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 Cleopatra Barbies 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.
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.)
Find Her on Amazon
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?
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!
Egyptomaniac Guestbook - Ankh If You Love Isis
ingridpalmer on December 13, 2013:
Very interesting and beautiful lens.
KimGiancaterino on September 26, 2012:
She's gorgeous! I love what Mattel has done with the Barbie line.
WriterJanis2 on September 23, 2012:
Very fun and cute way to learn about Egypt. Blessed.
Wendy Leanne from Texas on September 08, 2012:
Wow, she is so pretty. I've never heard of the Egyptian Barbie before. I enjoyed reading your lens and learning something new. *~blessed~*
BestRatedStuff on September 05, 2012:
Read every word. Loved all the little tit-bits you added, and your interaction with the designer. It's nice knowing the whys and wherefores of a product. Like the doll too.
rawwwwwws lm on August 26, 2012:
Wonderful lens! I love the intro layout. Love the colors.
mouse1996 lm on August 23, 2012:
Great lens. I'm a doll lover and loved reading this lens.
Paula7928 on August 02, 2012:
Great lens! My son loves Egyptian toys so if he was a girl I'd get him the Egyptian Barbie!
WebWriteGirl LM on June 03, 2012:
Wow, she is gorgeous! I love this lens! Thanks for sharing it!
agoofyidea on March 29, 2012:
I had never seen this Barbie, but she would be a fun addition to any collection.
LisaDH on November 07, 2011:
I never knew you could learn so much from a Barbie doll! And I'm incredibly impressed that you contacted the designer to confirm your opinion on the gold underskirt.
Shelly Sellers from Midwest U.S.A. on November 04, 2011:
The Egyptian Barbie is one I have not seen. She looks so different from the typical ones. Nicely done and you deserve a Squid Blessing.
Tonie Cook from USA on March 20, 2011:
History through the eyes of Barbie! Wonderfully informative and educational. Bravo! May all who view this lens learn something new.
slackira on February 13, 2011:
Christene-S on February 10, 2011:
Blessed by a SquidAngel :)
anonymous on January 03, 2011:
Wow, Barbie sure has come along way since I had one :-)
BrandonJames926 on January 03, 2011:
I had no idea they made specialty Barbies like this. None the less, Egyptian Barbie sounds like quite the niche! ; )
Rachellewms on January 02, 2011:
"I prefer Elizabeth Taylor Barbie." Good One! This is an outstanding lens.
NoYouAreNot on January 01, 2011:
@mythphile: Yes, I think you should!
Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN, USA on January 01, 2011:
Love this lens because you managed to teach me something based on Barbie -- fluffy, silly, pointless BARBIE!
Brookelorren LM on January 01, 2011:
This is excellent. I didn't know that you could learn so much from a Barbie doll.
Ellen Brundige (author) from California on January 01, 2011:
@MagpieNest: Oh yes! I donated mine to Goodwill, but a few friends gave me some of them in college. They were great.
There's also a fun Egyptian wooden blocks set with little lotus-topped columns that I gave to my cousins. I should probably make a lens on fun Egypt-themed toys, shouldn't I?
MagpieNest on January 01, 2011:
Excellent stuff! I have to admit I'm rather tempted by the Egyptian Playmobil range.
Ellen Brundige (author) from California on January 01, 2011:
@greenspirit: I've always felt like that about Barbie, too. I was deeply suspicious of them as a kid. I was at first a little appalled to discover she's now styling herself as the goddess Athena and various historical figures, but hey, this is a lot better than the "Math Is Hard!" talking Barbie that raised the ire of my college friends in the 90s.
poppy mercer from London on January 01, 2011:
Can't believe I find myself on a Barbie doll lens....but this is great. The Egyptian art style was a great breakthrough, and has been influencing art movements ever since. I love the Art Deco style which is another Egyptian influenced phase. Having never been into Barbie, I had no idea that she did anything other than inhabit teen pop culture in a rather vacant way, but I stand corrected.
darciefrench lm on December 31, 2010:
Awesome job on this Egyptian lens - even if it's about a barbie doll -:)
Christene-S on December 31, 2010:
Great lens concept for you! Love the combination of pop culture and history. :)