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Old Clothing Still in Style, 5,000 Years Later

If you need proof Science is an incremental business, the long voyage of the Tarkhan Dress is one for the books.

This fitted, pleated bit of linen, was found by archaeologists in 1913. It was lying amongst a pile of discarded linens left behind at a ransacked tomb in an ancient Egyptian cemetery about 50 kilometers from Cairo.

It found its way to the Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Conservation Workshop where it sat until 1977 when workers begun to painstakingly clean the fragile piece of cloth.

The Tarkhan Dress. Courtesy of Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.
The Tarkhan Dress. Courtesy of Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

What they discovered was that this piece of cloth was tapered, and pleated around the neck and sleeves.

From its discovery, the Tarkhan Dress stood out as one of the oldest examples of sewn, tailored and fitted clothing ever found.

"The garment had clearly been worn in life," according to Rosalind Hall from the museum, writing back in the 1970s, "because it was found inside-out, as it very well might have be after having been pulled over the head with distinct signs of creasing at the elbows and under the armpits.

Radiocarbon test confirms age

But was it the oldest? That wasn't clear until this week when radiocarbon dating definitively placed the age of the dress at somewhere between 5,000 and 5,400 years old.

The research was reported in the February edition of the Antiquities Journal and authored by Alice Stevenson, curator of University College of London’s, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Michael Dee of the University of Oxford.

Previous dating had set the age of the dress in a broad 1,000-year range that wasn't narrow enough to say that it was, in fact, the oldest tailored garment ever found.

But the new tests on a single two-centimeter-long piece of thread were done in 2015 and these came back with the more precise answer.

But the bigger question, which big time designer will copy the design for next year's spring runway show?

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    Kevin Enochs

    Kevin Enochs is an award-winning content creator who has been explaining the intricacies of the natural world to television and online audiences for over 20 years.

    He perfected his craft working for CNN and the National Geographic Channel before heading to the Voice of America in 2012.