Monday, February 23, 2009


As a child, I had wild dreams of glamour, glitter and luxurious pageantry. But since my allowance of a exactly quarter a week got in the way of my high-falutin’ show business aspirations, I had to come up with some pretty creative ways of putting on my extravagant productions. Since I grew up in New England, I was ingrained with the old Yankee proverb “Use it up, wear it out, make it do”- and boy, did I ever!
By the time I was ten, I had become a full-blown theatrical impresario. Hence, my living room production of “Swan Lake” saw the ‘corps de ballet’ wearing dime- store Indian headdresses (they were still feathers, riiiiight?) and the backyard circus featured tigers (a few very patient domestic cats) were housed in ‘cages’ made from discarded orange crates decorated with crayon scribbles and crepe paper streamers left over from a sibling’s birthday party. My budget NEVER stopped me from putting on a show.

As an adult, when I began to belly dance, I tried to channel the same creative energy into my shows and costumes. Even though I can now afford professional costumes (and actually have a costume collection that most would consider an embarrassment of riches) I still love to make costumes of out odd or discarded items.

At first, I made my own costumes cause I had lots of imagination…but no cash. But what used to be called “ghetto” is now called “green”, and making stage-wear is a challenge, a pleasure, and really gratifying as well as being a way of recycling!

One costume of mine that seems to get rave reviews whenever I wear it is my Mata Hari/ Theda Bara/ 1920’s style costume. People comment on it all the time- dancers see it on one of my YouTube clips and email me questions about it. I pored over vintage Orientalist photos and costume sketches from The Ballet Russe- all available in plentiful images on the Internet. Then I went to work.
To create 1900’s- 1920’s style hair, I took and old tangled fall that had seen better days, and secured it onto a Styrofoam wig stand. I parted it in the middle down the back, and wound each side into large cinnamon-roll style buns, which would position over each ear. I secured them in place with large bobby pins and tons of hair spray, since I would’ve tossed the wig anyway. and didn’t mind wrecking it. Originally, I wanted to dance with giant feather fans, which I own, but needed something portable, so I bought two $3.99 hand fans in Chinatown and spray painted them metallic gold, to cover the Chinese dragons, and edged them in gold glitter.

Next came the costume. Since I wanted that “naked” look, I bought a remnant of flesh-toned swimsuit material- three yards for a dollar, and more than enough to make a straight skirt and cover a bra and belt. I sewed a straight hip-band, and covered it with the swimsuit material. I didn’t even bother to cover the flesh-colored bra, since it was the matching color, but I did sew the straps securely so they wouldn’t stretch once I began decorating the costume. Then I made a simple straight skirt by laying the left-over material on the floor, folding it so it was a rectangular shape, and hemming it, making a casing for elastic at the top, and leaving one side open so the skirt had a deep slit on one side. I wanted the bra and belt to be covered in gold lace, so that the flesh-tone would show through underneath… but when I took a trip to the fabric store; the cost of metallic lace was outrageous. Determined to make this costume as cheaply as possible, I went to my fabric bin, and pulled out some lace remnants by boyfriend had gotten from a dumpster behind a clothing factory.

Unfortunately, though the lace was gorgeous, it wasn’t gold, as I had envisioned, for the costume. It was pink. Wishing for gold lace, I suddenly had an inspiration: what if I spray-painted the lace itself? I thought it would still be easy to sew through, since it was basically made of net. I got out the paint I’d used on the fans, and sprayed the lace. After it dried, it was a beautiful antique gold, and still flexible enough to sew through, so the bra-cups and belt got covered in the lace. I then cut out about fifty of the raised lace rosettes (ok, I admit it, I’m completely insane) and glued them with a dot of fabric glue to the skirt, so it now looked like flesh-colored East Indian sari-material, scattered with raised gold flowers.

Now it was time for the embellishments. I gathered up all the Mardi Gras beads and plastic pearl Christmas-trim I could find. I have lots of this stuff lying around the house (because we have now firmly established that I am out of my mind) but it can be purchased very inexpensively at craft stores. I sorted out the colors and lengths that I wanted- in this case, gold and pearls, and cut the trim to the desired length.

I collected all the leftover rhinestones that I’d used on previous costumes. I then traced one large circle and three smaller ones onto felt, cut them out and covered them in the flesh-toned material I’d used on the belt and skirt. Into the center of each, I glued rhinestones and pearls, so each became a flashy medallion, and trimmed the edges with small pearls-by-the-yard. Then I hot-glued them to the center and sides of the belt, using the biggest circle as the front centerpiece. I sewed hooks and eyes to the back of the center piece to fasten it, and then draped the Mardi Gras beads and pearls from medallion to medallion (sewing them on the underside) so they draped over the side of each thigh and made a centered “butt swag” in the back. I made smaller medallions for the belly-drape hanging from the front of the bra in the same way, and fasted them together by draping and sewing pearls, and attaching them to the bra. I trimmed each hanging medallion with a gold tassel.

Next, I randomly glued the multi-colored rhinestones all over the bra and belt, for extra sparkle under the stage lights. Finally, to make the upper arm-bands, I cut the flesh-colored elastic off the tops of fishnet pantyhose, cut those in half, and sewed them together to make the arm-bands, and then trimmed each with the gold flower rosettes I’d put on the skirt.

For the stage, I finished the 1920’s look with my make-up, with a “rosebud” mouth done in maroon lipstick (“Dark Side” by MAC) and by heavily rimming my eyes on both the upper and lower lids with black eye shadow. The music I used to carry on the theme was a vintage Turkish taxm, from and excellent cd called “Istanbul 1925”. The costume- and the entire piece itself made its debut in October ’05 at Shimmy Fest in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We all know how good stage lighting can transform even the most mundane costume into the height of glamour, and that was the effect I was hoping for. Apparently, the costume looked so good onstage bets were placed in the audience as to how much the costume cost- and one woman even guessed $1,000!

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her that with everything considered- bra, materials, etc- the cost was maybe $36.00… but then I went ahead and wrecked the illusion, proudly blurting out that the entire thing was made from found objects and recycled items! Oh, well!


  1. Okay, so I thought that costume was absolutely amazing before, but after reading how you made it I am totally blown away!

  2. It is very exciting to think how a cheap costume can look SO expensive. I make my own (well, i've done two so far), but I have not managed to make one which looks so elaborate yet! I've gone for simple. This is SO inspiring, thank you!

  3. happy belated Birthday bay-bay :) xx

  4. I love these ideas - they've stretched even my crazy handmade-costume-consciousness (spray painted lace? You are brilliant)! Thanks for sharing, beautiful!