for Love, Victorien Sardou's Cleopatra, George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, and the numerous Cleopatra-peopled films of the twentieth century, each artist has invested his own period's interpretation in the lady. Any study of the costumes worn on the stage and screen by actresses playing Cleopatra VII first requires familiarity with what the Egyptian pharoah herself might have worn. To do this, the costumes described can be divided into two categories: those worn as "everyday" clothes and those worn for state or religious occasions.

The clothes worn as everyday dress were probably Hellenic Greek in origin, for Cleopatra was a Roman-sponsored monarch, whose Greek ancestors had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great. This Roman apparel, described by Barton (1961), was based on Greek dress. It consisted of an underdress of soft linen or silk (the tunica interior) and a long over-robe (the stola) of the same material. Over these two garments would be worn the palla, or draped outer-cloak.

Barton describes the range of color for this ensemble:

Colors mentioned in contemporary texts include scarlet, violet, mari-gold yellow, crocus yellow, hyacinth-purple (which would be nearer our modern shade than the Tyrian), rust, sea-green or blue, and green. Probably the tints of the garments themselves were fairly light and bright (not what we understand by "pastel," but stronger) and designs were applied in deeper tones. (p. 88)

On her feet, if she wore complete Roman garb, Cleopatra could wear either sandals (solae) for house-wear or shoes (calcei) if she went outdoors. Those shoes were made of leather and also varied in color from white to red, green or pale yellow.

If these are the features of Cleopatra, which is the closer skin tone color?

What did the real Cleopatra look like?

Drawn by David Claudon

To complete the outfit, the hair dressing followed contemporary Greek styles. A portrait bust of Cleopatra found in the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria shows the matronly look pharaoh with curled hair and a characteristic back bun. Hamer (1993) shows a coin from ca. 36 BCE of Cleopatra which shows a tightly curled hairstyle, diadem, and small bun in the back. (p. 9) Over this might be worn a loosely draped veil. Perhaps she, like many Egyptians, applied henna to her hair, which gave it a reddish tint.

According to Foreman (1999), writing about Cleopatra's makeup:

Ground minerals, such as the greenish-black galena, were used to darken and define the eyelids; ochre could tint the lips. Egyptian women would stain their nails, the soles of their feet, and their palms a reddish hue with henna, which was also used as a hair dye.

Hellenistic women rubbed white led powder into their skin to make it fairer, and they used extracts of various plants and seaweeds to create rouges for their lips and cheeks. (p. 61)

If Cleopatra was dressing for state affairs, her attire would be different than her ordinary dress, for according to Plutarch (quoted in Hughes-Hallett (1990), she generally wore "the robe which is sacred to Isis, and she was addressed as the New Isis." (p. 81)." Hughes-Hallett quotes Lucius Apuelius's description of Lucius's vision in The Golden Ass to suggest how she might have looked:
[Isis's] long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand parting of her hair supported this disc, with ears of corn bristling beside them. Her many-coloured robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the black lustre of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasselled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and firey moon. (p. 81)

Plutarch also notes that "the robes of Isis are variegated in their colours, for her power is concerned with matter which becomes everything and receives everything, light and darkness, fire and water, life and death." (quoted by Hughes-Hallett, p. 81).

Other possibilities exist for the Isis costume.

The first type of gown, shown by Houston (1920), was actually in two styles, both of which were adapted from an Egyptian skirt and cloak. (p. 20) The Greek adaption, from the fourth century, BCE, consists of rectangular pieces of material which form an undertunic (with sleeves), a skirt, and a cloak. The Roman adaption of this same costume (AD 200) looked very much the same.
If Cleopatra wanted to look like the Egyptian paintings of Isis, she could wear one of the oldest types of women's dress, a tight tunic with braces. The long linen tunic rides just below the breast. Shoulder straps (braces) hold the garment up. Apparently the braces could be worn in a V-shape reaching from the center of the waist to the shoulders or (according to several statuettes) over the breasts. Baines and Malek (1989) show a wooden statue from the Old Kingdom wearing this type of dress. (p. 204) The servant carries offerings. The dress has alternating bands of colored scales in carnelian, dark moss green, pale red, and grey-green. The bottom panel is dark moss green with yellow strips. The same colors are incorporated in the straps, collar and bracelets. The black hair is worn over both shoulders. The servant is barefoot. Houston (1920) notes that on the garment, Egyptian decorations "would be either printed, painted, or embroidered." (p. 6)

Excavations in Pompeii offer two other possibilites for Cleopatra to appear as Isis. Both were shown in statues from the Pompeii AD 79 exhibit that toured America in 1978. The first, shown beside the title above, was of marble. Ward-Perkins & Claridge (1978) describe the goddess Isis statue:
The goddess' hair is dressed in an elaborate Archaic Greek style, with a garland of five rosettes. She wears a long, clinging tunic in fine material, held tight under her breasts with a belt, the clasp of which is formed by two snakes' heads. Over her shoulders, making sleeves, is an equally thin shawl, tucked into the belt. In her right hand she held a sistrum, of which only the handle remains [it has been shown in the drawing]; from her left dangles an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. When found, the statue was rich in traces of its original coloring, with remains of gilding on the hair, rosettes, the collar, and hem of her tunic, and the snake bracelets on her wrists. She has heavy red eyebrows and pupils, and there are traces of red also on the tree stump beside her left leg and among the folds around the hem of her tunic. (pp. 182-3)

Drawn by David Claudon

Ward-Perkins & Claridge (1978) describe the other statuette of bronze as showing Isis-Fortuna.

The richly draped and adorned goddess wears an Egyptian headdress with the solar disc and the horns of Hathor. She holds a rudder and a horn of plenty out of which emerge fruits and a pyramidal object usually interpreted as a kind of sacrifical cake. These attributes form an allegory of navigation through the seas of life to the land of plenty and also symbolize the link between the grain of Egypt and the ports of Italy. (p. 180)

Wheeler (1964) shows a Boscoreale dish showing the high-relief bust of a figure called "Cleopatra" or "Africa" wearing a trumpeting elephant headress. The trunk gives the suggestion of a uraeus and the two tusks are shown. A panther, lion and serpent in the woman's hand suggests symbols used by Mark Antony (who saw himself as the embodiment of Hercules and Dionysus) and the horn of plenty suggest the goddess Fortuna. The figure appears to wear a soft fine fabric stola which falls off one shoulder. (pp. 220-221).

No matter which dress style Cleopatra chose, the state costume would include a necklace, wigs, and crowns. Both of these seem to vary with dynasty and individual. Wilcox says of the wigs:

In feminine headdress, the wig served the same purpose as the modern hat and a lady owned several in different styles and for different occasions. Some women retained their own hair to which they added false hair to simulate the size of the wig, the whole dressed in many tight braids, the fashion varying with the period. In the late period of foreign domination, the use of the wig over the cropped or shaven head gave way to long natural hair worn in Greco-Roman fashion. (pp. 2-3)

Cleopatra is shown wearing the crown of Hathor/Isis at a temple in Dendara. Painted by David Claudon

Nekhbet, at right, vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, protects the pharoah. Edjo, goddess of Lower Egypt, takes the form of an angry cobra, personifying the burning Eye of Re, protector of the pharoah. A.R. David (1988) calls them, "the two ladies." (p. 149)

Three crowns would have been used by the Ptolemaic queen. The illustration at left is based on Bonfils' oft-quoted photograph of a bas-relief at Dendara of Cleopatra (Zambucka, p. 133). She wears the first type of crown, actually a composite of the vulture hood and the cow-horned headdress of the goddess Hathor. According to Egyptian legend, Horus, Isis' son, struck off her head in anger. Before she was aware of what had happened, the head of Hathor was used to replace her own; therefore, Isis can be seen wearing variations of the two crowns.

Foreman (1999) describes this three-part crown:

Atop her head she wears a small crown, called the modius, made up of a ring of cobra heads. Above it are the horns of the goddess Hathor, enclosing a solar disk. On her forehead ... [sits] a vulture's head, emblematic of the mother goddess Mut [Nekhbet]. Completing the headdress are Mut's vulture wings, extending back behind the queen's ears. (p. 72)

On her coronation, however, if she had followed Egyptian custom, Cleopatra would have worn the double crown of Egypt. This headdress combined the white felt or wool atef crown of Upper Egypt and the red wick-work crown of Lower Egypt. The resulting crown was called "The Two Powerful Ones" or Pasekhemty. Says Descroches-Noblecourt (1963), "These sacred objects, the age-old insignia of royalty, were kept in the temple and had eventually to return there." (p. 174). During her coronation, Cleopatra also acquired the two traditional sceptres of the great Osiris, "the crook or heka of Southern royalty, and the flail or nekhekh of the North." (pp. 174 & 179).

One last headdress which should be mentioned is the Nefertiti crown, known for the queen always shown wearing it. Although this headdress was worn around 1375-1358 BCE, modern costumers seem fascinated with it. Made of a heavy, stiff fabric, it was worn over a linen headband. On the crown was worn the uraeus or sacred cobra insignia.

Barton (1961) describes the many accessories which Cleopatra might wear including the Egyptian collar, flat bracelets and arm-bands, seal rings, Egyptian and Roman earrings (always large), and the ornamented girdle of painted leather, embroidered linen, or linen and leather with metal mounts (p. 12). Of these accessories, the collar was the only one which was always worn.

It was round and flat, and extended from the base of the throat to the shoulders and breast; the style being the same for men and women. It was made of beads, woven or strung on flexible wires in a variety of beautiful patterns, usually in rows. The beads were made of faience (glazed and baked clay), shells, semi-precious stones like carnelian, and gold. Many colors, well set off by black and white, appeared in one collar. (p. 12)

In conclusion, it is obvious that the variety of apparel worn by Cleopatra ranged from the silken Roman stolla to the Egyptian topless tunic, from Greco-Roman hairstyles to Egyptian wigs and crowns. As conquerer of Caesar, lover of Antony, royal mistress of Egypt, last of the Greek rulers of Egypt, living incarnation of the goddess Isis, Cleopatra VII wore the costumes of the three greatest nations in antiquity.


What the Real Cleopatra Wore

The Cleopatra costume (1604-1799)

The Cleopatra costume (1800-1899)

The Cleopatra costume (1900-1950)

The Cleopatra costume (1950 to 1990)

The Cleopatra costume to the millinneum and beyond

A list of Cleopatras on stage and in the movies


Current Listings

Be sure to check Cleopatra on the Web another major site on Cleopatra

  • Baines, J. & Malek, J. (1989 rev.). Cultural atlas of ancient Egypt. New York: Facts on File, Inc. See newly revised edition
  • Barton, L. (1961). Historic costume for the stage. Boston: Walter H. Baker Company.
  • David, A.R. (1988). The making of the past: The Egyptian kingdoms (2nd ed.). New York: Peter Bedrick Books.
  • Descroches-Noblecourt, C. (1963). Tutankhamen. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society. (The paperback edition is currently available)
  • Flamarion, E. (1997). Cleopatra: The life and death of a pharaoh. New York: Discoveries, Harry N. Abrams.
  • Foreman, L. (1999). Cleopatra's palace: in search of a legend. New York: Random House.
  • Hamer, M. (1993). Signs of Cleopatra . New York: Routledge.
  • Houston, M.G. & Hornblower, F.S. (1920). Ancient Egyptian, Assyrian and Persian costumes.London: A.& C. Black, Ltd.
  • Hughes-Hallett, L. (1990). Cleopatra: Histories, dreams and distortions. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.
  • Ludwig, E. (1937). Cleopatra. New York: The Viking Press Mahaffy, J.P. (1898). A history of Egypt, vol. IV . London: Methuen & Company.
  • Ward-Perkins, J. & Claridge, A. (1978). Pompeii AD 79, vol. II. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
  • Wheeler, M. (1964). Roman art and architecture. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
  • Wilcox, R. T. (1945). The mode in hats and headdress. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Zambucka, Kristin. (1989). Cleopatra: goddess/queen. Honolulu: Harrane Publishing Co.

This page was created by C. David Claudon. Last update April 25, 2009 .

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