Najia dancing in a lamp shade watched by
George Elias on oud
Gilded Serpent presents...
Antique Textiles Part 3:

Creating Your Unique Statement 
by Najia Marlyz

It is possible that you may never have performed professionally while wearing a lampshade on your head… but I have!

Because I dance in only a limited number of events currently, I thought it might be amusing to reveal how one exotic piece of my “Orientalist” costuming tomfoolery came into being when I performed during the late ‘70s. However, nobody in my audiences long ago could have imagined the original intent for the beautiful beaded net I wore attached to my ponytail and draping delicately over my face for the grand entrance dance.  Soon after the megansi (entrance dance), I lifted the softly swinging, draping beads and flipped them back over my hair so that they framed my face and softened the line of my hair, which I had partially pulled back into a severe ponytail above my lose hair.

I found my beaded hand-crocheted lampshade overlay in a local flea market, draped over a stained shade on a little table lamp from the ‘20s.  The overlay was orange, pink, green and silver, and its construction was crocheted of green cotton thread and tiny round beads.  I received many admiring comments for the exotic “hair ornament’ and was careful not to reveal its source nor to reveal its original use during those times because I knew it was laughable.

One of my most beautiful Orientalist ethnic belts was designed for me in about 1973. It is constructed entirely of flat brass wire welded into its lacey swirls—somewhat in the fashion that Battenburg lace is made of cotton tape.  Even though I have previously shown my photos, wearing this belt, here is a close up of it alone, showing its details. Even though, certainly, my shape changed throughout the thirty years that I was performing, because the belt had been formed in two sections rather than one, I was able to re-adjust it and re-back the pieces, so that I could continue to use it in my costuming throughout a long span of performing years. I think that it is important to design your dance pieces so that they can be reused at a later time without a major over-haul or so that you might pass them on to another dancer for re-cycle.

While I was combing through the Alameda Flea Market one Sunday thirty years ago, (which seems only a short time ago in retrospect) I discovered a piece of cross-stitched tea-colored raw silk fabric that also had been embroidered with gold thread. I made it into a short skirt and wore it as part of my normal wardrobe for a while.

However, I found a second somewhat similar piece of fabric (that was a little bit whiter and cross-stitched in lavender and turquoise threads) in a later safari I made through Berkeley antique shops. I got the notion that the combination of the two fabric pieces could become a skirt for dancing that, though not flashy or glittering, was somewhat translucent and gauze-like and could lend itself well to the occasional dances I did for conservative women’s clubs and religious social groups in my area.  The skirt served me well in those venues and I still use it today while I teach in my home studio or coach dancers in their studios. Here is a photo of the resulting dance skirt I made from the two pieces of fabric.

Lampshade detail

Brass lace

cross stitched raw silk fabirc

Someone recently showed me a photo of a local dancer who has been performing in an antique crocheted dance belt quite similar to the one that I made in the ‘70s. I was thrilled! My crocheted belt was truly a favorite choice for me, and I imagine that she, too, will enjoy dancing in this style of costume that is a slight reminder of the Victorian era. I would love to see other dancers pursue this style as it is soft, feminine and enhances a dance that features soft and subtle movements.  

It has long been one of my dreams that dancers would begin to use and preserve lace and antique fabrics for dance costuming once again—as well as revering and resurrecting the old steps, movements, and sentiments of dance.  Now, a least part of my vision is coming into fruition!

The idea for the “Victorian” belt began as soon as I laid my eyes on a pair of old roller shades that came from a San Francisco Victorian house that was undergoing restoration.  The shades had two pieces of crocheted lace adorning the bottom edge of each one.  I bought the shades and had the crochet pieces off the dusty old rollers even before returning to my car.  Both pieces had to be washed and laid out in the sun to dry on a terry towel while I prepared a backing that would serve to show off their intricate patterns.

On another day, I managed to find long strands of gold mirrors at the flea market and hand stitched the mirrors on both the belt and the bra to integrate the two unrelated pieces.  Also, to relate the design of the bra with that of the belt, I attached a couple of dozen antique metal tassels with glass beads on the tips of each metal strand. This type of metal cording was used in costuming and fancy street-wear during the late 1800s, until about 1910-20, when less expensive fiber cords replaced it. Perhaps it fell from favor because, originally, it was bright and shiny but its sheen tarnished and there was virtually no way to clean or renew its shine at that time.

Since the crochet pieces were limp and definitely lacey in character, to give my belt shape and body, I attached them to velvet backing in a deep-gold color and added a layer of stiff underlay.  The decorative points at the bottom of each of each section were perfect for jump rings holding silver and bronze coins that I bought at the San Francisco Coin Exchange.  My resulting dance belt was light in weight, easy to put on, and it made it easy to dance in the heat of the summer.  Even now, the belt that I made and wore throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s is, once again, undergoing a slow restoration and remodelling.

Some costumes seem to take forever to finish! One of the most striking belts I designed was over thirty years in the making…

The reason for the over-long span of time was that I had found a fabulous section of very old cord lace that someone had removed from another garment that did not seem to blend with anything else that I was able to find.  I have no way of knowing how old this particular piece of cord lace is, but because it is old, it is somewhat tarnished.  It has woven strands of gold, bronze, and silver over a heavy cord design, which includes “beads” made in the same way over something hard—like shaped cardboard or wood.

Crochet Belt

Antique Tassels

Cord Lace

After an extensive search for beaded fringe to accompany the cord lace, it appeared that none of the fringe or bead colors seemed to blend with it, and it did not seem to lend itself well to coin decorations; so, I had to put the project on hold for quite a long time. However, it sat in the back of my mind as well as in the back of my closet. Yet, one afternoon in Cairo, I was drinking coffee in Mahmoud Abdel Gaffar’s costume shop, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hank of beads in a bronze iris color that I had never seen before.  I asked Mahmoud about them, and he said that the beads were a sample and that there was not enough of them to make a costume, --but I could have them as a gift! I knew exactly where they were destined: my closeted cord lace (and still imaginary) belt.

When I returned home with the precious bronze iris beads though, I was thwarted once again because I could not find backing in any color that did anything special for all the other components—until I found a piece of velvet that changed color when seen from different directions!  It was blue in the ground and dusty rose in the hairy part of the velvet.  By combining that velvet and some dark purple velvet, I had enough material to complete my now 30-year dance belt! That set my needle in action at last, and the belt seemed to quickly and simply assemble itself over my summer vacation last year—before I could make any more excuses or further delays. 

However, just when I thought the piece was finished, this spring, a sterling silver bracelet with inset stones of marquisette (similar to the jewelry that was popular around 1910 or so) found its way into my hands.  After disassembling the pieces of bracelet and sewing them into the cord lace design, here, after so many years, this belt for dance finally found itself sewn together and is dancing at last…

  “Better late than never,” my mom always said.

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