The Emperor’s New Bedlahs: a Costuming Lament

Wearing my favorite vintage bedlah at a party in Ridgefield, Connecticut

King Louis XIV once said that fashion itself is a mirror to history. Though I live in jeans and Polos when I’m not collecting exotic dance couture, I love to follow the whimsical world of fashion because it can be so revealing.

As with mainstream fashion, belly dance costuming is not immune to cultural macro- and micro-trends, either. For any “civilian” audiences reading this (and for any dancer who’s been living under a rock for the past 10 years), belly dance fashion has been stuck in a minimalist phase for quite some time now, thanks to the recent popularity of the simplistic Egyptian style. As Cairo is considered the Hollywood of the Middle East, Western belly dancers have slowly backed away from the “AmCab” chiffon-and-fringe style to follow the lead of edgy contemporary Egyptian artists like Dina, who was known for many risque styles – including a skirt with a built-in thong rising over the top (I believe the technical term is “whale tail”), and a bra with huge grabby hands embroidered over the cups.

A world of good has come out of the Cairene influence – the sleek Lycra skirts, the tasteful beaded motifs, the clean torso-elongating lines of a bra without the requisite old-school “wall-o’-fringe.” Plus, matching bra-and-skirt sets are like Geranimals for Belly Dancers. No need to stress yourself out over finding the right skirts, veils, and accessories to match a bedlah. And it’s about time somebody slayed the fringemonsters.

Until very recently, costumes like Lucy’s “seafood delight,” complete with its gigantic shrimp, crabs and starfish, were the exception, not the rule. We’d snerk at them, while thanking the costume powers-that-be for our sharp-looking Pharaonics and Hanans. Leave the train wreck costumes to the Big Divas, right?

Enter the trickle-down effect. Years after the fact, the extreme has hit the mainstream. Every couple of weeks, the major costume

Dina wearing a costume with built-in thong

vendors send out their latest “costume porn” via e-mail, letting us fashionistas know what’s in stock and what’s hot. These days, the ready-to-wear market is all about coconut-bras, “floating” bras that look like pasties from a distance but fasten with thin clear straps, stuffed animals, exploding furballs, birds of prey, gingerbread men, sperm-shaped appliques, boob-and-crotch embellishment, assels, crassels (crotch tassels) and nippletassels, see-through skirts, and all things improbable and uncouthe. If the costumes aren’t weird, they’re sometimes just poorly designed, with unfinished design motifs, 0dd fringe placement, and clumsy lines. If it weren’t for the $600 price tag or the prestigious designer labels, you would swear it was a dreaded Turkish Airport Special. Or something from your local stripper store. (In fact, I’ve actually seen nicer, higher quality stuff in stripper stores).

Of course, I hope you’re all reading this as the ramblings of a self-described costume elitist, rather than The Ten Commandments as Interpreted By Carrara The Gorgeous. If you’ve got the moxie and the bod to pull off a more extreme costume style, then who am I to rain on anybody’s parade? Normally, I’m all for originality – and I could see some dancers really rocking these costumes in an Arab nightclub, a dance festival, or some other venue where their audiences appreciate racy, bleeding-edge looks.

Trouble is, most of us make our living performing for the general public. While it’s true that the designers and top dancers often set the trends, our audiences create the demand. Most of us are not only artists, but businesspeople. For those of us who work the restaurant, party and bellygram circuit, avant garde just doesn’t fly. If we don’t meet our clients’ aesthetic expectations, they will shop elsewhere, so to speak.

Plus, we’re at the cusp of an enormous resurgence of classic American Cabaret and Turkish style. Dancers are refining their floorwork and their zills, and anything vintage or vintage-inspired is a hot commodity on the Bhuz swap meet. Not to mention, in recessionary times, few people can afford to be a fashion victim. If today’s working dancers aren’t scooping up basic and versatile bedlahs, they’re often buying Bellas, Sims, Pharaonics and other timeless, well-made designs with a high resale value. Most of my dancer-friends are looking to get the most bang for their costume bucks.

Knowing that consumer trends are shifting, I’m wondering why the major vendors have been so slow to pick up. Certainly, most of them are probably bound to whatever the designer has in stock. If designers are still making miniskirts and floating bras, this must mean that somebody is buying them. Or otherwise, Egyptian designers might have decided to capitalize on the sheer fact that the belly dance market is flooded and some American dancers will emulate – and pay a pretty premium for – anything that’s Egyptian. Still, something’s gotta give.

The beauty of today’s costume market is that we have so many options. You can go as decadent, as simple or as edgy as you want. You can order off-the-rack, custom made or pre-owned. I’ve worn cutting edge miniskirts, earthy tribal and simplistic Eman Zaki designs. Given all these choices, I’ve found myself pining away over the very stuff that won me over as a starry-eyed beginner. Give me fringe, give me bling and give me luxurious fabrics that move one beat behind me! I’ve been missing the sensation and the visual feedback of flying fringe and swooshing skirts. The Old Hollywood intrigue.

Like many dancers, I want to look and feel like a belly dancer again. Is it too much to ask? What do all of you think of the latest design trends?


Comments · 2

  1. I completely agree. My audience wants to see fringe, glitter, the “classic” look.
    What good is it to wear something simple but expensive if I can’t let the price tag hang out to prove that yes, I DID buy this, I didn’t make it myself….

    Most of my recent costumes have been custom-made. And they all have a bra and belt with a moderate amount of fringe on them (I like to travel light). Because that’s much more versatile than a belt and skirt that are one piece.

    Let the designers do whatever they want, I design my own costumes (and have them made in Istanbul where they never really cought up with the simplicistic style anyway, thank goodness).

  2. That’s exactly how I feel. Some of those sleek, ultramodern costumes are beautiful pieces of art, but for my personal purposes, that’s all they are to me.

    Anybody who’s dancing regularly or full-time should consider more than just the latest fashion trends. Durability and my audiences’ needs are two important criteria for me.

    A lot of the latest crop of modern Egyptian costumes have glaring construction issues – beads that fall off right out of the bag, paint peeling off acrylic pearls, unfinished hems, beading sewn right onto the waistband elastic. I had one Eman where the seamstress had drawn on the beadwork pattern in ballpoint pen!

    Plus, my audiences just don’t react the same to contemporary minimalism as they do to the classic full-on bling attack.

    You and I definitely have the same taste in costumes, Meissoun ;) I’m always swooning over your latest Legends and Bellas!

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