The Bedouin women are veiled as protection from the dust. Rows of coins at the bottom of the veil anchor it in place despite the winds.
The clothes are black because it is cheapest tp deal only in one color, and they are loose and layered for the same reason. Pointed sleeves touch the ground because it would be wasteful to cut the cloth.
Some bracelets have breast-like protrusions as symbols of the Nubian woman's ability to nurture and raise children.
Such aspects of Egyptian life are examined in the small (13 costumes in all plus a range of jewelry) but intriguing collection that opens today at the Museum of African Art, one of the "Egypt Today" exhibitions. The collection neatly enhances two other existing costume groups at the museum: a collection of the masquerade-spirit costumes of the northern Edo people made by Ibo craftsman Lawrence Ajanaku, and the leather costumes and intricately beaded and colorful jewelry the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania wear.
In fact, says Edward Lifschitz, academic coordinator at the museum, the Egyptian costumes are similar to those of Africans in hot, dry areas. They both use layering, a single color and a surface embroidered with beading and dangling pieces of metal, which catch the light and also add sound.
All of the costumes and headdresses on exhibit are still being worn in rural areas today, according to Warren Robbins, founder and director of the museum. Many of them are elaborately embroidered, the older ones with a smaller, finer, embroidery stitch, revealing that women increasingly spent less time and effort at art form, said Lydia Pucinelli, curator of collections at the museum.Shells might have been used in place of buttons in decorating Siwa costumes from a much earlier period, she added.
Perhaps more intriguing is the jewelry, which, like the costumes, is from the private collection of Shahira Mehrez from Cairo. Headpieces with chains and bells, rings, chokers, pendants and shoulder ornaments serve several functions: as protection in the form of amulets, as bank accounts, as indications of social status and as decoration. The women of the oasis of Siwa, near the Libyan frontier, may wear six to 11 pounds of silver as wedding adornment, depending on the wealth of the family. Flat, engraved, disc wedding rings, sometimes two inches in diameter, may adorn each of the woman's fingers, says Mehrez.
On display, too, is a gold filigree nose ring -- the filigree makes it lighter and cheaper -- worn by women in the eastern desert. "If women have nothing else they have a gold nose ring," says Lifschitz. From the same area are the clove-seed necklaces, worn to make the body more fragrant.
Many of the costumes have been set on wig forms and torsos cleverly shaped with bubble plastic to achieve the stance the museum wanted. "The personality of the costume kept showing itself to us," said Pucinelli.