Subscriber Spotlight on Dr. Colleen Darnell: “Walk Like An Egyptologist”

Dr. John Coleman Darnell and Dr. Colleen Darnell seated on a sandstone outcrop at Elkab on the east banks of the Nile
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Colleen Darnell

The runway shows for fall 2022 have come to an end. Buyers are now writing their orders, magazine editors are lining up clothes to be photographed for upcoming issues. Fashion followers who have watched the shows are keeping lists of covetable pieces they’ve seen.

Colleen Darnell wears a 1920’s dress & Art Deco cape in the Armour-Stiner Octagon Photograph by Rose Callahan rosecallahan.com

Not everyone relies on runways for inspiration and direction. Some women have a dedicated personal style that is not predicated on trends du jour. One such woman is Dr. Colleen Darnell. The accomplished American Egyptologist, author, and art history professor dresses almost entirely in vintage.

Colleen Darnell at the Temple of Ramses 11 wearing a 1920’s walking suit & boater
Photograph courtesy Dr. Colleen Darnell

Dr. Darnell has curated museum exhibitions, published papers about Ancient Egypt’s various eras, and, as director of the Mo’alla Survey Project, she has spotlighted a number of important Egyptian discoveries. In 2017, she and her husband, Dr. John Coleman Darnell, a Professor of Egyptology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale, Curator in Anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum, and Director of the Elkab Desert Survey Project, found the oldest monumental hieroglyphic inscription.

Dr. Colleen Darnell wearing vintage Courreges
Photograph by Marilyn Kirschner

I originally met Colleen, aka “Vintage Egyptologist” at the Manhattan Vintage Show in February. She was there, filming a podcast with John. Colleen was dressed in vintage Courreges. While her look was decidedly 60’s mod, Colleen’s favorite period is the Roaring Twenties.

Colleen Darnell posing with a sphinx cat, wearing a 1930s dress & necklace that belonged to her grandmother
Photograph by Mennatullah Hossam

She is a real-life flapper and Louise Brooks lookalike. With her lithe frame, luminescent skin, kohl-rimmed eyes, and jet black geometric bob, Colleen is perfectly suited to this aesthetic. I was intrigued and had to know more. We have spoken on the phone and emailed back and forth numerous times.

Colleen grew up in St. Louis. Her mother was a model. Colleen, who wanted to be an Egyptologist since the age of 5, was always interested in fashion. Collecting and creating standout looks is something Darnell really enjoys doing with John, who, Colleen says, has a really good eye and incredible historical knowledge.

Colleen Darnell standing near the banks of the Nile wearing a 1920’s silk pajama set Photograph by John Coleman Darnell

Through social media, the couple combines vintage, style, and education, all in a beautiful setting. They have a YouTube Channel, but Instagram, which Darnell launched in 2017 with the username “Vintage Egyptologist”, has really provided the perfect platform for Colleen to showcase her stunning wardrobe while teaching the public about Egypt.

Each caption they post has a historical angle. As of now, Darnell has over 212,000 followers. Colleen says the reaction was extraordinary from the beginning.

Dr. Colleen Darnell at Ramesseum Pylon built by Ramses 11
Photograph by John Coleman Darnell

John directs an expedition in Southern Egypt so the couple goes there to work at least 2 ½ months a year. On their excavations, they always dress to complement one another, as they are wont to do. Out in the field, Colleen favors neutral-colored jodhpur or skirts worn with a vest, tie, hat, and well-worn Frye boots.

“You can wear 1920s fashion and people recognize it’s different but it doesn’t look like a costume. The length and structure is essentially modern clothing. You can be very historical and also be modern.”

Colleen Darnell

She is specifically drawn to 20’s fashion for its inherent modernity and because of what this period symbolizes for women. It was an empowering time when women were given the right to vote.

Dr. Darnell wears a 1920s chiffon dress in the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan
Photograph by Seif Amro

They could start moving in professional and social spaces that were previously off-limits to them. It was also an empowering and freeing time in terms of fashion, as exemplified by the easy, loose flapper dresses Darnell wears today.

But Darnell is not locked into this period. Colleen’s love of vintage extends to the ’30s, the ’40s, and sometimes, beyond. Most of Colleen’s coats are from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Among her, favored pieces are two gorgeous 1970’s dresses designed by Bill Gibb.

Colleen Darnell wearing a 1970’s dress by Bill Gibb
Photograph by John Coleman Darnell

In the photo seen here, she and John recreated three of the statues from the Parthenon pediment and put a black backdrop in their living room and with Photoshop, Colleen became all three statues.

Dr. Colleen Darnell wearing a monokini by Pride Swim inspired by a Rudi Gernreich
Photograph by Jennifer Schulten at sandiastudio.com

This gold and lapis monikini, by Pride Swim, an Australian swimwear company, is an interpretation of Rudi Gernreich’s iconic creation. It is now available worldwide as a custom order piece.

Colleen Darnell Azza Fahmy’s 18kt gold & sterling silver Lotus Flower Jewelry
Photograph by John Coleman Darnell

On those rare occasions, Dr. Darnell is not wearing vintage, she is dressed in modern Egyptian couture from designers like Kojak Studios, Maison Saedi, and Eman Fathy. Or, she is accessorizing an otherwise simple outfit with Azza Fahmy’s statement jewelry.

Dr. Colleen Darnell wearing a kaftan by Eman Fathy
Photograph by Alberto Urica

John takes many of Colleen’s pictures for Instagram, but some of her most spectacular shoots have been with photographers in Egypt. “It’s a great collaboration. I don’t just use Egypt as a backdrop. It’s a true engagement with the archaeological community in Egypt for my scholarship and an engagement with the art and fashion community in Egypt.”

Among the historical locations that serve as backdrops are the Philae Temple, the Temple of Edfu; Cairo’s Marriot Mena House Hotel which once hosted Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle; and the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, a historic 5-star luxury resort on the banks of the River Nile.

John and Colleen in the dining room of their home wearing full 1920’s eveningwear Photograph by Jennifer Schulten at sandiastudio.com

Dr. Darnell’s flawless style and her commitment to vintage carry through to all facets of her life. She and John live with two Basenji dogs (it’s an ancient Egyptian breed) in Durham, Connecticut, in a house built in 1844. The town has a significant historic district and the house itself is on the Historic Registry.

Every piece of furniture in their home is pre-1850; the earliest pieces date back to the 1600s. Last year, they purchased a 1923 Model T and an additional car for driving around for fun and not daily use. “We don’t pretend we are actually living in the 20’s” Darnell jokes.

Dr. Darnell is looking forward to doing more documentaries and having more of a presence on TV. She has written 5 books, including a museum catalogue about Egyptian Revival design, and has co-authored several with John. In their upcoming tome, published by St. Martins press, the couple writes about another couple.

Egypt’s Golden Couple: How Akhenaten and Nefertiti Became Gods on Earth”, by John and Colleen Darnell, reconstructs an otherwise untold story of the magnificent reign of King Tut’s parents: Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

Combining fascinating scholarship, detective suspense, and adventurous thrills, Egypt’s Golden Couple is a journey through excavations, museums, hieroglyphic texts, and stunning artifacts. Priced at $29.99, the 384-page hardcover edition has a release date of November 1, 2022.

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

4 Comments
  1. What an interesting and fashionable woman! Love her style and her features are truly out of the 20’s. Thank you, Marilyn, for introducing us to her (and her husband)!

  2. This is not fashion. This is outright *colonialist cosplay* by a couple who began an affair while she was an undergraduate under his supervision, hid the relationship while he supervised her doctorate and hire, and covered up the evidence for as long as possible.

    Do better. Do much, much better.

  3. Thank you for your comments.
    We don’t just do ‘fashion’ and in fact..that is the whole point…..
    I write about people and things that I find interesting if not unusual
    …I am looking for the element of surprise and something out of the ordinary.

    Many of our readers really enjoyed this.
    You can’t please everyone all the time..
    what did you do last???.

    It’s not rocket science..
    Enough said!

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