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The White Iris Skirt
Gilded Serpent presents...
Part Two of Antique Textiles:
Costuming Before the Reign of Egyptian Costumers
by Najia Marlyz

“Life can only be understood backwards;
But it must be lived forwards.”
Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard’s quotation has fascinated me for many years; it seems to promise that, somehow, --someday, I might be able to look back on my life as a professional dancer and a dance teacher with some clarity and understanding. Perhaps I will have some epiphany about why I chose dance rather than a career that would actually make sense financially!  Apparently, what I have overlooked is, as long as I am still living, all I—or anyone can do is continue to live life looking forward while gathering as much baggage as it is possible to drag along until it is so unmanageable that sorting and letting go of bits and pieces becomes not only desirable—but mandatory. 

The dance form I first embraced held charms and challenges for me, unparalleled by today’s versions. 

I view today’s dance values as interlopers—meant to mitigate Belly dance’s checkered past by exchanging its innate free emotional expression for speed and difficulty of execution and an over-the-top outpouring of energy that is neither sensual or exotic.

Well, no matter: whatever its ultimate destiny, I love it still and have slowly come to appreciate more fully the allure of the art that we lovingly once called “Belly dance.”

Belly dance came into my life in the close of 1969 as an intriguing, exotic idea. However, by the 1970s, it caused me to focus on many skills that, most probably, would have escaped my attention had I continued teaching Kindergarten in public school.  Certainly, I would have missed the opportunity to explore and expand my skills for costuming myself in recycled antique textiles, beadwork, tassels, and handmade lace, as well as learning to care for and appreciate these items.  In this regard, my indulgence in Belly dance widened my interests in collecting, displaying, and repairing certain antique fabrics as well as recognizing them as artworks.

The White Iris Skirt 
Here is a photo of me, circa 1975, in a little homemade costume that I cooked up from two kilos of deep blue bugle beads, along with sew-on jewels and blue mirrors from Green & Co., New York.  However, the item in this photo that I loved the most was the iris-sequined skirt that I made from what had an ornate flapper’s dress back in the ‘20s.  It had already seen hard use when I purchased it at a local flea market, and though it needed airing, I knew better than to attempt to wash it!

Antique sequins from the twenties and earlier were not the hardy plastic shiners that we use today.  Various materials--from metal pieces to gel and bone--went into the making of these shiny tidbits. 

This soft tulle base fabric had a field of creamy white iris sequins that reflected pink, green, blue, and white.  I simply cut the dress slightly below its worn armholes, opened its side seams and applied a casing for elastic.

I danced in this skirt many times and had to repair it numerous times because its ground fabric—the tulle--was delicate.  When one dances, accidents happen!  One accident happened that became the ultimate demise of this beautiful dance skirt.  I lost the use of it when the fabric was approximately 70-75 years old, and though I was saddened to lose it as part of my costume wardrobe, I like to think that it met its demise in an honorable way! A partier accidentally sprayed me with champagne one evening; the gelatin sequins not only softened in spots, but also they began to smell like a long day at the beach!  It was so hard to say goodbye—until one had good a good whiff of it…

A Bra Designed from Two Collar Pieces
I was greatly enamored of items containing mirrors and was thrilled to find a 1940s dress with a cute little flower design collar appliqué made of beads and tiny mirrored button-like pieces.  I easily divested the ugly navy crepe dress (with discolored armpits) of its appliqué pieces and sewed them onto a simple bra.

I completed the theme by coupling it with a flowered skirt, shown here while I was doing “floor-work.” Floor dancing was very popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s because the Egyptian craze had not yet hit the United States. However, because of so-called floor-work, many costumes experienced extremely hard wear; I learned to sew my costumes with tough carpet and button thread pulled through a little brick of bee’s wax for strength and perspiration resistance.

The ‘40s Gold Mesh Handbag Bra
A small stretch of imagination helped me put this bra together.  In just a couple of trips to the flea market I found and purchased:

  • A large gold-mesh handbag that was in good condition,
  • Gold mirror trim that its seller had removed from some object that had disintegrated, leaving only its rows of tiny mirrors intact.
  • A dozen antique metal tassels tipped with crystal beads that the seller said had been part of a Victorian lampshade.  (At last, I would be the life of the party wearing at least parts of a lampshade—not on my head but on my bra!)
  • A gold metallic crocheted lace and sequin vest.

One can remove metal mesh (painstakingly) from another object with the use of two pairs of needle-nosed pliers, and the mesh can be re-molded to fit by bending its teeth together, interlocking--strategically creating any shape desired.  The effect becomes very smooth, shiny and sleek.

I had never seen mirrored trim before, and I have never seen it since!  It wore very well, but over the years of use on my bra, my salty perspiration tarnished the golden mirror backs in places.  Still, tarnished or not, nothing has the reflecting power of mirrors (and I had been lucky enough to find gold ones)!  After this bra had met its inevitable retirement date, I saved the mirror trim that remained salvageable, and I plan to re-use it in the refurbishing of another dance item.

Likewise, the few antique metallic tassels that remained intact, I will re-employ in the renovation of one of my old dance belts.

The 1920s Dress That Became a Greatly Admired Costume Skirt
One item of costuming that I made, similar to the famous white iris-sequined skirt, drew a great amount of admiration and comment from the dancers of my era. This black evening dress came from the flapper era.  I think that the resulting skirt was more widely admired than my water-shy white iris one because of its unusual design and the fact that it was on soft tulle rather than silk like many of the skirts and slinky dresses of the ‘10s and ‘20s.  I think that perhaps more of the flapper dresses held together a bit longer because they were designed with tulle rather than silk, which seemed to have a very short half life in rigorous party surroundings. 

I still have this skirt—and its fabric is, I estimate, nearly 90 years old! I have retired it from dance use, though I still put it on occasional display. I danced in it on numerous occasions (among them, Jamila Salimpour’s “Great Eastern Faire” held at the Belleview Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom in San Francisco, in 1982).

he Jet and Marcasite Beaded Bra 
Every dancer who aspired to dance as much as possible, had to have her so-called “ethnic look,” and this was one of mine.  It consisted of heavy stripped harem pants and a finely made “German silver” headpiece featuring fish and other tiny objects, (purchased from and antique shop) coupled with a real gold coin necklace (coins purchased individually from an international coin dealer) and a custom designed metal lacy belt with real coins (purchased from the San Francisco Coin Exchange) dangling from it. 

I made a simple bra and adorned it with old jet bead appliqués that I removed from a tattered woman’s jacket from the 1800s (purchased from an antique dealer). 

It wasn’t until later that I learned that jet beads had been worn in mourning clothing in the Victorian era, but by that time, jet beads had entered a window of resurgent popularity, and I still loved wearing this lightweight costume bra as I danced my Belly dance fantasy “ethnic” floor routine.

In Part Three of Antique Textiles: A New Life for Them in Dance I will show those of you who are still interested in more of these odd costuming bits and their sources, a dance belt I used for nearly thirty years. Shown in the midst of its most recent renovation, I will tell you the secret of its bizarre origin. Additionally, I will explain why yet another dance belt of antique lace (and other items) was over thirty years in the making!

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Ready for more?
4-18-07 Antique Textiles: Renewed Life for Dance by Najia Marlyz
In fact, we often danced for many little luncheon gigs in offices and other places as a surprise birthday gift—to the music of our own solo sagat. Now, that is a skill that I have never seen anyone repeat since the early seventies!

6-15-04 Lace and My Muses Part 1: Egyptian Mummy Lace or “Assiute Cloth” by Najia Marlyz
I fastened around my hips a white Assuite cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped designs.

7-30-07 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant 2007 Sunday Photos, Photos by Michael Baxter, Photo Prep by Michelle Joyce, May 27, 2007 Danville, California,
Event produced by Leea. The competition for the Finalists.

7-25-07 Tribute to Reema by Taaj
Hali said, “The day of the contest, backstage we could all just feel her. We were like, ‘This is for Reema! She’s here!”

7-17-07 Belly Dance, Through the Eye of the Camera by Ishtar
Males dominate photography and film industries in both the west and the east. As well as ideas concerning the status of the dancer and gender, films involving belly dancers can give us information on the class dynamic and stratification that exists.

7-16-07 Music Copyright Law for Belly Dancers (or for any Performing Artist) by Yasmin
From Hollywood blockbuster movies down to clips on YouTube the law is the same and it applies to anyone who uses someone else’s music for their own purposes.

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