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The Gilded Serpent presents...
My Costuming Roots
by Aziza!

Imagine me as Little Bo Peep (complete with crook and hoop skirt) or as the Queen of Hearts!  My mother did, and made these costumes for me when I was a little girl - and thus began my life-long addiction to costuming.

The next big step in my path came when, as a seventh grader, I attended a Halloween dance at school wearing a "harem girl" costume that someone had given us.  It was of purple satin and yellow chiffon, and Mom filled in the midriff with more purple so it would be modest enough for me to wear it.  The search for yellow underpants to wear with it took awhile, but we found them - and as I walked across the stage in the "costume parade", a boy in the audience yelled, "Hey, Ainsworth!  I can see your underpants!" - but I didn't even care!  I was hooked!  And so, over the years, I grabbed any chance to wear or even just make a costume, and, since 1975,I have owned my own costuming business, for which I both design and make all the costumes, as well as selling them.

In 1965, while I was attending UC Berkeley - intending to become a librarian - I saw an ad in the student newspaper offering Arabic dance lessons.  That sounded like fun to me, and so I started taking lessons from Jamila Salimpour.  After about three months, she said I was ready to perform on stage, and so I started working at the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco.  My first costume consisted of a coin belt that Jamila had made, with a simple bra I made to match, and a heavy black crepe skirt with silver Greek key design trim.  I had made a black chiffon veil, and also, for some reason, a veil of the same heavy crepe with the trim.  I was only ever able to wear the heavy veil in shows presented on large stages, like the one at the University of Oregon where I was in a show with the Bagdad folks - it was really not very useful, but it pleased me.  (Ah, far too often the story of my life!)  Soon, however, it became obvious that I couldn't do three shows a night, on and on, with only one costume!  And Yousef, owner of the Bagdad, supported this realization by telling me that if I didn't get some more costumes, I was fired.

Well, forty-some years ago, there were fewer than a dozen belly dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there were certainly no shops or catalogs where one could buy costumes or their makings. 

We either bought them, used, from each other, or scrabbled together the stuff to make them ourselves.

 It was surprising what one could find, if one really looked - junk stores and thrift stores yielded up wonderful treasures!  Assiut was one of the things that was available, as it was fairly unknown at that time.  I got a perfect three-yard piece at a thrift store for $3 - they told me that it was "an old curtain"!   It was almost impossible for me to buy from the other dancers (even when they had anything they were willing to sell) because, even though I was thin then, I have big bones and I was quite a bit taller than most of them.  I could manage the skirts, which usually just needed a line or two of trim  added to the bottom to lengthen them.  Just once, early on, I bought a bra and girdle from a (much) smaller dancer - Najma Saline.  I loved it - gold coins with red jewels!  I enlarged the girdle by using the cuffs, but I made all the bra straps longer with chain.  I thought this worked fine until one night, early in my first out-of-town job (at the Athens West in Portland) when I bowed to the band at the end of my set, the chain opened, and that bra fell right off on stage!  Luckily, I was using a heavy jersey veil, which I quickly picked up - I was laughing so hard I could hardly leave the stage; the owner thought I had done it on purpose, and he was so angry that he didn't speak to me for a week!

I realized then that I would have to make my own costumes.  I had been sewing clothes since high school, and I learned the specific requirements of belly dance costumes by experience, as I wore them and watched them on others. 

Eventually, I married and left the immediate Bay Area for Santa Rosa, where I started teaching the dance.  Though by then there was more costuming available to dancers, where I was living there wasn't yet anything.  In about 1975, I started making costumes for my students and others (and a few more for me) - I enjoyed it, and I haven't stopped since!  I am lucky to have had two careers that I love - I danced professionally - until stopped by ruined knees - for almost thirty years, and I have been making costumes for that long again.  (The two careers did overlap, for those of you who are counting!)  In the last ten years or so, I have been asked to give costume seminars in several western states, including classes at the yearly Costume College sponsored by the International Costumers' Guild.

One of the interesting things about this business is watching the styles come and go.  One might think that a belly dance costume is a belly dance costume, and that's that, but this is far from the case.

Partly, style is driven by what materials are available, but not altogether.  When I was first dancing, our skirts and veils were of quite plain fabric.  A skirt of satin, taffeta or chiffon - sometimes with a trim on the edge - and a chiffon veil were the norm.  The skirts were mostly the full, circular ones made in two pieces, that are not nearly as common today, and, though you would occasionally see a panel skirt or a Turkish runthrough (like a diaper that sags to the floor), they were not the norm.  Also, almost all the bras and belts we wore here on the West Coast were of coins.  This style was, I understand, developed by Jamila with Bob Mackie, the Hollywood designer (think Cher).  We did see some beaded costumes, but they were on dancers who came from back east for short guest gigs at the clubs.  Eventually, the beads became more common - and a trend of ethnic costuming (Ghawazi coats, pantaloons and such) grew alongside them - though the latter costuming wasn't worn in the cabarets and restaurants, where a lot of skin was still required.  Shoes, also, were becoming more common.  We had seen high heels on visiting dancers (and had picked up the beads broken by those heels in the calluses of our bare feet), but there, again, they had been the exception, rather than the rule.  Capezio's Hermes sandal became available, and this was a boon, especially to those of us who danced  in the Greek clubs, where they still broke plates on the floor into dangerous shards, and where I once stepped on a lighted cigarette butt in my instep.  Costumes became more and more elaborate until

Sandra or Zuleika as the Sugar Plum Fairy, costumed by Aziza!

we reached the point where we are today, inundated under piles of costumes from Egypt and Turkey, any one of which would have thrown us into paroxysms of shock and ecstasy in the old, old days.

Over the years, I have made all the parts of a costume one could imagine - bras and belts, skirts, pants, ethnic ensembles, hats, veils, capes - you name it.  My costumes can be found in seven or eight countries around the world, and I feel I have done well.   I have gone on from dance items into a variety of other costuming.  I make a lot of fantasy and science fiction outfits.  I specialize in Victorian costuming, as I have been involved in Living History and docent programs since 1990.  For a while (until the looniness of the brides got to me) I made historical wedding gowns.  I also make clothing incorporating the crazy quilting that I have done since high school.  . 

I sell my wares at belly dance functions, scifi conventions, by word of mouth and mail order and over the Internet.  I have made my living this way for many years, though I am slowing down now, as I grow older and it is no longer physically possible for me to spend every day in my shop, bent over the cutting table and sewing machine, without paying a price in aches.  For the last few years, I have had available a video I made, called "A Practical Guide to Making a Belly Dance Bra and Belt".  It seemed the next logical step, as that way I can reach even more people than through my seminars.  This is not the end of my costuming story - I'm sure there will be more adventures to come!

You can see a selection of my work on my website,

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Ready for more?
more from Aziza!-
(check her page for even more!)
5-27-04 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant
The contestants were limited to ten, and all danced to the same music, though they were permitted any props they wanted.

4-8-04 A Period of Innovations
In the late 1970s, there were two events produced for the belly dance community that were different from things that had happened before – events that began and paved the way for so many that were to happen later.

9-10-03 Friends Are Where You Find Them
Some people thought that we were partners, as we were so close, but that wasn’t the case, either.

8-31-04 High Desert Hip Fest 2004 Report and photos sent in by Janie Midgley, photos were taken by David Ventura
High Desert Hip Fest is held every year, the first part of May in Reno, Nevada.

8-24-04 Dina in LA, report and photos by Catherine Barros
On May 14-16 of 2004, Nora, Dee Dee & Ahmad Asad of Little Egypt presented Dina of Cairo in a teaching workshop and show at the Radisson Hotel at the Los Angeles Airport.


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