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Egyptian Barbie: Princess of the Nile
A Unique Lesson on Ancient Egypt...with Barbie!
While I am not a doll collector, I love Barbie's "Princess of the Nile" design as a fun example of "Egyptomania." Let's examine her costume and learn about Ancient Egypt through her retro fashion accessories!
But first, let me tell you a little about the wild and wacky world of Egyptomania. Some art historians are appalled by it. I enjoy it. It's yet more proof that Egypt is the most successful civilization ever: it lasted over 3000 years, and even two millennia after the Romans conquered it, it just won't die! Talk about an afterlife.
What Is Egyptomania?
Simply put, Egyptomania is Egyptian kitsch, the resurrection of ancient Egypt in popular culture. You've seen it: everything from Egyptian tarot decks to symbols on U.S. money to Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider and Stargate.
The West's obsession with Egypt began with the Greeks and Romans. It seems like everyone from Augustus Caesar to Elizabeth Taylor has dressed up as a pharaoh, or at least been portrayed as one. Fads of Egyptian kitsch recur again and again, from Emperor Hadrian's grandiose portraits of his bff to the Napoleonic Revival (inspiring the Washington Monument) to Art Deco. How can you not love it?
Barbie and Egyptomania - A Fashion Tradition
Barbie has gotten in on Egyptomania as well. In fact, she's done it several times. There's an Egyptian Queen Barbie and two incredible modeled on Elizabeth Taylor's most famous role. These dolls, however, are not based upon Egyptian art so much as on vague notions and stereotypes of ancient Egyptian dress. Cleopatra Barbies
The "Princess of the Nile" Barbie, on the other hand, is based on real Egyptian art. I immediately recognized most of her costume details. So now that you understand that our humble Barbie doll is the heir to a long tradition of western celebrities trying to "Walk Like Egyptians," let's take a closer look at her outfit.
Princess of the Nile Barbie - Designed By Heather Fonseca
Barbie's "Princess of The Nile" Costume, Head-to-Toe Fashion
I can see that designer Heather Fonseca did her research. She must have dug through a lot of New Kingdom Egyptian art, especially the well-known treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb, to put together this ensemble. (Here's Ms. Fonseca's concept art sketch for the doll on this Barbie fansite).
The colors are authentic, meant to evoke the gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and colored glass (faience) commonly used in Egyptian jewelry and art.
(Detail of head/shoulders: See Photo by Mary Harrsh.)
See this fabulous fan photo of the "Princess of the Nile" Barbie for a close-up of her crown to compare.
The Uraeus, a golden cobra, adorns the crowns of many Egyptian pharaohs. Barbie's uraeus is paired with a vulture head. Many Egyptian symbols memorialize the fact that Egypt was originally two distinct kingdoms, Upper (up-river) Egypt and Lower (down-river) Egypt, often represented by the vulture-goddess Nekhbet and the cobra-goddess Wadjet. I think Barbie's uraeus-crown may be inspired by King Tutankhamun's crown, which is duplicated on his famous golden mask and coffins, combined with his stepmother (?) Nefertiti's spiffy diadem (the band around her crown).
Ancient Egyptians were very concerned about personal hygiene. However, in those days there were no bug sprays, and doors and windows didn't seal tightly. To keep away lice, well-to-do Egyptians shaved themselves and wore wigs!
They could add perfume, beads, or other accessories, or go bald on really hot days. The small, tight braids they favored were less likely to become messy and more likely to deter pests than loose hair.
Mind you, some Egyptian queens kept their hair. King Tut's grandma Queen Tiye retained beautiful hair, still attached to her mummy.
Egyptian Eye Make-Up
Kohl eyeliner was used by both men and women to accentuate the eyes and serve as a sort of greasepaint, dampening the intense glare of the Egyptian sun. It was made of powdered galena (lead ore, slightly poisonous!), powdered malachite or, more rarely, iron oxide.
Egyptian nobility dress up with wide beaded necklaces of faience or precious stones. Most mummies and portraits show a collar-like necklace of this kind, as you can see from the examples above. (in fact, a friend brought me a cheap faience knock-off from modern-day Egypt).
Egyptian Barbie's beaded collar particularly reminds me of a mummy portrait of Thuya, King Tutankhamun's great-grandmother.
Photo Credit: Jon Bodsworth, from his copyright-free Egyptian photos.
Barbie's "pectoral" (from Latin pectus, chest/breastbone) ornament is obviously based onthis pectoral of King Tut. In fact, he had multiple necklaces featuring this design, which showcases the hieroglyphs of another of his four royal names. From bottom to top, bowl-scarab-sun reads Neb-Kheper-Re, "[the supreme god] Re, Lord of Becoming."
The winged scarab is a common symbol of the sun and creation in ancient Egypt, because real Egyptian scarabs roll balls of dung (yuck!) across the ground like the sun rolling across the sky. Scarabs lay their eggs in these balls, and after a time new beetles magically hatch from the ball. Egyptians recognized many symbols of life and rebirth, and weren't squeamish about fertilizer.
In fact, looking more closely, I think that the background of our doll's pectoral has been altered slightly: instead of spelling out Tut's name, it shows an ankh beneath the beetle, the looped cross (actually, a mirror) which is a hieroglyph meaning "life."
I haven't found any exact matches for "Princess of the Nile" Barbie's bracelets, but they are obviously meant to be gold inset with lapis lazuli or blue faience. Their style is similar to King Tut's scarab bracelet. Instead of a scarab, Barbie's bracelets have an udjat, an "Eye of Horus" design, another common Egyptian motif.
"Princess of the Nile" Barbie is wearing a fashionable New Kingdom Egyptian dress, the semi-transparent pleated linen garment favored by Egyptian nobles around the time of King Tut. The under-sheath is white in all the paintings I've seen; either I've missed a particularly ornate example, or designer Fonseca chose gold to help the body stand out (Egyptians did love gold, after all) and avoid the more traditional see-through effect. [Update: Ms. Fonseca confirmed to me via email that the gold underskirt is "pure Hollywood glamour!" I'm sure that Egyptian princesses of this period would have enjoyed the glitz if they could have found tailors to make it.]
The two long panels or ribbons remind me of Queen Ankhesenamun's gown, portrayed in a touching image of the young queen and her husband Tut on the back of Tutankhamun's throne. Fonseca has added more Eyes of Horus to the bottom of the ribbons. (Here's a slightly clearer picture of the back of Tut's throne.)
What Do You Think of the Princess of the Nile Barbie?
So, what do you think of our Egyptian Barbie?
Dating Barbie "Princess of the Nile"
I would say fourteenth century BCE, since she looks like a contemporary of King Tutankhamun. He died in 1323 BCE during what is called the "New Kingdom," the last and greatest flowering of ancient Egypt before younger civilizations like Persia, Greece and Rome began to compete with and eventually conquer it. When Tut was alive, the pyramids had already been standing for over a thousand years.
[Update] Ms. Fonseca adds that she was especially inspired by an exhibit of Amarna Period Egyptian art at the Met. The Amarna period is a beautiful phase of Egyptian art and costume that swept through Egypt during the generation before King Tut, and it continued throughout his reign. You've probably seen one of its most famous examples, the portrait bust of Tut's stepmother Queen Nefertiti. To learn about King Tut and his family (with newly-discovered DNA evidence), see this National Geographic article on King Tut's Family Secrets.
Make Your Own Egyptian Princess Gown
I hope you've enjoyed this unusual lesson on ancient Egyptian costume and symbols. Please drop a note or share if you know anyone interested in the ancient world...or Barbies!