The Origin of Our Costume
by Leyla Amir
posted March 28, 2013
As long as I can remember, the origins of the bedlah (the two piece costume of Middle Eastern dancers) has been widely controversial and debated among the artists of Raqs Sharqi (belly dance). The dance itself, along with the costume, has gone through many centuries of changes and name identifications in accord with period fashion as well as contact with outside influences.
The traditional name for the dance from the people of Egypt has been “Raqs Sharqi” (literally, Dance of the East). Often, naming or labels occur due to outside influences such as the French coining the term “Danse Orientale” and “Dance Du Ventre” or as the slang term that was coined in the USA, which was “Belly Dance”. Apparently that last appellation began to be applied after the public had witnessed the dancer known as Little Egypt at the 1893 World’s Fair who had been seen as “shaking her belly” in her two piece outfit. Even though some history buffs have suggested that Little Egypt was an Algerian, from the pictures and film of her that I have seen, I would surmise that her costume was comparable to something she might wear in her everyday life in her country. Other names include “Middle Eastern Dance”–a broader term that could include both Oriental and folk styles of the dance. These terms have been used throughout the centuries to define a specific style or fashion along with its dance that was born of undocumented foundations in various countries that, when grouped together, are now referred to as “The Middle East.”
Pictures documented by A.W. Stencell (*1) illustrate how, once the genie was out of the bottle in the USA after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the inclination of the general public was to label the dancing as lewd. The pictures were used to developed into “girlie-shows” of carnivals and midway side-shows, becoming “hoochie-koochie” dancers in Oriental costumes of the era, as a draw toward adult entertainment. By the inherent nature of their costumed movements, these dancers and their dance were branded as scandalous and they were said to be dancing without using the head nor the feet.
”During this time in the USA, it was not customary to see a dancer stand in place and just use their middle section to dance. Dancing was more a whole-body endeavor. …By this time, the public had already been exposed to seeing ballet performances and general public dancing, which had full body movement, moving on the floor and not stationary with only isolated middle-of-the-body movements.”(*1)
In the USA, after years of using the Oriental dancer as a draw for street carnivals, belly dancing moved into theater houses of the burlesque, embedding indelibly the image of the Oriental dancer’s costume with burlesque. No doubt that that image challenged the fashion of the costumes to be even more revealing in order to accommodate burlesque’s intent, thus changing the style of the costume once again. There was no attempt to portray the movements as a cultural dance form in the burlesque presentations–other than being exotic.
Throughout history, Egypt has had one of the strongest influences in the development of the dance known there as Raqs Sharqi. Egypt is recognized through its antiquities as a highly developed culture, including its art forms of music and dance. The Egyptian dance style, while continuing to evolve even until this day, still has a foundation of recognized movements and traditions to which we dancers refer as “Raqs Sharqi.” When using this term, most are thinking about the Egyptian style. For the purpose of this article, and because of my background, I will be referring mostly to the Egyptian beginnings of the costume and its cross-pollination from outside sources over the centuries.
The costume or bedlah (referring to the bra, belt and skirt), of Egyptian Oriental dancers has also had the distinction as being the most popular style. However, fashions have changed over the years with the help of some outside influences. In 1981, when I first began performing in Egypt, the dance fashion at the time incorporated long beaded fringe, but previously, shorter or non-existent fringe was the norm. With time, costume fringes have shortened again and have nearly disappeared. Dance costume styles make an ebb and flow of adapting and applying fashion throughout history that reflects cultural changes and outside influences much in the same way the dance and music have been affected.
I would like to theorize a possible trail of how Egypt influenced, and may have started, the trend of the now well-known bedlah that typifies present day Raqs Sharqi costumes.
There are many theories regarding the bedlah, including one that claims the style originated in Hollywood, and another that claims it came from images made famous by Orientalist painters when European fantasy paintings were published in books and magazines. Since my point of reference is the Egyptian dance, I want to re-state my view that ancient Egypt had a major influence in the development of the bedlah.
Chronological History of Egypt with the Foreign Influences
Pre-dynastic Egyptian history has been dated back to 7000 years ago (before 3100 BC). The 1st Dynasty (3100-2686 BC) has been dated to 5000 years ago when the Pharaoh Mena whom Egyptologists recognized generally as the first Pharaoh who united the North and South Kingdoms under one ruler. Egypt was known as “Egepta” or “Kimet Land” (referring to dark earth), the rich and fertile land provided by the yearly flooding of the Nile. Egypt’s ability to feed itself abundantly made it a powerful evolving civilization that stayed isolated with natural physical barriers, allowing it to flourish and help protect it from what most considered lessor civilizations and invaders during that earlier era.
A succession of invaders eventually changed the civilization of ancient Pharaonic times towards what it is today. Starting with the 15th Dynasty (1650 BC), Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos (Syrians), Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Roman invasions culminated in the end of the Pharaonic dynasties with the demise of the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra. Later invasions included people from central Arabia and Saudi Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, and the colonial invasions of the French and the British. In addition to these cultural and political influences, Egypt became connected to other Middle Eastern countries of the area also and was the end point of the “Silk Road” camel caravans, bringing food, spices, textiles, and fashions. While it is true that many of the invaders, visitors, and trade merchants assimilated and absorbed much of Egypt, it is also true that, in turn, Egypt absorbed some of their customs.
Presentation of Evidence
As a foundation for the dancer’s fundamental costume style, I present some pictures from “Al-Mawsu’ah Al-Misriyal”.(*2) The drawings and pictures were taken from the discovered tombs that were decorated elaborately with scenes of life that existed at the time they were painted. These comes from my husband’s books. He has a masters in Egyptology from Chicago University, Oriental Institute. He grew up as a child studying and seeing first hand the antiquities, accompanying his father as he traveled
Egypt in the service of the Royal Family.
Tombs of the nobles all depict activities of daily living, while the tombs of a king had murals depicting a religious nature.
This is a daily activities scene of musicians from a nobles tomb. Party goers at top and musicians at the bottom
2 servants dressed quite bare and shear.
Different dress styles from Lybia and other parts of Africa
A funeral dance
A party with musicians and dancers
These are a teachers and students, of dance and acrobatics.
A religious scene with musicians using a deft
Female dancers doing acrobatics bare chested with a cloth or skirt around their hips.
Acrobats with breasts exposed with a one sholder strap and shear lower body covering ending at the line at mid calf.
Dancers from Africa.
This is a funeral dance or el "mau" dance.
Is this a beaded hip wrap? She is bare breasted and wears earrings while doing a backbend.
Dancers wear adornment around the hips with a possibly beaded belt!
Musicians on harp, flute, and thodar- a precurser to the guitar.
With special permission, Leyla was allowed to take the above photo in the tomb described in the photo below
Many drawings and carvings show that it was common for dancers, both women and men, to be nude in the chest area, with only a decorative belt or cloth wrap around the waist. It was permissible to show the posterior nude for dancing and entertainment but not commonly the front genital area, although some drawings show acrobats, wrestlers, slaves and children as fully nude.
At that time, Egyptian cloth was made from linen. It might have been worn, either sheer or opaque, in an empire style dress that sometimes exposed the breasts. Accompanying text in the diagrams states that male and female dance attire was form-fitting and revealing. Decorations included gold jewelry and clay beads colored yellow, red, blue, black, orange and turquoise from bright dyes made from plants and precious stones.
People, including women, often shaved their heads, because it was cooler and helped avoid lice. Instead, wigs were commonly worn that were decorated with jewelry or plaited into braids. Another common practice for entertainers was to place a cone of perfumed wax upon their heads, which melted, emitting a perfumed fragrance.
Fashionable styles, including the entertainer’s costumes, changed over time as new, out-of-country influences and religious ideas were assimilated into Egyptian culture, frequently resulting in more body coverage. This, too, would influence the dance style and costuming. Each of the traditional Egyptian dance styles, such as Oriental, Saidi, and Fellaheen, has a distinct set of movements and music along with its costume. Most are reminiscent of the everyday dress of the area.
At one point in the past, the dancers known as the “Ghawazee” had a distinct costume style that did not allude to Egypt. It has been suggested by some that they were Gypsy travelers from India who eventually settled in Luxor. The Egyptian Bedouin, who live in the Sahara Desert, also have their own unique costuming that is reminiscent of their daily dress and a distinct sound to their music, also. To my ears, it has the underlying Egyptian flair but with heavy beats almost sounding like the traditional Arab music.
Today’s performers of Raqs Sharqi still have their hip and chest areas adorned with jewels, appliques, glass beads and sequins to accent the body and movements as they had in the past. The styles have changed from the time of the Pharaohs, but they still use essentially the same idea to accentuate the female body and movement.
Each Middle Eastern country with Oriental dancers has its own fashion that reflects cross-pollination of design. The dancers’ breasts are not fully exposed any more, but usually more than most women would show during their everyday life but less than their beachwear. Sheer dresses with cleverly placed cutouts expose the body to give the illusion of semi-nudity while covering certain body areas for modesty. This fashion has been adapted into the more traditional styles such as the Saidi or Beledi (country) dress that may be sheer or feature a cutout at the chest area to reveal a decorated bra. Performances in venues that highlight authenticity of costume style or who perform in a family audience would be more likely to have a less showy or flashy costume and would be more modest.
Personally, I believe that the bedlah of today’s Oriental dancers was inspired by ancient Egyptian daily dress, while the more traditional and folk dancers have their costumes derived and inspired by the dress of daily life in the country of origin. This would lead me to conclude that real life inspired the costumes of Hollywood movies and what was available knowledge at the time rather than vice-versa.
What I have observed throughout the years is that the distinction between the costume styles for the Oriental dancer has had the gap closed of late between the different Middle Eastern countries and many dancers tend to lean toward emulating the newer style of the Egyptian dancers. I would assert that this is due to the fact of the popularity of the Egyptian style and its music. The newer costumes now are more giving of movement with the advent of the new stretchy fabrics and the simplicity of design and adornment. The ease of making such a costume for a world mass-market also plays into the economy of producing a less time-consuming product than in the past. From my observation, it is only the folk style that has remained a constant in each country.
Reference & Resources:
* A.W. Stencell, Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind. Toronto Canada: ECW Press 1999.
* Dr. Mohammed Gamel El Din Mokhtar “Facts of Egypt” Cairo: Egypt Press, 1973
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