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The Look You Are Looking For: Shape, Texture, Flow

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What DOES the costuming for Orientale, Tribal and Folkloric dance look like? How are they similar, how are they alike?

You will find shared shapes but distinctly different fabrics.

Many costume shapes are shared across genres. The difference is the fabric and ornamentation. The skirt for a Orientale dancer might be silk, chiffon, or a stretch velvet; for a folkloric dancer, cotton or linen; for a tribal dancer, rayon or cotton gauze. Folkloric pantaloons might be flowered or striped rayon or cotton; for tribal, soft lace or a stiff brocade. The bra top of an Oriental bedlah set might be encrusted with beads and sequins, with the arms covered by a shrug; a tribal bra is likely to be covered with coins, or with ribbon and metal chains, and the bra worn on top of a choli instead of bare skin.

If you choose to make your own costumes, focus on fabric texture, or 'hand.', when selecting your fabrics. Novices often shop for the right color, but he texture, drape and reflective qualities are the most important. You MUST use fabric compatible with the genre, the personna and the movement you are costuming for. You MUST have a fabric that moves and drapes where you want it to move and drape, and which retains shape where it needs to be strong and supportive.

Sometimes this is accomplished by creating a foundation structure over which a precious fashion fabric is laid; bedlah sets, for instance, are covered with delicate sequins and beads and fairy-land fabrics, but underneath are constructed of layers of interfacing, buckram, grosgrain and boning. But in the case of most costuming, the fabric must both support AND move, be durable and hold up to cleaning while looking magical during performance.

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Marguerite Kusuhara in folkloric costume
Marguerite Kusuhara in Folkloric costume. Marguerite has been performing Orientale and folkloric dance for many years and has designed some of the best folkloric outfits on the planet. Here she is in a tunic, pantaloons and head wrap with a Ghawazee coat over all. The cut is no different than a thousand other folkloric outfits, but Marguerite's choice of fabric and color and her insistence on good fit makes it devastatingly stageworthy. Photo used with permission.

(Egyptian, Turkish, American)
Folkloric Tribal

Glamorous fabrics: beaded, embroidered, silk, satin, lace.

Ornamentation: beads and sequins. American Orientale: high-end coin bra and belt sets, ribbons, sari trim.

The right amount of ornamentation is important. Remove what does not enhance; sometimes that will include some of the fringe.

Do what you have to make it fit YOU.

Pull your look together. Do you need a necklace, something on your arms, a shrug, different shoes, a headpiece? Make it happen.

Rich, earthy colors.

Coin trim or braid around openings. Dramatic folkloric earrings, bracelets, anklets and necklaces

Matte finish fabrics. Hand-loomed fabrics. Assuit: you win the jackpot!

Traditional costuming for Raqs Beladi and Raqs Assaya.

Morocco, describing folkloric dance costumes: "It is not costuming, it is their real clothing; what those people really wear for dress-up on special occasions... They sometimes tried to imitate what people of a class above themselves wore, to the best extent they could afford, in fabric and in variety of color and fit. It was clothing, not costume."

Very full 10-to-25 yard hem skirt and choli, both in black, with colorful pantaloons and a hip scarf are the classic base costume.

A tassel belt, overskirt(s), and a coin bra that goes OVER the choli are frequent additions. Ethnic bangles and ornaments are used freely.

Indian fabrics and trims have become popular for skirts and cholis, supplementing the classic black cotton, velvet and rayon items.

The look can become very elaborate but it is always ethnic-based.

Think of Orientale costuming as a triangle, with costuming choices sliding on the spectrum between one point and another. Common denominators: basic pieces (bedlah, theatrical dress, pants, vests) and glamorous fabrics. The differences are the cut and ornamentation.

[ILLUSTRATION] :: the Triangle.

Egyptian costumes project a sleek, cosmopolitan, controlled silhouette with a shiny, highly-decorated surface that broadcasts movement and reflects light: perfect for a genre that prizes the ability to "dance on a tile" with clarity, intensity and emotion. The belt is sometimes replaced by elaborate beading around the hip area, a recent innovation. Form fitting dresses are also popular.

[ILLUSTRATION] :: Ruric-Amari, Egyptian style.

Turkish Orientale costuming is flamboyant, revealing, and designed to enhance dancing that is more athletic, less subtle and more overtly sexual than Egyptian. Monster fringe and elaborately shaped cups and belts are common. Designs emphasize legs to the point of omitting the skirt altogether. Salome points out that "A full costume will come with eitehr a sheer pantaloon or skirt with no, or minimal decoration... Fabrics tend to be an industrial strength polyester / chiffon blend." The bras are often very low cut, with an effect of partial nudity, and pasties instead of bras were not unheard of; physical beauty was and is important to the success of a Turkish bellydancer. Even Didem, a very popular, very young Turkish dancer, has already had major surgical amplification.

[ILLUSTRATION] :: Princess Banu, active during the 70s and 80s, and still teaching today.

American Orientale, which evolved in the 60s and 70s, was heavily influenced by Turkish dance and costuming, then tempered with influences from folkloric costume and dance, TV shows and movies, and field research, real or imagined, as it became available. Coin belts and bras, assuit bedlah, voluminous multi-circle chiffon skirts that could be tucked up and around, fantasy Roma, and dramatic costume pieces of striped fabric are hallmarks of American Oriental.

[ILLUSTRATION] :: Heavy coin belt, jewelry, and bra drape, with a 3-half-circle-skirt.

Folkloric, in the sense that I am using it here, does not necessarily mean a historically-correct mode of dress, but it does imply ethnic shapes that were originally designed for every-day lives. It certainly does NOT imply that it is okay to make these out of old bed sheets. Make these stage-worthy with good fabrics and ornaments that can be read at a distance by an audience. Tunic over harem pants or pantaloons, with a long vest or coat over all, is a standard. Turkish Costume is a frequent inspiration.

[ ILLUSTRATION ] :: A Turkish Sultana, drawn in the early 1800s by Dalvimart. Includes elements used in folkloric costumes today: close fitting coat, pantaloons, and a shawl around the hips.

Laurel Victoria Gray, in her article Essence of Oriental in Crescent Moon magazine, Jan 1996, described the modern cabaret costume as looking more like something from Mardi Gras than from the Middle East. Her guidelines for replicating the clothing of geographic area which was one part of the Islamic Empire include:

  1. The juxtaposition of contrasting patterns and textures (stripes with paisleys and floral prints, velvets with satin and brocade);
  2. Unexpected color combinations (green and red, peach and lavender, blue and orange);
  3. The layering of garment pieces one upon the other (pants, tunic, under-robe, vest, sash, outer-robe);
  4. The use of Eastern textiles (silk, taffeta, damask and muslin);
  5. Headdresses and head coverings;
  6. Embellishment of flat surfaces with ornate designs, especially embroidery;
  7. The wearing by women from all walks of life of ornate and often heavy jewelry. The sound that the jewelry made was often important as well.
The folkloric costume with a spin on it: more color, more layers, more ornaments. An expansive silhouette is usually valued, except in the case of minimalist Tribal Fusion stylings, which are sometimes no more than pants and a sports bra. A good base costume is full skirt over pantaloons with a choli and/or coin bra. Matte-finish fabrics on the base pieces (choli, skirt) provide a backdrop for layers of ethnic jewelry and scarves.

Read My Hips dance troupe has done a good job of costuming themselves for tribal and tribal fusion pieces for 15 years.

In 1996, Carolena Nericcio described the evolution of the Fat Chance Belly Dance costume style. When she first started teaching, she adopted her teacher's (Masha Archer) standard costume into her format: pantaloons, hip shawl, choli, bra, a small headress and a lot of jewelry. "Then one day someone came in with a big, beautiful skirt from the Renaissance Faire... when I put one on I realized they were really nice! So then we all got skirts. At some point the hip belt came in, & eventually the headdresses started growing bigger... Whenever someone would discover something new that they liked, we'd all want it... The costumes used to be less uniform than they are now. We've tried bras with vests, I've tried various tunics. It was sort of a survival of the fittest. The tunics would get snagged, the vests were too revealing or else covered the body shape too much. If the headresses were too tall, you couldn't balance a sword. So out of trial & error our costuming has evolved."— Ignorance is Bliss, interview by Kajira Djoumahna, published in Crescent Moon magazine.
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