Fustan raqs in red, part one, or how to cover a bra…

My job sometimes finds me with several things up in the air, when I’m waiting for third parties to contact me for whatever reason, and because of that, starting anything new in terms of work would not be a good idea. These are the times when I try to sneak in some sewing.

Today was such a day, and therefore I decided to start my costume for the Littlehampton Carnival, a fustan raqs (evening gown) in red patterned vinyl with black and silver decoration, and black, red, clear and silver beaded tassels. And if it sounds like a handful, it’s because it IS.

I did all the beaded threads ages ago; those will in time become the tassels once they’re grouped. I will no doubt need to  redo a few or add some when adding them, so I will talk about them when I get there. Right now, the first part of my job was to prepare the bra.

Anybody that has seen Egyptian costumes will notice that the bras are pretty much armour-plated. They’re so rigid you can actually knock on them! Me, I am not much of a fan of the look, and since I can’t really find that sort of moulded cup over here without resorting to some creative work with papier mache and balloons, I’ve gone instead for a foam-cup bra that fits me well. Some people advice going for a size bigger; this is because they might add padding on the inside. I am not planning on adding any padding to this one, and all the strength layers will go on the outside, so I’m keeping it simple and for my own size. Still, the cups will get quite a bit of work, and quite some heavy beading/embroidery, so they need reinforcement, and the whole cup needs stabilising. This is why it is a good idea to do this reinforcement with several different materials.

Firstly, assemble your materials. You will need:

  • a bra that fits you well; it’s ok if it’s a touch loose on the cups, but don’t make it too much; it’s also recommended that it has foam shaped cups, and underwires, as they help tremendously with the shape and overall structure of the gown
  • a GOOD thimble with a metal top, or at least a tailor’s thimble; you might want both if you can; DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS, you will thank me; your nails and your fingers will thank me too!
  • good scissors
  • Swedish Pattern Paper or similar, you can also use muslin, or thin fabric, but the paper lets you draw on it far easier.
  • lots of pins
  • gross grain ribbon in two thickness: some about 1″ wide, and some about the witdth of your straps.
  • sharp needle and thread.
  • calico fabric, coutil, denim, canvas… basically a strong, quite rigid fabric that will help your bra keep the shape once you cover it
  • your fashion fabric and an idea of what you want to do with it
Edges with gross grain ribbon

Edges with gross grain ribbon

Most if not all of the work you’ll be doing will be done by hand, so the thimbles are a necessity unless you want to end with very sore fingers. Grab some background noise (I find some pretty series that I don’t mind half-watching), arm yourself with patience, and get going!

Start by removing the straps from the bra, and sewing the attachment points in, to get a smooth finish on each end. Elastic straps on costumes are not a good idea because eventually they DO stretch, and will ruin the effect. You want something that is engineered to sustain a lot of abuse and movement, so you’re better off replacing them. We won’t get back to the straps for a while, but you can throw away the ones you’ve removed, unless you want to keep the hardware for whatever reason.

You first need to stabilise the cups edges by sewing the 1″ gross grain ribbon along the top edges. You should make sure that both edges of the tape are sewn into place, and this is done along the cleavage and the armpit sides. This will prevent wardrobe malfunctions, keeping your bust in check and gaping *just* enough to be enticing, without the risk of it all stretching in the near future and making all your hard work unusable unless you get a pair of implants.

Bra pattern making

Once the first stabilising layer -the gross grain ribbon- is done, you need to create a pattern for the cup with the Swedish paper or muslin. The shape of your pieces will depend a lot on how you’re planning on making it, and the overall shape and size of your breasts. I’ve done a single piece with a dart at the bottom before, but I’ve found that it tends to produce a bit of a conical effect, which, while desireable in some cases, is not what I was after this time.

Bra pattern making close-up

Bra pattern making close-up

I started by cutting a thick long strip of paper that I carefully pinned flat along the top edge. It is highly recommended that you do this pinning in the manner I’ve done it in the photo, using the pins vertically and not horizontally. I then drew the line along which I wanted the bottom two pieces to be. I cut two more big shapeless pieces of paper and proceeded to pin them in place, only caring that they were flushed against the cup, and once both were in place, drawing the edges on each where necessary. This will take time and requires patience, and will probably need adjusting a couple of times, but if you’re using the same model of bra for several projects, only needs to be done ONCE, and it’s worth doing right.

You can see a closeup of it all to the right, and the pieces I obtained below. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this, and the shape of your pieces, and even the quantities, will depend a lot on the shape of the bra, the size of your bust, and the type of stabilising fabric you’re working with.

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

If you want your fashion fabric to follow the same shape as the base, then you’re done. But as should be patently clear by now, I am a sucker for punishment, so I decided I wanted my bra to have a pretty gathered effect at the centre. This meant that I had to do the pattern process again, except with a single piece of paper this time, making small pleats along the inner edges of the wires. Delightful work, I tell you *sigh*. I then marked the edges as before, removed the pins, cut off the piece along the lines I’d marked, and I had a pattern piece ready.

The rest is pretty much as expected. I cut 2 mirrored pieces of each of my new patterns, remembering to add seam allowance; two cups in the calico, which I serged along the edges by hand then pinned together and machined-sewed. If you’re cutting the same pieces I am, it’s far easier to first sew the two bottom pieces together, then add the long rectangular one. Once you’ve got the two cups, you need to sew them to your bra, making sure while you sew that you are going through all the layers of the bra: foam and gross grain ribbon, or else elastic and wire casing. Be careful when sewing around the wires as it is easy to misjudge and try to put the needed through a wire. Also make sure that you have the thimble in your “pushing” finger, and you use it when pushing the needle through so many layers.

Bra covered

Bra covered

Once I’d done the stiffening layer, I cut two mirrored versions of the gathered pattern piece from the fashion fabric, and attached them to the cups. This time, I made sure that the excess fabric was turned towards the inner side of the bra, to cover the edges of it too.

I decided to make this a halter-neck, to leave my back free. So I cut two strips of the thinner gross-grain ribbon and wrapped them with the fashion fabric, then put through the sewing machine with straight stich along the seam, and along the other side of the strap to stabilise the cover and prevent it from twisting or bunching. After this, I attached each strap to the top of the cups, and ideally I will be adding a hook and slide to them once I get closer to the final stage.

This will have the decoration added once the rest of the dress is assembled and both parts are together. But the process I described above is perfectly suitable to use for creating a bra for a bedlah or for a different kind of costume. I’ve done this process before for the bra for my tribal/gypsy/ghawazee costume, so I will be adding notes on what else needs to be done when discussing them.

Tomorrow, I cut the dress and hopefully will assemble it!

Egyptian shift, free basic pattern

This is the basic pattern for the Egyptian shift dress. I haven’t included the proper printable version because it really needs to be adjusted to size, but it can easily be done.

To start, you will need measurements for bust, underbust, waist, hip, nipple to underbust vertically (depth), centre of bust to side, back (side to side at underbust level), bust front (side to side through the fullest part of your bust), length from where you want your back to be, to the hem, and length from right under the bra to the hem. The straps you will pretty much adlib too, but those depend a lot on what sort of underwear you will be wearing, and how thick you want the straps to be.

Start by listing all your measurements, add 2-4 inches to each full circumference as ease (depends on how loose you want your garment to be). As a rule of thumb, make sure that each circumference on the final garment is no more than 15% bigger than the actual measurements, and you should be fine, and be able to put on the garment without problem.

For altering the piece A you will need the bust-related measurements. Use the bust depth to measure the length of the dart, then take the front bust, add half the ease and divide in two to get the width of the bust piece; substract the front underbust  (underbust – back + half the ease) to figure out how wide the dart needs to be. This piece will, once folded and sewn, curve in space to give coverage to the bust; the curved outer is necessary for this effect to happen too, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind when drafting it.

Different figures would benefit from different cuts, and truly, doing an A-line from the underbust down seemed to give the best effect overall for most everybody (except the unfortunate busty apple, whose dress I had to adjust 3 times).  But regardless, don’t be scared to make it, because the shift is so loose that it is highly difficult to make something that won’t fit right -or can’t be adjusted properly- as long as the overall general measurements and ease are there. The assembly instructions are in the PDF, that you can download here:

Egyptian basic shift pattern and instructions

Rustington Carnival, Egyptian outfits

Around new year, our group was invited to take part in Rustington’s Carnival, which would happen during the really long Jubilee weekend. We were also told that the theme for this year would be (unsurprisingly) “Royalty”. We also found out, pretty much at the same time, that Super-Neil, the trusted props person (and usual driver, sound engineer, and a long list of etceteras) had already started work on a Cobra for the trailer. What could we possibly do that would match both the cobra and the Royalty theme, and could match the belly dancing ? The cobras are supposed to be the Royal Snakes, but the whole relationship would be rather tenuous and more than likely missed by the judges. So we decided on an Egyptian-revival theme, thinking that the whole costume would also come handy if we ever made a Pharaonic piece.

Egyptian Historical Clothing

So off we went, trying to find suitable fabric. I had originally lobbied to use a very basic “wrap” over a skirt to obtain the type of dress you see mostly on things like mural paintings.  Yes, I was actually being stubborn and trying to go for accurate historical clothing. Which you can all guess how it was received (the words “lead” and “balloon” come to mind). Mainly, we all love the highly stylised versions we see on the statuettes and paintings,  lovingly hugging every curve, which has been repeated and reinforced by nearly every Egyptian-themed movie since. In reality, this was rarely, if ever the case, mainly because pattern-cutting skills back then were not exactly developed. On the upside, while looking around the net, I found a pdf version of a long out of print book exclusively on Egyptian Clothing. This made things easier, in a way, and more difficult in another as, the longer I kept looking, the more I realised these would definitely *not* fly with the rest of the group, and would basically made us all look like we’d taken a sheet and wrapped it around us.

So, back to the drawing board, I did the unthinkable and looked to the costume places. Still nothing really suitable, as most of it was either way too expensive for what they were provided, was made of horrid polyester or synthetic crushed velvet, didn’t have a range of sizes suitable to cover all of us, or was so short that would classify much better as lingerie suitable for bedroom play.

One thing did strike me clearly, though, and it was that for the most part, the Egyptian “vibe” was more about the accessories than the actual shape of the dress, and as long as these were kept, worn with a column or shift dress without unnecessary drapes,  it would be easier to come up with something that would work for everybody. With that in mind, I turned to my patterns and wardrobe, found a simple shift that would give the right feel, and lifted and modified the pattern to purpose.

The result was a simple shift with an Empire waist and straight sides, that we all wore with Egyptian necklaces; some of us even had proper beaded ones, although sadly none of us had remembered to add a menat (or counterweight) to keep them in place. We used our standard coin belts on top instead of the Egyptian sashes, just to add some colour, and instead of the typical wigs, we chose a rather good costume headdress with beaded falls nearly all around the head, and a rather funny posable snake at the front, that sadly had the tendency to look either like male genitalia, or a stoned stuffed animal. And in some rather disturbing cases, both at the same time.

And after a couple of false starts with potential but ultimately discarded fabrics, we settled on white cotton cheesecloth from Whaleys Bradford Ltd, and split the job between two of us (three if you count the help I got during a day). I made a proper pattern out of Swedish Pattern Paper, made a copy to give to my partner in crime, and wrote instructions, then we set out to make them all.

The final results were, against my fears, rather good. So much so, in fact, that we won the competition for Best Adult Walking Group, even if the local paper conveniently forgot to mention us on the following week, while mentioning everybody else. Could it be because we weren’t flaunting cleavage this time? Guess we’ll never know! Anyway, click below to see a big version of the photo of our group, with the Cobra, and the Trophy at its feet.

And the morals of the story? Several:

  • Judges like uniformity; our costumes are lovely, and professional, but so far we seem to win when there’s extra unity of design in them
  • Rustington can be bloody cold in early June, and cheesecloth is NOT good for cold weather
  • Costume unity can be achieved, even if it can be a pain to obtain sometimes
  • Creating patterns for an Apple shape is a completely different game than doing them for a Pear

But we’ve got the trophy and the certificate and the (small) cheque, and the full costumes. Now all we need is that Pharaonic coreography!

Egyptian Dresses, Rustington Carnival

Egyptian Dresses, Rustington Carnival

Dancing Barefoot (final, for now)

Capezio Footundeez Full Body

Capezio Footundeez Full Body

I did say in a previous post that I was expecting a pair of these, and that I would review them as soon as I’d had a chance to use them. Well, the chance came last week, and I have to say that these appear to have nearly all the advantages of their older brothers the Footundeez, without any of the problems. I’ve worn these at home, and again during practice. I never needed to adjust them at all, they stayed well in place, without the twists I’d experienced with the standard FU.

There are two problems I can identify, and that prevent me from switching to these as my permanent dancing shoes:

  • dirt: the floor where we practice can have some extra dirt piled on it, depending on the day; after a single use they were FILTHY, and requiring a thorough wash by hand using stain remover and a brush, and my toes were in a similar state.
  • sizing: unlike the standard FootUndeez, which come up to XL for sizes 8-9, these only come up to a Large, suitable -in theory- for sizes 7-8; sadly, this size is NOT good if you’ve got wide feet, and they will feel quite tight, at least until they get some wear and stretch a bit, or at least that’s what I hope.

Therefore, my current plan is to keep these at hand, use them at home for a few hours at a time to try to stretch them, and keep them as a viable option for short performances where I know the floors are going to be clean or where standard slippers might not work right (i.e. grass). Alternatively, I might have to check whether they’ll be suitable to put on a shoe stretcher to do the job.

The “barefoot” feel is really good, while having everything covered, so if you just cannot dance with shoes but for some reason need your feet covered, these are the best option I’ve used so far. They are also brilliant if want your feet covered but have any condition that require your toes to be free (i.e. ingrown toenails or hangnails) or simply prefer to “grip” the floor. Or if you want to work on your toe posture and prefer looking at your feet directly instead of having the points masked by slippers.

Overall, I would recommend getting these provided your feet are not terribly wide or they fit well within the brand’s sizing; they are comfortable and useful for certain circumstances, and I would think almost everybody could do with having a pair in reserve.

Tribal Costume

Tribal Costume 1
After much work, I finally got my tribal costume ready for the bellydancers’ party at the Silk Road Restaurant last Friday.

The full costume consists of bodystocking, bra, belt, hip scarf, top and pants, with a ponyfall and necklace as accessories. I was rather pleased with the overall look, although I like wearing costumes for parties first before performance, as they give me a chance to test what works and what doesn’t before having to find out the hard way during a performance. In this case, the breakdown is mixed:

  • the whole set is way too much for prolonged use in hot weather; I ended doing a sort of delayed strip-tease where I first removed the top, then the belt, and by the end of the night I was quite close to getting rid of the hip scarf and the ponyfall too!
  • the ponyfall looks amazing, and will look fantastic when performing solo or parading, but is totally NOT suitable for a crowded environment like the restaurant’s: I kept getting it snagged on other people’s costumes on the dance floor; the weight was bearable but I had to try to keep it away from my skin, as it made me feel even hotter.
  • the top worked great and gave me good movement; I’d already used it for the performance at Ifield so this wasn’t a surprise; however, again, it was too hot to wear for any length of time in a crowded place.
  • the bra I’d already used before for a parade; I made it, it’s comfortable and very supportive, and displays my bust really well, no complaints about that, although I would like to make a similar one in a cotton sari fabric or something a bit less heavy than the velvet.
  • the hip scarf was a new piece from Brighton Orient; it looks great but the length is a problem, and I found myself stepping on the bottom edge quite often; I will have to take it up before I can use it again or risk slipping
  • the belt looked great, but the chains didn’t quite move as I expected, were also catching on a few things, and one of them broke during the evening; the belt also became undone at the laces quite often until at some point it just fell off. I suspect the heavy weight at the front has a lot to answer for, and so do the synthetic laces that couldn’t seem to “lock” in the knots, so before next time, I’m adding cable tie boning to keep the shape, adding the lining and changing the laces, although I don’t discard chopping off a bit  of the front panel to get a tighter fit.
  • the bodystocking, from Belly Stockings, worked really, REALLY well, and was one part that got universally praised even by people who normally don’t like tribal outfits. It was really comfortable to dance into, and kept me covered without being too much.
  • the pants were great; they’re cheap and cheerful Chinese imports, got off Ebay for around what I’d pay for a pair of leggings in a High Street shop; I had to alter the waistband a touch but they are incredibly comfortable and light, and I love the effect on the bottom legs. For those of us that can’t afford or can’t fit into Melodias, they’re a good, reasonably priced option that allows us to check out the style before forking out considerably higher amounts. I’ve since bought a second pair in purple -they’re slightly smaller, though- and will more than likely buy a third pair in black.

The big elephant in the room -if you’ll excuse the pun- was my tummy. My first parade last year was, in theory, also showing tummy, except that back then I was wearing a thicker bodystocking, and a long sleeved fishnet shirt that I needed to cover up some unfortunate archery accident: bruises aren’t sexy, or pleasant, and my arms looked like I’d been doing heroine under a bridge with a troll-sized needle, so the fishnet was thick enough to cover it. The end result, back then, was that my tummy was under two layers of sheer stretchy fabric that ended being nearly as opaque as any normal clothing. So this was my first time showing it off proper… and I have to confess I was VERY nervous about it. But nobody seemed to care, I got plenty of great comments on the costume too, so that made up for it quite a bit.

Coming up: making of the belt (yes, this time I got pictures as I went along!), bra (update: DONE!) and more eyecandy from the Rustington Jubilee Carnival.

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