Gilded Serpent presents...

The One-of-a-kind Costume Still Fascinates:

Re-envision, Recycle, Renew, and Remember

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by Najia Marlyz
posted March 11, 2013

Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, those people whom we love, and those things that we enjoy doing, introduce new facets into our lives that change our perspective of what becomes important to us in the long run. I may have mentioned in former articles, because the question is often asked, about the way in which I became interested in learning to Belly dance; the process seems now to have been almost in backwards order.

Over the years, I had been writing poetry, painting with watercolors, playing the harpsichord, and dabbling in various forms of design arts and movement, exercise and dance—but never Belly dance. My interest in all the arts caused me to meet people who were also interested in all the arts—especially, the realm of vintage clothing. It was in the ’60s and it was a thrilling and inspirational time for me. The clothing items that caught my attention the most were party dresses, hats, belts, and shoes, from the turn of the 20th century into the era of the decadent “flapper”. Their beaded chiffon dresses and the later bias-cut evening gowns of the ’30s caught my fancy, and I felt like I had been born into the wrong era. I longed to wear some of these items after repairing them, and sometimes, I did—after all, it was the ’60s and at that time in Berkeley, CA, it was a time in which “anything goes”. Somehow though, it seemed like there were never enough parties or concerts to accommodate my need to “dress in costume”.

Then, along came Belly dance into my consciousness.  Ah-ha! Here was a subject that encompassed my desire to costume myself, showcasing my flexible and agile dancer’s body. Belly dance was old. It was new. It was—happening! Since few dancers had ever traveled to the Middle East at that time, there was no stopping my ample imagination and desire to create artworks. I had had plenty of inspirational imagery enter my awareness because of the “Orientalist” fine artists I had studied in college such as Jean Leone Gerome and Fredrick Bridgeman—even though Orientalism was considered a somewhat disrespected facet of the fine arts world at the time. Even now, it is not always held in the most high regard in the world of fine artists.

Erte's snake dancerNot only these Orientalists played in my dreams, but the artists of Art Deco and Art Nouveau times, as well as Neo-classical artists such as John Godward and J.W. Waterhouse, had influenced another theater artist, Erté, who made fantastic renditions fusing graphic arts with the costuming for the theatrical stage. I owned, and adored wearing, several show-stopping evening capes from the early 1900s, one of which had been owned originally by a member of the famous Hearst family. The cape was made of heavy-weight black velvet, lined with strips of fur, alternating with strips of satin. (Yes, sorry; it was, and is, real fur, but animal fur was not considered incorrect to wear when this coat was made back in the ‘20s.) The vintage pieces were not easy to find, but when I did find them, I repaired, cleaned, and wore them as often as I could—mostly, when going to Belly dance gigs and parties.

So, when Belly dance gave me that opportunity, I also realized that many of the items that were badly torn or stained beyond help could be re-cut—into items of Belly dance costuming that were both ethnic-looking, antique, and fascinating. These pieces produced costumes that were one-of-a-kind, extravagant, and would have been expensive to have a costumer design and make for me; therefore, I made them for myself.

I worked diligently at learning to Belly dance because I thought it somewhat archaic as well as ethnic; I was motivated by the chance to create theatrical items for my dance from recycled antique clothing and other antiquated “old stuff”: fabrics, edgings, tassels, appliqué, metallic laces and other tarnished oddities. Erté became my inspiration, along with such artists who rendered images of women wearing classical tasseled capes, togas, and dresses of chiffon held together with fancy fibulae, the forerunner of the safely pin. Not all of my creations were stunning, but they certainly kept me amused. 

Once I became a teacher of Belly dance, I felt compelled to give information that included how to make one’s own costume, but I found that most new dancers were hoping to look just like the dancers in Turkey or Lebanon or Cairo and few of them wanted to spend much time on the costume itself, preferring instead to buy a costume that was ready-made or someone else’s cast-off. It almost seemed to me that if it had the sweat of a “real” Belly dancer on it, it became imbued with a sort of magic that a new costume could not equal.Najia's tassels

Nevertheless, I tried to introduce to my students the re-envisioning and recycling of vintage items that one could still find in Berkeley vintage clothing bazaars and antique stores. It came to my attention early on that the strangely moving shawls in grandmas’ attics made of Assiut cloth were highly prized by dancers in Berkeley, even though they mistreated them terribly. Later, I saw in the black-and-white Egyptian movies that famous Egyptian dancers sometimes wore dresses made of the cloth when they danced in private parties and wedding celebrations. However, Assiut cloth (pronounced ah-see-yoot) was just one facet of the antique fabrics that were available and intriguing. There were also raw silks that had been cross-stitched, crocheted pieces, and laces that were not only meant or destined for wedding dresses. There were silk chiffons, and other finely woven fabrics such as tulle. Metallic tassels and lace-like designs made of cords wrapped with metal threads gave added elegance to the mix.

Lately, I have been heartened to see renditions of my crocheted lace dance belt and other uses of antique pieces in the costuming of some of our Fusion style dancers. Perhaps its day has come! In one of my almost futile attempts to interest dancers in creating unique costumes, I wrote an article about speaking with the past through the use of lace and other intricately worked textiles. A example of that writing follows below.

Belt made from vintage materials

 

String Between Two Cans: The Past Speaks When You Listen

Long ago, the fascination of lace and other handwork seemed self-evident. They seemed unreal, unattainable, and unbelievably magical. Laces were intended to add beauty, denote wealth, and designate personal economic and birth status. Lace was something special and it was in great demand in religious and wealthy sectors. Nonetheless, the secondary gift of the handwork is quite a different matter.  When we were children we strung two cans together, pulled tight and heard our friend speak from a distance we thought was far away. Surviving the dust and wear of time, threads of the past can speak in voices that need only a listening heart rather than two cans and a string. In daydreams, we can listen and reach back to the lives of long-departed anonymous artists and artisans who made laces and embroideries. They scrambled in slow motion to raise it to an art form, increase its difficulty to produce, and caused its value to rise above the reach of the plebeian and the common uses of their time.

Rare Survival
Admittedly, secondary gifts are sometimes overlooked: meanings, uses, and lessons from the past have been coaxed through time in a chancy and haphazard fashion. Perhaps it was the only way possible.  As we might ask today, “Who knew?” Delicate antique handwork is only rarely received intact—having been transferred via many caretakers through generations and treated with a variety of care. Understandably, the lives of those lace artisans of yesteryear are entirely unknown to us in the present. Nevertheless, even today, when intricate handwork is more unusual than commonplace, preservationists, with each foot firmly planted in both the past and present, do exist to bring it forward for our admiration and invite us to touch fingertips with the past.

Like a Poem
I like to believe that there is another, still more compelling, purpose in the tidings of threads twisted and woven for us by the skillful fingers of former centuries than admiration for their skill—not to mention their admirable patience and forbearance! The surviving pieces are poignant missives and reminders of lives spent in endless repetitive toil, and they are not easily accepted by those of us who have been steeped in today’s expected freedoms, careless manners, usually accompanied by the mentality of almost everything being easily disposable. Nevertheless, once we wrap our minds around the depth of sacrifice that was necessary to develop the early lace-making trade to its unbelievable level, it becomes apparent intellectually that all the little speeches and random thoughts wound into old lace begin to unravel and speak to the present. They are not unlike the poems in a book; not unlike an epiphany gained from an  allusion to an allegory. One has to stretch the string very tightly from both cans to make it carry the sound from past to present.

Lives and Sacrifice
Artisans of old whisper to us through their dancing fingers, quickly moving their bobbins, forming their intricate patterns of flowers and birds, ribbons, historical and mythological symbols. While sitting before their lacing pillows, forming picots around pins, did they sing? Did they feel the rhythm of their deftly clicking ivory bobbins? Were their lives fulfilled by the issue of the tasks that sometimes outlived them, unfinished? Someone cared; someone loved their lace; someone treasured it above gold; but (unlike gold) silk and fibers are ephemeral. Falling tears, body oils, soil, sunshine, and unseen dust mites all tore fine laces apart and eventually, careless hands laid waste to most of it.

Machine Made
Yet today, as we increase our appreciation of handworks’ unfathomable purposes of another time, we can also begin to divine that the value of intricate handwork lies more in being able to envision and touch our early longing to become more than animals using tools. Today we become aware of the fact that we can hold, not the same, but similar, laces in our hands, hang it at our windows, and wear it on our wedding day or just to Starbuck’s, without sacrificing an entire decade, or several, to its creation. Machines are today’s slaves, replacing human hands. As long as we resist becoming enslaved to machinery through our dependency, never expecting them to produce innovative art, they recreate the illusion of past grandeur at a pittance of the former cost in sacrifice. Revisiting and learning original methods of lace production serves to keep us in command rather than dependent upon technology that was intended to eliminate unnecessary toil.

Pitiful Social Structure Revealed
Caretakers of fine handwork, sometimes feeling inadequate and a bit desperate to conserve, before there is nothing left to save, reach far back in years, searching for some hint of life’s meaning in the patterns and methods of lace production. Meaning is not easily read in the patterns of lace. What reveals itself easily is a pitiful human social history. What may seem to some as a simpler time in human history was a path fraught with deep potholes and unimaginable difficulties in making one’s living (by today’s standards). Is it simpler to buy a can of peaches or to grow them and can them yourself?

Fame and Fortune
Lace-makers were (in one sense) authors who wrote without ink; therefore, today, there are no generally recognized or famous names in our art books. Most lace was named by the place in which it was made rather than a particular person. They are not Tiffany. They are not Shakespeare, nor are they Copernicus or Carole Lombard. They did not weave their names into a corner of their masterpieces like artists Gauguin or Monet; instead, some of them secretly and purposefully wove a fine thread of their own hair into each piece, undetected, nearly undetectable. We are able to communicate with these unknown ancestor-artisans through time, sometimes only by using a magnifying glass or microscope. The old laces we touch and hold today can be understood better through the recounting of the excessive wants of nobility and the sacrifices made by early lacemakers. Such a task is only the publicly seen portion of a museum curator’s befuddling and inspired journey.

The Last Laugh
The grandeur of lace’s originally intended uses pales to the loss of personal liberty that was necessary to produce fine old examples. Even while lace-making gave pleasure in its artistry, beauty, and competitive spirit, it belied its more covert truth: in many instances, making it stole decades of family life from its artisan even as it earned her bread and a roof over her head. Fine handwork in dim light and long hours stole away her eyesight from more worldly visions and repaid her in coin—or perhaps less. Nevertheless, she fooled them all; she speaks to us today while her patron’s foppery and his lace-bedecked underwear has long passed into obscurity.

The Do-over?
True: we can learn to do what the artisan did and copy it, but we can never create it again. We can preserve it and learn from it, but we are charged with preserving only her directions and texts, her threads, tools and examples. If we daydream of becoming her colleague, we would have to innovate, building upon what she has shown us it is possible to do with her tough, tiny thread wonders—even if it is at a sacrificial expenditure of time and mind-numbing effort. First though, we would have to recognize and remove the limitations we place on ourselves, as well as those that others would place upon us—with or without our complicity. The world is not waiting for us to recreate or reproduce exact values of the past—but only to listen to their lessons. You can only attend the lessons if you preserve the handwork before it is gone forever.

Perhaps these twisted webbings we call lace serve to give us perspective upon the way we humans once were, allowing us to extrapolate more expansive inventions and intricate artistry in our future. Hold your soup can tightly to your ear and pull the twisted and crossed strings taut —perhaps you will hear the past speak to you.

Najia in one of her costumes

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MaryEllen Donald