Saturday, January 9, 2010


Vintage belly dance costumes and antique stage accessories are a personal passion of mine …to look at, to own and to wear. Fascinating in their staggering variety, they can run the gamut from clumsily constructed home-made affairs to Egyptian, Lebanese and Turkish couture costumes, to ethnic pieces that were not made for stage use, but to be worn as real clothing, for every day use or as ceremonial or bridal wear.

Many of the most well-known belly dance costume designers have been in business for years, and like top street clothes designers, have had different designs concepts and in many cases, full collections for every season. Older Oriental dance costumes were made by hand, and constructed to last literally, a lifetime. Of course, there have always been the cheapie ‘airport special’ costumes, basically souvenirs for tourists- but even those used to be constructed much better than they are now!

More recently, there has been an explosion in belly dance costuming, due to the sheer demand for it as the world-wide popularity of belly dancing grows, as well as the age-old concept of “making a buck”. There is now a wide mid-range of costumes that is not couture, but lacking in the detail and construction of higher-end pieces. Kind of like the stuff you’d find in a designer knock-off shop, which highlights trends, but does not offer quality. This takes many faces- the stones may now be acrylic instead of crystal- and glued on as opposed to sewn on; beading and fringe are done with less workmanship and inferior threads; sizing may be off, etc.

As with vintage designer clothing, most of the professionally made older costumes are fabricated with much more care than their counterparts today. Compare this trend to what’s happening in the world of retail clothing, or even cars, house wares, electronics, heck, you name it… mass production has it’s drawbacks! Though it makes items affordable, the quality in design and craftsmanship is not usually there.

Lately there has even been a trend among belly dancers to return to the glamour and over-the-top design of the older style costumes…. fringe dripping from every possible area on the item. It’s no secret that many older items of belly dance costuming can be had for a song and be made beautiful and serviceable again, through a little loving care.

If you are planning on washing a vintage belly dance costume, or a costume that has been fabricated from antique textiles, mirrored fabric, or one that is hung with heavy coins proceed with care. Many older cabaret costumes were never stored properly-or ever washed, for that matter- and because of the accumulation of sweat or skin oils from the previous owner(s) as well as fabric deterioration due to normal wear and tear or in some cases, exposure to sunlight, the fabric itself may be compromised, and this is especially true of velvets and brocades.

Older professionally made costumes from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, even after a number of years, are almost indestructible. This is great because they withstand the test of time, but in some cases, the costumes were constructed of so many layers of heavy, thick materials that they may be nearly impossible to alter- even getting a needle through them is tough. And because of the copious amounts of beading, anyone intending to cut into or remove parts of the costume needs to be a cracker jack at re-beading so that the alteration matches the rest of the costume. Lebanese and Syrian costumes especially used a lot of chunky beads and big pearls on the fringe- and if fringe is missing in spots, it may be impossible to find an exact match. You will either have to bead your own with similar-looking beads or replace it entirely. Older synthetic pearls have chipped or flaked or lost their luster, due to shaking and rattling against each other. You can actually paint them with nail polish to make them look new again, but this is a very lengthy and intricate process.

Vintage Turkish costumes are also tricky to restore- many had wires inserted into the tops of bra or on the belts, to reinforce shapes, and these wires may have rusted or poked through the material that anchored them. Turkish fringe, through beautiful in appearance, was never constructed as well or as sturdy as it’s Egyptian counter-part, and may have to be replaced. Turkish costumes from the 1950’s- 1970’s were very fragile, hand-beaded and with many cut-outs, including cut-outs on the brassieres that, as the style of the day dictated, were totally open to show the skin! This spider-web effect is stunning, but because there are no actual bra cups, just an overlay of beads meant to be worn against the breast, they may be impossible to salvage, unless the entire piece is cut apart and carefully placed over a bra-cup.

Non-professionally-made vintage cabaret costumes were often made by hand, with the bra constructed from a regular lingerie bra. This is not to say that some of the homemade jobs weren’t spectacular, or well made. Many of them are simply amazing. But once ten to forty years go by, the older fabric of the base-bra itself may be breaking down and losing its shape. Appliqué designs may be fraying or coming off; coins may be missing due to wear and tear on the threads that fastened them, metal snaps, hooks and closures may be rusted, and the costume’s straps my be stretched out or actually coming off the costume. These older costumes were often hand-beaded by dancer who wore them, and sometimes the beads, fringe and loops were not knotted securely, or the knots themselves have frayed due to time. In many cases, if one piece of fringe falls apart, it will create a chain reaction in the entire row of fringe. Older sequins may have lost their color and sheen and have a clear appearance; some decorative crystal stones may be missing.

As for custom made ethnic or Tribal costumes, many of the fabrics used in their construction are serious antiques. Dancers hunt far and wide for textile treasures to make their costumes special, and though some of the fabric finds are still gorgeous, they are very fragile. Even older cotton pieces may be delicate in condition and have some dry rot, especially if the material was exposed to the sun, dust or elements- think pieces originally used by nomadic desert-based tribes like Berbers, Kuchi or Bedouins. Also, the more lavishly a piece of older material was decorated with embroidery, variously applied metallic strips, buttons, mirrors, or sewn-on appliqués, the weaker it will be, due to age and deterioration of the fibers. This is especially true of antique Assuit, a traditional Egyptian hand-made cotton mesh fabric embellished with designs created from small strips of real silver hammered by hand into the mesh. Coming from the Egyptian village of the same name, the new Assuit is mostly mesh fabric, with silver designs, while the older type of Assuit was mostly hammered silver (with the designs left in the color of the mesh) which made it extremely heavy. Lengths of vintage Assuit are usually astronomically expensive, because the sheer mesh base fabric has become so heavy from the silver decorations, it is prone to rips and tears, plus the fact that as the silver oxidizes due to age, which also can weaken the base fabric.

Other vintage ethnic textiles may have been constructed by hand, embroidered with metallic threads, and large beads or pearls; or hung with decorative shells, beads, bottle caps, buttons, small mirrors or bells, all of which will weaken the fabric due to weight. Many ethnic fabrics were woven by hand or embroidered with material threads that were not commercially dyed, and therefore are not colorfast.

Dry cleaning for antique pieces is NOT recommended- however; careful hand washing, in most cases, should be OK. Make sure to use lukewarm water, and a very mild soap. I myself use baby shampoo. When rinsing, do it thoroughly- any soap residue left in the garment will put the natural deterioration process on fast-forward. When drying your costume or costume piece, roll and pat the item carefully in a towel, then lay it flat to air dry on a fluffy towel. Do not hang it up or the fabric may stretch out; never put it in a dryer, the heat and tumbling action is the kiss of death!

Have a serious look at your antique or vintage costume pieces, maybe do some research on the Internet or ask a costumer or antiques dealer if you can and try to assess the fabrics used on your costume, it’s age and durability. You may ultimately opt not to wash them.

If you have a costume decorated with coins that have tarnished and you want them shiny again, you can clean them individually with jewelry polish (not commercial brass or silver cleaner) applied with a Q-Tip. This is a painstaking process, but will shine up the coins and if you apply the polish carefully, will not stain the rest of your costume. If the coins are sewed on in rows, you can take a piece of heavy paper or cut a length of plastic off a shopping bag, lay it underneath the row of coins, and polish them that way, protecting the material they were mounted on. This works well for both real coins, and manufactured costuming or trimming coins.

Actually, a handy trick I learned from an antique dealer who dealt in estate jewelry is to clean any older items using plain old toothpaste, as opposed to any sort of polish. This works much better for rhinestones and crystals- I use it on all my antique tiaras…and believe me, I own a lot of them!

It works just as well for jewelry made of pot metals or “paste” (vintage faux jewelry) as well as Kuchi jewels or ethnic items made from low-quality silver or mixed=metal alloys. The toothpaste is less acidic and much less abrasive than even jewelry polish, and will remove dirt or tarnish without damaging the patina of the item. I usually apply the toothpaste by hand and gently rub it with my fingers, but you could also use a soft child’s toothbrush to do this. After you’ve shined up the item, rinse it off with tepid water, and pat it dry with a soft cloth.

Care for your vintage costumes and accessories properly and lovingly, and should be able to restore them to their previous beauty, as well as raq them proudly onstage!

Pictured: A 1960's era Turkish costume bra, owned by Zahra Zuhair. This bra was constructed by hand, of glass bugle beads, with the neck-halter made of bugle beads hand sewn onto a thin length of grosgrain ribbon. The bra cups are made totally of beads, it was the Turkish style for these to be worn over bare skin.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Aswan, Egypt in 1991 was a sleepy little village. Few of the streets were paved except the Corniche El Nile, where the festive hantour carriages clipped by, their brass decorations clanking merrily in time to the beat of the horse’s hooves. I looked on enviously as they carried tourists to the felucca sailboats docked on the banks of the Nile. It was the middle of the afternoon, about 115 degrees, and the baking heat was making shimmering mirages along the Cornniche. The feluccas looked breezy and cool with little tents for shade set up on their decks, but all I could do was stare at them.

I was on such a tight, limited travel budget that I could only afford spending money on the barest of necessities. For weeks, I had been existing on bottled water, tamiyya (falafel) and pita bread, saving my funds to visit tombs and antiquities. The one pair of jeans I had was caked with mud on the bottom because I had no extra money for laundry and did my own hand-washing. I had taken the overnight train from Cairo, and couldn’t even afford First Class, which in those days was only about ten bucks and merely meant a train car with regular seats that was air-conditioned. Even taking a short hantour trip for a few piasters wasn’t something I could splurge on.

Instead, I wandered on foot down the dusty road that lead towards Kom Ombo Temple, where there was a makeshift covered market. I figured that would be a fun-and free- sightseeing opportunity. Under woven canopies, Nubian natives and Bedouin nomads sold beaded handcrafts and embroidered cotton robes. Bored-looking camels were tethered nearby, their reins and wooden saddles festooned with colorful woolen tassels, coins and bells. I wended my way past gaily painted parked wooden carts heaped high with sugar cane and melons. The donkeys harnessed to them dozed with half-closed eyes, flicking flies away with impatient twitches of their tails.

Oblivious to the heat, flocks of ragged, barefoot children raced around, chasing each other and playing tag in the sand, shrieking and giggling happily. When they spotted me, an obvious tourist, they clustered around me like an urchin mob, begging for pens and candy, tugging at my clothes.

A little girl of about six insistently grabbed my hand.

Pushing her tangled hair out of her eyes, she said, in perfect English,

“Water for you, lady!”

In the intense heat, it was a great idea, and I let her pull me along down the wagon-rutted road to a small, windowless mud and brick building, it’s façade painted a glaring turquoise, like a public swimming pool out-building. The entrance was decorated with crude, cartoon-like hieroglyphics, splashed on haphazardly in red house paint.

As we stepped through the doorway, it was so black inside that I couldn’t see a thing.

“Maya!” the little girl cried, using the Arabic word for water.

Seconds later, I felt the welcome cool of a plastic bottle make it’s way into my hand.

It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but then I saw whitewashed plaster walls hung with crumbling, musty-looking papyrus paintings. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, as though nothing had been touched-or cleaned- in years. Makeshift wooden shelves held carved soapstone souvenir statuettes; the obligatory busts of Nefertiti and Tutankhamen, fat scarabs, tiny figures of Isis and Osirus.

“See anything you like, lady?” asked a man in a full Saidi galabiyya, a Western-style winter scarf wrapped around his head like a turban.

As I dug in my purse for change to pay for the water, my eyes fell upon a picture on the wall, near a door that lead to the back. It stuck out from the cheesy papyrus schlock, it looked shiny and spiny and wonderful. Even though it, like everything else in the shop, was completely covered in sand, it was a riot of color.

“I like that thing,” I said, pointing at the psychedelic wall hanging, “What is that?”

In broken English, the man explained that it was not for sale; his daughter had made it, years ago, when she was very small. He pointed at the child that had brought me into the shop, indicating that his daughter had been about that age when she made it.

He gestured towards her and said,


So, apparently, he was the little girl’s grandfather.

“Well, it’s the best thing here!” I declared, stepping nearer to examine it more closely.

The picture appeared to be a faded cardboard lobby card from a film. The two girls pictured, one a blonde, the other brunette, both had late Sixties or early Seventies style upswept hair and heavy eye make-up. The girls were staring off to one side, looking worried or concerned, but still fabulous. The photo was sewn onto a frame made of rolled-up, printed foil, which I immediately recognized as Arabic candy and ice cream wrappers.

“Movie star!” the man said,nodding at the picture,

“Women movie, very famous!”

Without thinking, I suddenly blurted out,

“I’ll buy that! How much is it?”

The man laughed incredulously, telling me again it wasn’t for sale. He tried to interest me in a tiny Horus figurine, but I waved it away as graciously as I could .

“Please tell your daughter she is an artist,” I said sincerely, getting ready to leave.

The man held up his hand in the international signal for “wait a minute”, and disappeared into the back of the building, coming back with his daughter, a middle-aged woman, her plump-cheeked pretty face framed by a purple beaded headscarf.

She smiled shyly and cast her eyes down but looked modestly pleased when I asked again to buy the picture.

When father and daughter realized I was serious, we began negotiating a price, but not in the determined way one would when haggling over a commercial souvenir. It was clear that though they thought I was crazy to want the item, they were flattered that I did… but also that they hadn’t even remotely considered it something of value, and hadn’t put a price on it-ever.

For my part, I knew that whatever I was going to pay for it meant foregoing food for a day or two, but I didn’t care. I had to have it!

We finally decided on a fee fair to both parties- equal to four American dollars, and I trembled inwardly with the thrill of possession. The man pried the picture off the wall, where it had been nailed down for years.

On a scrap of paper, the man wrote painstakingly in jumbled, block-lettered English:


I carried the picture back to my tiny, three star hotel room, and cleaned each point of the candy wrappers painstakingly, with a Q-tip. It took a long time.

During the cleaning process, I noticed that the needle, which was used to sew the photo onto the foil, was still embedded in it, stored there carefully. You can actually see it if you look closely on the left of the picture, at the level of the blonde girl’s ear. Also, barely visible at the bottom left corner of the photo, there is still a nail left attached, that had held the picture to the wall of the souvenir shop.

Before I departed from Upper Egypt back to Cairo, I carefully slid the picture into some cardboard I cut from the side of a Canada Dry soda box. Once I got home, I saved up to have it framed, spending far more than the amount I had actually paid for it!

For years I have tried to find out what film this still photo came from, as well the correct names of both actresses. I have Googled many spellings of the girl’s names, both as the man wrote them and in other variations. The closest match I can find is an Egyptian actress named Samara Ahmed, but when I see her picture on line, there isn't really a facial resemblance and I don’t think she is old enough to have been in whatever movie this picture was from.

But even if I never find out that information, I still enjoy this artifact every day. Along with a Bedouin hamsa that had a red plastic 1950’s gumball machine charm of a cowboy wired to it- purchased for virtually nothing on the same trip- this picture is my favorite Egyptian souvenir ever!