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Theda Bara as Cleopatra

Walk like an Egyptian: The Ancient Egypt craze of the 1920s

Image: Theda Bara as Cleopatra in the film 'Cleopatra' | Public Domain

On 16th February 1923, Howard Carter and his team of archaeologists made a discovery that changed the world forever. Three months after unearthing a mysterious step, Carter’s team worked tirelessly to reveal the entrance to the mysterious tomb that lay just below the surface. Little did they know just how significant of a discovery it would turn out to be.

The tomb of Tutankhamun was remarkably well preserved, having remained untouched for over three millennia. Containing more than 5,000 individual artefacts and treasures, when Carter and his team crossed the threshold, they were the first to have done so in 3,200 years.

Dripping with gold and jewels, the boy king’s tomb was filled with everything from furniture to board games. The wide variety of items held within the vaults shared a glimpse of what royal life was like in ancient Egypt. As more and more items were removed and catalogued, it snared the imaginations of millions worldwide.

Thanks to the booming mainstream media, news of the discovery spread across the globe like wildfire, and it wasn’t long until it went viral. Egyptology became an overnight sensation and seeped into popular culture almost immediately. It’s no wonder that 100 years on, its impact is still hugely influential. Here are five ways that Howard Carter’s discovery changed the world's cultural landscape forever.

1. Art Deco

Art Deco was starting to blossom around the same time as Carter’s discovery, so it only makes sense that one of the most significant cultural events would influence the burgeoning art style.

Inspired by the opulent and detailed artwork painted onto the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Art Deco started to incorporate the geometric shapes, motifs, and luxury seen in the king’s burial chambers.

Icons like palm trees, scarabs, and cats were a common occurrence in the Art Deco style, and the decadent use of rich gold as a decoration was heavily motivated by the luxury and grandeur inside the tomb.

2. Marketing

It didn’t take long for marketers to jump on board the hype train. Everything from lemons to cigarettes was rebranded to feature the words 'Egypt' or 'King Tut' in the hope of cashing in on the trend. Marketing posters and adverts featured iconic Egyptian scenery that evoked ideas of luxury and style.

Nothing was immune to the marketing power of Egyptomania. Perfume adverts featured women dressed in ancient Egyptian style robes drawn fanning themselves, while soap adverts featuring a sarcophagus boasted that they could re-incarnate beauty.

3. Fashion

It wasn’t just artwork and thrones that were removed from the tomb - there were fashion items too. Chests filled with clothing included everything like loincloths, shawls, sashes, gloves, headdresses, sandals, and animal skins. Within weeks, articles were popping up in newspapers around the world discussing how collections were dominated by Egypt.

While some designers drew inspiration for the cut and style of their clothing, others created intricately patterned fabrics inspired by the tomb’s artwork. Even the flapper style, perhaps the most iconic fashion trend of the early 1900s, was heavily influenced by its severely cut bobs and Egyptian-inspired headdresses.

4. Architecture

With the rise in skyscrapers starting in the 1920s and 1930s, many likened the new architectural advancement to a modern-day equivalent of the pyramids. Built at the height of King Tut fever, buildings like the Chrysler Building in New York and the Hoover Building in London are living examples of how the Ancient Egyptians' intricate artwork and repeating geometric patterns translated into modern architecture.

It wasn’t just the outsides of the buildings that were inspired, either. Rooms of gold and polished brass were designed to mimic the luxurious gold walls of the tombs, with every inch of the buildings decorated. Furniture mimicked the Ancient Egyptian style, while Art Deco artwork and flourishes tied the interior decorating together.

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5. Beauty

Personal beauty products were quick to start marketing their items, like eyeliner and face powder in Egyptian-inspired packaging. Makeup and beauty trends sprung up from the myriad pictures of ancient Egyptian men and women featured in the tomb’s artwork.

Thick, heavy eyeliner trends (which still go in and out of fashion even now) mimicked the heavy kohl on Tutankhamun’s death mask, while the short bob hairstyle also rose from the artworks of the tomb. Even accessories, jewellery and headdresses were fashioned from pictures of the artwork.