Ask the Costume Goddess
Ask the Costume Goddess:
What to Wear for Debke
by Dina Lydia
Dear Costume Goddess:
I need help getting traditional debke costumes for 5 girls!
I live in southern California and I have no idea where to get
these! We are performing in front of 1,500-2,000 people in mid-July
of this year and we don't have a costume! Please, if you know
any way we can have good costumes made for a reasonable price,
email me with info. I'm running out of time and I have to come
up with something! I don't know exactly what we want — we need
ideas. The only thing we agree on is we want to wear the harem-like
pants, not long skirts. Hope to hear from you soon!!
The Costume Goddess Responds
Do not panic! First, a few questions.
Do any of you five have any sewing skills? If not, surely
you can find someone who does. If you can't afford to pay her
much, maybe she'd be willing to do some sort of trade. Advertise
in a local newsletter or bulletin board where you take lessons,
find out if anyone is willing to sell or trade or loan their
costume pieces. I do urge anyone who dances ethnic to get a sewing
machine and learn how to use it — take some pride in using your
imagination and ingenuity to create your troupe's image. Many
of the patterns employ only straight seams and you need not be
a couturier to complete a costume ensemble.
Scarves, sashes, simple blouses, full skirts, and jewelry
can be picked up in thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales
for next to nothing and one should always be on the lookout for
Does a troupe need to be dressed in identical costumes? Not
necessarily. That projects a professional image, but can also
look a little too Hollywood for some tastes. Some troupes prefer
very similar costumes in different colors, allowing more individuality
and visual excitement. Some wear costumes of similar type but
variation in color, pattern, and details, giving more the impression
of village folk getting together informally to dance. This would
work fine for debke, and make it easier to assemble five costumes.
Do make sure they all are of similarly plain or flashy fabric,
so that none stand out like a satin thumb.
I consulted with Mish Mish, a well-known teacher and performer
in Seattle who is an expert in ethnic dance. Mish Mish is director,
choreographer and costumer for Karavans, the only dance troupe
in the Pacific Northwest that specializes in folk and tribal
dances of the Middle East and North Africa.
For those who don't know, the debke, Mish Mish informed me,
is a popular traditional line dance done in Palestine, Syria,
Jordan and Lebanon; it is believed to have been introduced by
the Turks during the Ottoman Empire when they ruled much of the
Middle East to Eastern Europe. The costume is heavily influenced
by Turkish fashion of the 19th century.
The style of costume varies from village to village, country
to country, but reflects the native dress of the inhabitants.
The full Turkish pants you want to wear are called shalwar.
The simpler version of these are easy to make and most pattern
companies have them. The image to the right shows the cover of the pattern for making them sold by Atira's Fashions. You could even use a pair of unstructured
pants three sizes too large and pull in the top and ankles with
I've illustrated two styles of overdress in the diagram to the right. Click on the image to see it in more detail.
The style on the left might be easier to put together in a
hurry, and consists of a simple long sleeved peasant blouse,
full skirt, and sashes, hip scarves, and a babushka-style head
scarf tied behind head or under chin. All of these are not difficult
to make or find. An embroidered-trim vest or jacket would be
optional. Again, basic sewing skills would be adequate.
The pillbox hat could be decorated with coins and trim , and
be worn with or without a veil. The forms for these are available
in some costume shops.
The tunic on the
right above is similar to the Gaza dress and the Syrian dress in the Folkwear line of patterns (see right).
The patterns sold by Atira's Fashions also include a couple of similar ones called Farida's Folk
Chemise and Cemiyeh's Caftan. Instead of the authentic heavy
gold embroidery (passementerie), bold embroidered ribbons and
trim could be used to create a similar effect.
Flat shoes or boots emphasize stamping steps.
If you need more inspiration, Mish Mish suggests you check
out old National Geographics, travel brochures, books and encyclopedias
picturing native costumes of Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan or Syria.
DQ, we've all been there — finishing the last details late
into the night before the performance, weary little fingers bleeding.
Still, I'll state the obvious — if you want to look good, you
will spend some money and you will spend some time,
so don't stress yourself out by waiting too long!! I hope I've
--The Costume Goddess
Additional Comments from Shira
In the photo to the left, Shira is wearing a Palestinian style of dress. In the photo to the right, she is wearing one made in Syria. These are both examples of traditional dresses in the region from which debke comes.
Although a tight costume budget would not allow for all the elaborate cross-stitch hand embroidery to be done for a troupe ensemble, the look can be approximated with purchased trims, fabric appliqués, or machine embroidery.
Although Shira's dresses shown above were both made in Syria and purchased in the U.S. from an importer, patterns exist to make dresses in these styles, complete with detailed embroidery instructions and patterns. The patterns are available from the Folkwear pattern company.
Because Debke Queen wants to use pants as part of the ensemble, this dress could be cut to fall at mid-knee length or just below, and pants could be worn underneath it.
If a Lebanese or Palestinian look such as the dress above with the amber color of embroidery is preferred rather than a Syrian look, the Gaza Dress pattern from Folkwear (shown on the left) would be more suitable.
Articles on this web site related to traditional garb that you may find helpful include:
Other articles on this web
site that may be helpful in costume planning for debke performances include:
About the Costume Goddess
Dina has been sewing for more than twenty-five
years (yes, she started as a toddler!)
She's also an artist (Maryland Institute of Art) and perfected
her sewing techniques apprenticed to various designers, freelancing
for small theaters, restyling vintage garments, and altering
Dina fell in love with belly dancing costumes upon her very
first lesson. Now the pleasure of wearing her own designs, and
seeing others wear them, offers as much pleasure as dancing. She's
become expert as well in altering those troublesome ready-made
Egyptian costumes, and modifying designs to flatter individual
She holds workshops in Seattle to teach design and construction
of cabaret costumes, and analysis of figure characteristics.
She will also give private lessons, or resize or repair a secondhand
costume. She's thus earned her Costume Goddess title.
The Costume Goddess Tells All Costuming Books
Dina has published six books of her own on belly dance costuming
as well as writing nearly all the costuming section for The
Belly Dance Book. For information on her series of books, The Costume Goddess Tells All, see her web site at www.costumegoddess.com.
For reviews here on Shira.net of some of her books, see:
Costume Goddess Photos
To view a photo gallery featuring pictures of Dina, costumes
she has designed, and her friends, either click on the choices below or visit her web site:
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