A Brief History of the Belly Dance Costume

A Brief History of the Belly Dance Costume

It would be impossible for one blog post to encapsulate all the information there is to know about belly dance costume history. So instead, in this piece, I’m going to take a more conceptual approach and discuss how our modern belly dance costume, that classic three-piece bedlah ensemble came into being.  

Before the Industrial Revolution

Prior to the industrial revolution, fabrics were handmade and precious. In our world of abundance, we can sometimes be far removed from the time when weaving was done at the pace of human labor.  Before the era of the industrial revolution, people had very few clothing pieces in their wardrobe.  Textiles were woven to suit the clothing with minimal cutting to reduce waste. Garments were then hand sewn and made to last as long as possible.

So when it comes to the question of “What did dancers wear before 1700?” the answer is simple. They wore the clothing they owned. This style would be specific to their town or region and their social affiliation.  

Quality would be determined by a number of different factors.  Individuals with higher status or class would have access to better quality raw materials. Sewing and embellishment skills would also play a large part in the quality of finished garments.  Even humble materials can be turned into beautiful garments and even wearable works of art.

Prior to 1700, most dancers would perform within their own community or for more elite members of their local or even regional society.  However, if one were noticed they might have the opportunity to perform at higher ranking events and even at court. If they were chosen to dance for important people, they would be provided with the necessary garments.

The Grand Tour, Tourism, and The Rise of Professional Entertainers 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, technology advanced, cities grew, and travel became easier. Throughout this period, more people were exploring places beyond their village or town. The development of industry meant more jobs and so rural folks left to live and work in growing cities.  

Travel brought visitors from around the world to visit cities like Istanbul, Turkey and Cairo, Egypt to discover the wonders of the ancient world. At first, these travelers were high-status individuals (mostly men) who embarked on “The Grand Tour” that included important stops throughout the Mediterranean region.  

For individuals on these grand tours, the act of travel was considered essential learning and study experiences.  But for people living in the cities on these itineraries, it meant more opportunities to make money via the sale of trade goods, lodging, food, and entertainment.

We find written and visual documentation in travelers’ accounts become more frequent and detailed throughout this period.  And as we move forward in time to the late 19th century, photographic technology adds even more visual information to our history with the invention of the picture postcard and later they travel snapshot.

Perhaps the most essential destination for these early travelers on the Grand Tour, and later steam-powered tourists, was Cairo, Egypt. In a general survey of travel postcards from this one city, we can spot several distinct styles of costume appearing from Ottoman Turkish to rural Fellahin and Gahwazee.  Not all postcards feature actual dancers but they do represent the kinds of clothing a traveler of the day would see on a performer.

Professional entertainers flourished as more travelers visited towns and cities.  

Industrial Revolution Set the Stage

The industrial revolution sped up the growth and expansion of cities. Every aspect of our modern world has been created by the machines of the industrial revolution. 

The equipment needed to build the cities buildings and transportation network, the machines used to grow and harvest food more efficiently, and of course, the ability to rapidly make textiles to clothe the citizens. With industrialization, the cost of clothing, like many other daily necessities, dropped.  
Professional dance performers could now purchase the materials needed to make a fancy ensemble for performance use only.  This would evolve into a standardized uniform that would identify the dancer and her role on the stage.   

Birth of the Bedlah

The very essence of our bedlah set was born in the west, a fantasy costume that became a visual shorthand for easily identifying an ancient woman from the lands under the then-current Ottoman control.  This was the costume style created for Operatic characters like the infamous Salome, Thais, Sheherezade, Semiramis, and many more.  

The hundreds, if not thousands, of Salome’s that danced across the stages of the world in the first two decades of the 20th century, solidified our expectation of what a “belly dancer” would look like for decades to come.   

This style, composed of a bra, a belt, and a skirt, spread throughout the world of entertainment and was adopted by professional dancers. worldwide. This costume style, born on European opera stages, was imported back to the Middle East and especially to Egypt where dancers performing on stages in clubs for tourists and locals alike, embraced this formula and dubbed it the “bedlah” or uniform of the professional working dancer.

Taste and Technology

Since then, we’ve experienced even faster and greater changes with advances in technology.  Over the past 120 years, technology has shaped the evolution of the belly dance costume as we know it today. 

Several major changes occurred with the advent of synthetic fibers.  
The invention of polyester chiffon in 1958, allowed dancers of every budget to make a wardrobe of billowing transparent skirts. In the 1980s spandex joined the team, providing dancers with comfortable costumes with the ability to not just stretch, but to immediately snap back to hug the form. 

History and Today

Today there’s more variety and access to textiles, embellishments, and even ready-made costumes. The industrial revolution allowed for faster rates of production, new and innovative fibers, weaving and knit cloth production, and ease of transportation to locations around the world. 

Technological advances also created a series of watershed moments that allow us to easily survey the past.  Moving back in time, we can spot dancers in videos on the web, via broadcast television, in color movies, black and white, and even silent pictures.  As we slip back in time, we have photographic magazines and journals, and the travel postcard.  Prior to that, we have illustrated travel journals, books, and travelogues, and the paintings and drawings produced by artists on the grand tour.

In Summary

For most of the history of the world , dancers performed in their clothing.  The first specific costumes for dancers were used in the wealthy courts of the major cities throughout the world. Special costumes were provided by the court to ensure that dancers were properly attired. 

The industrial revolution reduced the cost of goods to make costumes dropped dramatically, and it was possible for dancers to have a separate clothing ensemble for performances. 

And with the 19th-century growth of cities, tourism, and the development of the entertainment industry, it became important for performers to have specific clothing to suit the quality of their venue and their particular role.

Western theater and opera invented a uniform for the “oriental dancer” to wear on stage, which was then adopted by performers worldwide transcending the fantasy, and creating a look that has endured for more than 120 years. Technology continues to drive the way costuming looks through new fibers, fabrics, and findings.  

Authors Note:  I use the English term “Belly Dance” because I speak and write in English and this is a useful bucket term when talking about costume. In more comprehensive talks, I break costuming for our dance into three major categories: Glam, Fusion, and Ethnographic.

I use the term “Bedlah,” an  Egyptian Arabic term that roughly translates to Uniform, and is the widely used term by dancers and costume makers in the US and abroad. When talking about dance history, it’s important to be much more specific as there are different terms used across many different regions, cultures, and languages. 

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Dawn Devine, aka Davina, and I’m a belly dance historian and costume designer. I’ve written several best-selling books including “The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut,” and “Embellished Bras.”  My current research is on the birth of bedlah from 1875 - 1925.  I currently live in the heart of Silicon Valley, CA with two cats, a well-used coffeemaker, and a very supportive hubby.   If you would like to find out more information about my current work and upcoming workshops, you can find me in these locations:

Davina’s Blog