There’s vintage and then there’s vintage. The so-called “Tarkhan Dress,” a V-neck linen shirt currently on show at University College London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, lies firmly in the latter category. Excavated in 1913 as part of a linen pile from a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkhan, but discovered by textile conservators only in 1977, the dress was thought to be the world’s oldest surviving woven garment. For decades, its precise age remained uncertain because researchers feared that the sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress. Science has since improved, however, and recent radiocarbon testing by the University of Oxford can now confirm with 95 percent accuracy that the dress originated between 3482 and 3102 BC.
Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum, and the University of Oxford’s Michael Dee published their results this month in the journal Antiquity.
Despite its age, the dress is familiar in construction, comprising of three pieces of handwoven linen with a natural pale gray stripe. An attempt at embellishment was made with the pleated sleeves and yoke. And although the missing hem means it isn’t possible to know how long it was, its dimensions suggest it fitted a young teenager or a slim-figured woman, Stevenson and Dee noted in the paper.
The garment is unique because few textiles of similar age have survived to the present day, let alone one almost complete.
The Tarkhan Dress has clearly been worn in life, according to the museum, because it was found inside-out with distinct signs of creasing at the elbows and below the armpits.
“The Tarkhan Dress…remains the earliest extant example of complex woven clothing, that is, a cut, fitted and tailored garment as opposed to one that was draped or wrapped,” said Stevenson and Dee. “Along with other textile remains from Egypt, it has the potential to provide further insights into craft specialization and the organisation of textile manufacture during the development of the world’s first territorial state.”
If you want to make a Tarkhan Dress of your own, Janet Johnstone of the Petrie Museum helpfully provides directions.