If you’ve thought carefully about spending the time and money to make the bra and belt for a belly dance costume and are ready to start gathering the things you’ll need, here’s some information about the materials used to make the costume, starting from the insides out. You can find all of what you need at a good fabric shop, but you might also shop at thrift stores and bead shops for exotic things.
The Base: inside every beautifully decorated belt, there’s a piece of ugly, heavy fabric that holds everything together and keeps the shape. The same material is used for the back strap (“wings”) of the bra. You can use a range of materials for these items (see list below), but whatever you pick needs to be tough enough to support the stresses on it, both the weight of the decorations AND the strains of being fastened around your body and danced in. Here’s a list of possible choices, with comments on their usefulness:
A) Interfacing (In The Heaviest Weight Available)- the closest thing to the real buckram that is traditionally used in Egyptian costumes, it’s used for exactly our purpose: making stiff stuff like belts and other things that need to hold their shape. Heavy interfacing keeps a nice crisp edge, too. If you like a really solid feel to your belt, you can double it and it will really be unyielding. Buy it at a fabric store by the yard- either the non-woven or woven; they both work well. A yard and a half should be plenty and don’t worry; it’s not too expensive. It’s launderable, too.
B) Denim (Or Other Heavy Fabric)- heavy and stable, denim is a reasonable choice at an attractive price (free when you recycle old pants). It will be softer and floppier than the heavyweight interface, which can be good or bad- it will mold to your hips better but may bunch up while dancing. It wont have a naturally crisp edge to it. It’s easy to work with, absorbent, and launderable.
C) A Real Belt (for the belt)- You may find a fashion belt that has the size and shape that you want, all ready to be covered to make the classic Egyptian style belt (a smooth circular belt with no points in the front or back). Find one in your closet or the goodwill- it should be a cheap choice and save some steps. It’s probably not washable tho; it depends on what you find.
D) Buckram- Here to honor tradition, it’s hard to find in stores these days but you can get it mail order. It’s launderable but will lose its stiffness with washing. It’s not particularly easy to work with if it’s really stiff. I’d skip the tradition and go with any of the others mentioned above.
The Cups: inside every beautiful bra top, there is a pair of bra cups that makes the bra keep its shape. You can buy cups specifically for bra making or you can buy a regular bra and snip everything off the cups. I’ve used the premade cups and they’re pretty nice to work with- they keep their shape, are easy to sew with, and have the right coverage. It’s easier to find a bra, however, and you have a better chance of getting the right fit and shaping. Whatever bra you choose should be able to hold its own shape and support the decorations- no thin or stretchy materials. Note that the foam molded cups can be used but they’re sometimes harder to stick a needle through while sewing. Make sure the bra cups are not too tight- adding the decorations will take up room, and you really should line it as well. If you’re wavering between sizes, go up a cup size.
The Shoulder Straps: These should be NON-stretch and wide enough not to roll or cut into you. Gross grain ribbon works great- it has the strength to take the weight and stresses and comes in every width and most colors (although you’ll usually cover the ribbon in your costume fabric). You can cut strips of interfacing as well, but I’d double it and make sure you sew the fabric down well to stabilize it. You could use satin ribbon if the straps are more decorative or the ribbon is wide, but be careful it doesn’t shred. Find the ribbon at your fabric store.
Covering Fabrics: Unless you plan on covering your belt COMPLETELY in beads or sequins or whatever decorations, you need a pretty fabric to cover your interfacing. If you really ARE planning on covering it in decorations, you’ll still need some broadcloth or other plain fabric in the color of the decorations you’ve chosen to act as a background. Recycling old evening wear is a great cheap source of belly dance fabric- a dress should have plenty of material to make up a bra and belt. Whatever you find, before you settle on a fabric, consider the following:
A) Washability- if you buy something hand washable, you have a chance at cleaning your costume safely yourself. Because sooner or later you’ll want to wash it…
B) Sheerness- if you choose a sheer fabric, you’ll have to buy something solid to put under it. A satin under fabric will add shine, a cotton one will be matte and easy to work with, but consider the two fabrics layered for the final effect. Notice that buying a lining fabric adds a little cost.
C) Ease of Handling- some fabrics shred easily, such as sheers, loose weaves or brocades- stuff with loose weaves or lots of threads carried long distances over the surface of the fabric. Don’t give yourself extra headaches with a fabric that slips or comes apart as you handle it unless you’re an experienced sewer. Ask the clerk in the fabric shop for help if you’re not sure about this. Also, know that slippery fabric can be frustrating to deal with and requires constant pinning.
D) Durability- Some fabrics are fragile and shouldn’t be rubbed. Some get caught on stuff and the threads pull out easily. Some rip easily. Costumes do take a beating, what with the decorations and the jewelry, so choose something that will stand up to the abuse. The nice fabric store lady should be able to help with this if you’re not sure.
Decorations: The fun part! Sequins, beads, rhinestones, shells, coins, mirrors, appliques, fringe, fur, decorative embellishments to make the costume pretty… you get the idea. You can use whatever you like, but consider these points:
A) Practicality- Many of the same concerns about the fabric apply to the trim. You want it washable, danceable, not fragile, not uncomfortable. You can use impractical materials but you need to design your costume to accommodate them, like having anything furred or feathered be easily removable when laundering the costume, or placing anything fragile in an area that it won’t get smashed easily (like on the bra).
B) Stylistic Compatibility- You want all the design elements to look like they belong together. The most obvious thing is that the colors should match or harmonize well, which can be more difficult than you’d think. There are a heartbreaking range of near-miss shades, so be sure to always bring samples with you when you shop for components of your outfit. Also, consider how the pieces appear when put next to one another; you want a look that is recognizable as a style and not a junk drawer. In other words, big rhinestones and cowry shells together are probably not going to work.
C) Quantity- You need to have enough materials to complete the outfit and estimating how many beads, etc., can be difficult to do. If it’s a stock item, you’re covered; just buy more. But specialty items and ‘real finds’ at thrift stores can break your heart if there’s not enough, so be careful and design accordingly.
D) Cost- This goes with quantity; one of the decorative pieces you want is probably affordable, but in the quantity that you’ll need for your outfit, will you break your budget? Applique costs are good examples of this; say four pretty flowers for over the cups, two for the back straps, five on the front of the belt, six on the back and you’re up to seventeen pieces at around $5 a piece for the average sized ones- yikes! The cost of outlining the edges of the costume in an expensive trim can surprise you too, so be careful about tracking how the costs are adding up.
Threads: You need to choose thread and other fasteners that are robust and can withstand the stresses that will be put on them. Sewing the basics together doesn’t take anything special, but sewing on heavy decorations or those that will tend to get caught on things requires a tougher thread. Nothing’s perfect but I like quilting threads. A little fray-check or just sewing glue can help secure selvages and knots.
Fasteners: Bras and belts are usually secured with trouser hooks and eyes, though big coat hooks and eyes can work too. Velcro can help hold belt ends in place but isn’t really safe enough to rely on alone. I do not recommend snaps, no matter how big they are! Always put at least two fasteners on whatever you’re closing. For bras, this means one or two where you’d expect (the top end of the back strap) but ALSO one on the inside other end of the strap. Better to have too many than too few!
Well, that’s a summary of the basic materials. You may need more, depending on your design. Happy Shopping!