Egyptomania: The CMA’s exploration of Egyptian culture in Western fashion


Courtesy of Maison Yeya/L'ascension Couture Collection

The dresses in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Egyptomania” exhibit, while beautiful, have been criticized by some as examples of cultural appropriation since they adopt a stereotypically Egyptian style only for the sake of aesthetic appeal.

Megan Abel, Staff Writer

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) new exhibit, “Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession,” stands in contrast to its existing ancient Egyptian gallery (107), which is centered around the ideas of burial and death with mummies, mummy portraits and artifacts found in graves.

The “Egyptomania” exhibit in Gallery 234, between the Ancient American and Japanese/Korean exhibits, is a floor above the existing ancient Egypt gallery. It is full of designer fashion and jewelry that highlight the West’s fascination with ancient Egypt. The exhibit also features photographs of models wearing the garments on the red carpet. However, the pieces have taken the culture out of context and instead misrepresent it through stereotypes. It utilizes death, mummies and Cleopatra in a way that is borderline cultural appropriation, taking the authenticity out of the clothes. In one part of the exhibit there is a short dress made entirely from repurposed mummy robes worn on the runway and an “Egyptian” necklace containing a Chanel logo. The designers of these garments took traditional Egyptian concepts and completely removed the cultural contexts of each piece simply for their aesthetic appeal.

The CMA usually puts similar galleries near one another based on the time that they were created or their connection to one another, like the galleries from ancient Rome and Egypt. However, the “Egyptomania” exhibit is located on the opposite side of the museum from the standing ancient Egyptian gallery. The museum acknowledges that the displays within the two galleries are not related, and even has plaques discussing the use of Egyptian culture in fashion while ensuring that it does not get confused for authentic artifacts.

Most of the dresses, photos and art in the “Egyptomania” gallery are gorgeous and extremely well done, and the video of runway models walking in similarly beautiful clothing shows the care and thought that went into the designs, but when it is presented in a historical museum, the context changes. There is a dress in Gallery 110 to promote the “Egyptomania” exhibit in 234, and on its own, the single dress seems to fit with the rest of the gallery. But when you go directly to the new exhibit, the tone surrounding the dress and its context change entirely. There is music playing like “Dance Like an Egyptian” and decorations that separate it from the surrounding galleries, creating a stark contrast between it and the rest of the museum.

The official statement of the CMA says that the use of Egyptian influences in fashion is a conflicted obsession and has led to many controversies. It appears they want the public to form their own opinions about the removal of ancient Egyptian culture from their context while not actively coming out and providing an opinion on the exhibit. The museum is handling it in a mostly politically neutral way while simultaneously and contradictorily drawing public attention to the fact that it is not okay to continually reimagine Egyptian culture simply for aesthetic appeal. If you wish to check out the exhibit and form your own opinions, it is currently open to the public at the Cleveland Museum of Art and is available until Jan. 28, 2024.