Gilded Serpent presents...
Susi in strappy spandex original design
Making Wise Choices in the
Belly-Dance Wear Market-place
Costumes are a big part
of our dance. We all love the visual feast of a fine dance in
a sumptuous package, the glamour of dressing high-high up. A great
costume can send a good show into greatness and almost make you
forgive a poor one. An ugly or shabby costume can take the luster
off a fine dancer. So how does one find a good costume amongst
all the piles on vendors tables, amongst all the .jpg files on-line?
ago, times were simpler. There were the big vendors and you traveled
or waited for them to come to a hafla near you. There were a few
knowledgeable seamstresses, usually other dancers who had a knack
with a needle--or you made your own costume.
the past few years it seems that ready to wear belly-dance costumes
have become available everywhere and they're more affordable
than ever. As a belly-dance consumer I've found it dizzying
and have made some very bad decisions and wasted lots of money--so
I'm writing this to share what I've learned the hard way.
including costuming advice from Shadia Tohme Maalouf,
who makes professional quality dance wear for working dancers:
her costuming credits include creating dance wear for Dalia
Carella, Nourhan Sharif, Katia,
Azizza, Jehan Jamal, Ruby
Jazayre as well as for ballet company productions such
as Tony William's Urban Nutcracker.
Najmat of Boston in bedlah constructed from a sari.
What are your
needs and how fat is your wallet?
This is the
first thing you want to determine. Are you a student preparing
for a recital? Is this something you will wear once or twice?
Are you not sure you will be belly-dancing for a long time? Are
you in the process of losing weight and transforming your appearance?
You will not want to spend a lot of money to look good. On the
other hand, you don't want it to fall apart during rehearsal or
worse yet the show.
Are you bitten
by the bug--you love to belly-dance--and think you'll be doing
it until you become too arthritic to move? Is this a hobby that
gives you much gratification with dressing up as part of the package?
Then you may want to invest in something of higher quality.
Are you starting
to get work or already working? Costuming is a very important
investment for your appearance. You want to cultivate a "look"
all your own that enhances your unique way of moving. A costume
helps define your on-stage persona. It's the first thing the audience
sees when you enter, creating a visual first impression and a
set of expectations for your performance.
shabby or ordinary costume creates an unfortunate situation
you have to overcome with your dancing. A costume is fully
50% of your performance therefore you will want to approach
your purchases as an integral component of your art-form and
as a deductible business expense. You need good-looking, flattering
and DURABLE dance-wear.
As with most
things, you get what you pay for. Costumes start at around $100-
$150, which is a lot of money. But, think about it on an hourly
rate. It takes about 40 hours minimum to construct and embellish
a bedlah set. At $10 an hour that's $400 for labor which does
not include the cost of materials. Materials will be at least
$100 dollars, more if you have crystal and rhinestones. So, even
at third world rates, $150 is not going to buy you much.
Here is what
you could end up with in a lower-cost costume: one strand of thread
down the middle of each piece of fringe, the lowest quality thread
to hold everything together, the very cheapest materials and the
fastest labor imaginable. So
keep these points in mind when shopping:
Najmat of Boston in pink fantasy with a-b rhinsestones
- How many
strands of thread are inside each piece of fringe and how much
gap is there already between the top of the beads and the body
of the bra or belt. There
should be 4 thin strands or 2-4 heavier threads if the beads
are heavy or one shimmy and your beads are in orbit.
If there is a gap where thread is exposed then the beads are
already sliding south--maybe they aren't tied well at the bottom.
If the fringe is poorly made, you will lose beads and fringe
EVERYTIME you wear it or try it on. Fringe is the main moving
part of your costume and what articulates the smaller movements
of your body so it needs to be well made. Fringe can be restrung.
You can plan on doing it yourself--it's not hard but it is time
- What shape
is the bra in? Often the cheaper bras look like they have horns
of their own and the straps are skimpy and barely attached.
You will need to reinforce the bra right away perhaps by sewing
in a good bra of your own. Plan on replacing or reinforcing
the fasteners or you'll be providing extra visual services for
which you will not be renumerated. Again if you aren't
handy, you'll be paying someone else to make these changes for
- The skirt
is probably lusterless, thin or snagged if it's lycra. You
may need another skirt underneath it for modesty's sake.
- You will
have the minimum of ornamentation in flat sequins- and no rhinestones.
The lining is cheap and coarse. Be prepared to reconstruct and
spice up the costume yourself or pay someone else to do so.
By the time that $150 costume is stage worthy, you may invest
another $150 in labor and materials.
- The resale
value of a cheap costume is very low or non-existant whereas
a well constructed costume retains a lot of its value the 2nd
or even 3rd time around. A one-of-kind custom costume
is occasionally appreciated in value and resold at more than
the original price.
costume--new--that is well constructed will cost you $500 and
up. That seems to be the law. That is much cheaper than what we
used to pay even 5 years ago. Competition has driven prices down.
What you should be getting is well strung , heavy fringe, opulent
bead-work, with a minimum of sequins used in the ornamentation
as they lose color and bleed quickly, real glass beads as opposed
to plastic, a well-constructed bra that can be taken apart with
a minimum of fuss and fitted to you, heavy weight lycra for those
slinky costumes, maybe even real silk in the skirt or veil.
When you are
spending a big chunk of money you begin to think carefully. How
much altering is it going to take to get it to fit? Can it be
altered the way it needs to be to look right? Do I want to pay
the additional money on top of the price to get it altered? Be
sure you really want that costume because the resale market is
very slow at present because there's so much low priced, new merchandise
available so it may be tough to unload the white elephant if
you decide you can't be seen in it again.
Chantal of Boston in custom design. Note extra support for
top and embellishment to balance her figure.
there are certain things which can't be altered: Things that
are proportional can't be changed.
mistake we see is in bras--dancers choose bras that are too big
or small for their rib-cages. Straps can be moved or replaced,
cups can be angled and padded, but the size and shape of the cup
you have to live with. If you have a small ribcage and are slender
it's hard to find bras that don't over whelm your upper body.
Likewise large breasted women have trouble finding adequate coverage
and wide straps for balance and support.
of the hip belt cannot be altered but the diameter can be within
reason. If it has overlapping more than a few inches, it'll look
bulky on you. If it's more than a few inches too short, you'll
need to invest in building it longer and matching the beadwork--which
is possible--but when considering altering the diameter of a belt,
always check the symmetry. Some belts can't go in or out past
a certain point without appearing lop-sided.
Johara of Boston in modified and fitted Turkish costume:
bra-top horns removed, gold loop accents on bra and belt
for additional movement.
Hanan of Boston in custom built dress. Dresses are an elegant and sexy choice
Be sure you
like your fringe - is the length right for your figure and does
it enhance your dance style? Fringe is easy to change and embellish.
Long fringe especially placed low on the skirt is great for Turkish
style dancing and skirt work but Arabic style hip work needs fringe
at the hip and short bouncy fringe looks great. Straight heavy
fringe at the bottom of a bra is the least flattering arrangement
possible- it cuts you into 2 halves visually. Drapes on a bra
can slim the waist when placed properly and can be added later.
that note, think about the placement of ornamentation--is there
enough to show movement in the right places?
what kind ornamentation you think looks best on you--you don't
want to be over-powered by a costume. Ornamentation can be played
that is difficult to alter is the length of heavily ornamented
dresses and skirts, especially the lycra ones. Some can be shortened
but it is very time consuming, involving a lot of skill and patience.
need to fit snuggly. They can be taken in within reason. But there
are limits to snug. Look at yourself in less than flattering light
to see how much body texture you are revealing.
spandex leaves NOTHING to the imagination including hair and
cellulite, especially under certain lighting conditions.
sequin fabric looks fabulous but be aware that a skirt made from
this fabric is almost completely transparent on stage or in strong
light. We've seen entire troupes unwittingly exposing themselves
in pressed sequin outfits! You need to make sure you check your
skirts in the light--what seems opaque may not be as opaque as
I've had very poor experiences with liquid gold and holigram
great for about a month but the finish rubs off and breaks down
quickly with sweat and storage- that fabulous shiny skirt has
de-nuded strips after 2 shows. Sparkly stretch velvets or pressed
sequins wear much better. Start observing the costumes of other
dancers and notice how the fabric wears over time before you invest
a lot of money in a costume based on a coated spandex.
It's a misconception
that raks sharqi has to be performed in a two-piece costume. A
cabaret dancer is obligated to wear one as a requirement of her
venue but not all venues require a revealing look. This dance is
traditionally done in a beledi dress or evening gown with a hip
sash. A dress enhances the movements just as effectively as a bedlah
and is much more flattering on some bodies than a bedlah.
A lot of the
shops do this willingly- the vendor measures you everywhere and
writes the order up and you pay a deposit and send her the balance
per her arrangements. You have to wait 6 months or so but you get
a custom costume. There may be some variation in some minor materials--I
had something made where the fringe beads were different on the
original than on my costume but that is unavoidable--it still looked
great and it fit like a glove.
accepting as we want to be with one another as dancers, a belly
hanging down over a belt or breasts spilling out of all sides
of a bra are a visual distraction from the movements of the
dancer which deserve to be the focus of a performance.
you love a certain costume and it's expensive and it doesn't
fit you well, ask the vendor if the manufacturer does special
orders and have her order you the same costume made just to
with hard to fit figures really benefit from having their costumes
custom designed. Dancers who want to cultivate a unique look
can get a costume no one else has by having it made. A good costumer
will know how to proportion the components of a costume to suit
the individual and how to enhance assets and hide flaws in a creative
way. Once you're looking at spending loads of money, it's a great
option. Although custom work may cost slightly more than a high
end mass produced Egyptian or Turkish costume it gives you a unique,
well-fitting costume designed specifically for your stage personality
and tastes. For some dancers it's well worth the expense and wait
time to have their dance-wear made this way.
Okay, a few last
pieces of advice: get intelligent feed back on a costume before
you buy it. You may want to have someone you trust give you honest
feed back about your figure and what looks good on you. Everyone
can look good if they know what they're doing and make sure the
costume brings attention to what is beautiful and disguises or distracts
from what is not. The vendor wants to sell so they aren't always
reliable sources for feedback. Your friends like the vicarious thrill
of watching you spending the big bucks while they remain thrifty
and virtuous, so they may not be reliable either. Buying during
a workshop when you're high from a great workout or performance
is not a good time to drop $700.
Susi in original design
until you need that costume for a gig. Get it when you see it
if it's amazing or start having it made when the idea stirs you.
And have fun--it's a buyer's market!
shown in all photos designed, constructed or modified by Shadia
Mirson Tohme of Boston.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
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