How Tutankhamun conquered pop culture

‘Tutmania’ influenced everything from Hollywood to fashion and advertising after the pharaoh's tomb emerged from the sands of Egypt in 1922.

By Ann R. Williams
Published 2 Nov 2022, 12:22 GMT
Opener 1

The boyish face of King Tutankhamun greets visitors at the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo. This life-size model, which may have served as a mannequin to display royal robes or jewellery, is one of more than 5,000 treasures from the young pharaoh’s tomb that are being restored and prepared for display at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, planned to open in late 2022. An international team of scholars at the museum’s conservation laboratory is restoring a steady stream of artefacts from across the country.

Photograph by Paolo Verzone

The world had never seen anything like it. In late 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a royal tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, untouched for 3,300 years and filled with eye-popping bling. The occupant, teenage pharaoh Tutankhamun Nebkheperure—better known these days as King Tut—became an instant media sensation. Newspapers couldn’t get enough of him or his staggering wealth, epitomised by his gleaming, solid gold death mask “of sad but tranquil expression,” according to Carter. As the archaeologist carefully removed and catalogued the gilded contents of his tomb, the young king, who had died at the age of 19 without amounting to much in real life, resurrected into a trend-setting superstar.

Howard Carter inspects the innermost coffin of solid gold in a photo taken in October 1925, now colorized.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, colorized by Dynamichrome

“There is only one topic of conversa­tion, only one subject animating all men’s minds,” wrote a New York Times correspondent from Luxor in February 1923. “One cannot escape the name of Tut-ankh-Amen any­where. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-ankh-Amen art, Tut-ankh-Amen hats, Tut-ankh-Amen curios, Tut-ankh-Amen photographs, and tomorrow probably genuine Tut-ankh-Amen antiquities. Every hotel in Luxor today had something a la Tut-ankh-Amen.”

Tutmania had arrived.

Princess Marie José of Belgium dressed in lavish Nile style for a Tutankhamun ball in Brussels in 1926.
Photograph by AKG-Images, TT News Agency, SVT

Fashion and ancient Egyptian history don’t seem like a natural mix, but after Tut’s discovery, the two collided head-on. Fabrics for dresses and coats displayed motifs such as palm trees, lotus blossoms, and sphinxes. Imitation hieroglyphs encircled the wristbands of gloves. Handbags, umbrellas, and cigarette cases were Egyptianised. Flappers wore headbands featuring cobras and snake bracelets that wound up their arms. There were even King Tut–influenced hats, beaded evening dresses with slashed sleeves and floppy waists, and walking canes surmounted with the head of an ibis.

High-end jewellers fashioned Egyptian-themed adornments, often using motifs from Tut’s own finery. Cartier, the French purveyor of luxury goods for mod­ern royalty, turned out pieces that included a dazzling brooch in the form of a winged scarab, with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and onyx set in gold, and a clock of sparkling mother-of-pearl shaped like the gateway to an ancient Egyptian temple.

Beauty products also picked up on the trend, linking products to Egypt’s exotic royals. Emerging from the Victorian age when makeup was linked to sex workers, women lined their eyes with Nile-inspired Kohl eyeliner. Face powder was packaged in Egyptian-style compacts. Bobbed hairstyles, too, were all the rage, influenced by ancient Egyptian looks.

Artistic effect

The Egyptian discovery also inspired performers, writers, and artists, sometimes in outlandish ways. In the 1920s Magician Charles Joseph Carter, better known by his stage name "Carter the Great," promised to sweep “the secrets of the sphinx and marvels of the tomb of old King Tut to the modern world.” 

Author Richard Goyne made a youthful King Tut the main character of his 1923 book entitled The Kiss of Pharaoh: The Love Story of Tut-Ankh-Amen. Fighting his way to the throne, he encountered many obstacles, including the need to find the missing royal bride. 

The song “Old King Tut” hit the sound scene in 1923, at a time when the young smart set was mad for a newly popular dance called the Charleston. “On the desert sand old King Tutty’s band / Played while maidens swayed,” went the jaunty lyrics.

Pictured is the cover for sheet music for a 1923 song, which included the lines “On the desert sand old King Tutty’s band / Played while maidens swayed.”
Photograph by Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society
This 1924 French advertising poster for cigarettes is the work of Spanish artist Gaspar Camps, who was greatly influenced by Czech painter Alphonse Mucha.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Fine Art Images, Heritage Images, Getty Images

In the movie world, The Mummystarring Boris Karloff in 1932, spun a tale of an archaeologist, a linen-wrapped mummy, and a curse. The idea for the plot arose from the series of strange deaths that occurred after the discovery of Tut’s tomb (including Lord Carnarvon, the dig’s aristocratic sponsor, who died less than five months after the big discovery).

Design flourishes

The discovery of Tut’s tomb provided fresh inspiration to architects trained in old-world style. Egyptian-style motifs especially became fashionable in architectural settings, notably the elevator doors in the Chrysler Building in New York.

But it was in the realm of movie theatres that the Egyptian influence really took off. It started with Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, which was originally imagined in a Spanish style. With the discovery of Tut’s tomb, the design was changed to one of pharaonic splendour, including faux hieroglyphs, scarabs, and papyrus-shaped columns framing the movie screen. The cinema opened in October 1922, five weeks before Howard Carter found Tut’s tomb. That fortuitous timing with the birth of Hollywood would inspire the construction of some four dozen Egyptian-themed theatres in cities across the country by the end of the decade and put traces of Egyptian designs in many others.

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood opened weeks before Tut’s tomb was found in 1922.
Photograph by Historia, REX, Shutterstock

Advertising tools

Advertising also picked up on Tut fever, linking products to Egypt’s exotic royals even if they had nothing to do with the place. A newspaper ad for a typewriter dis­played the machine beside a pyramid, tout­ing both as enduring milestones in human his­tory. Cards depicting the young king came in cigarette cartons. Lemons were marketed under the “King Tut Brand,” making King Tut lemons seem more desirable than those not branded with the young ruler’s nickname.

What was considered exotic branding at the time helped sell California-grown fruit, like this King Tut brand of lemons.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Susan Blair

King Tut forever

King Tut did not fade away after the initial excitement. In 1972, he and his treasures travelled to London then around the world for a record-breaking exhibition entitled “Treasures of Tutankhamun.” The exhibition toured six countries over nine years, breaking museum attendance records with people waiting hours to get in. And with it came Tutmania anew.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs by Ann R. Williams. Copyright © 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC.

To learn more, check out King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.

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