Photo of Shira



PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Costume Design:
For Student Dancers

by Shira



Table of Contents




It's always appropriate to wear exercise clothing for belly dance classes and practicing at home.

However, some students like to dress up in practice outfits. It's fun, and it can help put aside the hassles of the day. Some find a practice outfit makes them feel a bit more like a "dancer".

A practice outfit can also be used for performing in student recitals, or for showing friends and family what you learned in class.

Some belly dance teachers have "rules" regarding what to wear to class. Before investing time and money into a practice outfit, check with your teacher to find out whether there are any guidelines you need to know about. For example, some teachers forbid hip scarves or belts with coins because of the distracting jingly noise.

Shira in Class Attire

This article introduces some basic elements used in belly dance costuming. You can make your own items, or purchase them from various vendors. If you are inclined to make your own costumes, see Belly Dance Costume Patterns elsewhere on this web site for information about pattern companies who offer designs suitable for belly dancing costumes.

Beginning students aren't ready to commit a large amount of money to an expensive professional costume. Nor, should they be. This basic beginner's costume is suitable for wearing to class, "getting in the mood" to practice at home, or performing in student recitals, community events, and other amateur performances, without requiring huge amounts of fabric, time, or cash.



When to Use This Design

This design is recommended when:

  • A student wants to dress up a bit for class or student recitals.
  • The dancer is on a tight budget and doesn't want to spend too much money on fabric to make a costume.
  • A troupe needs costumes that are inexpensive and easy for its members to make.
  • The dancer is a child and needs a costume that won't look too mature for her age.
  • The dancer wants to create a design that evokes the styles worn by "harem girls" of the 1940's and 1950's.



Design Description

The basic elements shown here consist of:

A — Midriff-Baring Blouse
B — Hip Wrap
C — Pants

Click on either image below to see it in more detail.

Sparkly Outfit

Some students feel attracted to the glamorous, sparkly aesthetic of beads and sequins, while others feel more drawn to an earthier look of natural fibers and materials.

The realm of belly dance costuming offers attractive options for both types of preference.

Tribal Outfit
Sparkly Aesthetic
Earthy Aesthetic

The "Sparkly Aesthetic" is best suited to dancers who love glitter and glamor. The "Earthy Aesthetic" is best suited to dancers who are not interested in wearing beads and sequins, such as those who embrace the American Tribal Style of belly dance.


"A" - Midriff-Baring Blouse

Some kind of midriff-baring blouse made out of fabric that matches your pantaloons can make a pretty, low-cost top. One example is shown in the drawings above, but there are many other possibilities. Some dancers like to wear a choli, which is the midriff blouse that women in India wear under their saris. These can be found at shops that sell saris and other attire from India.

Some tips for choosing a design that suits you:

  • Dancers who need bosom support should select a design like the one in the illustration that covers the bustline and upper bac. This allows support lingerie to be worn under it.
  • If you are short-waisted, don't put fringe around the bottom edge of the blouse. Stick with neckline and sleeve decoration instead.
  • If you are concerned about jiggly upper arms, make your sleeves 3/4 length instead of short.

If you make your blouse from a shiny fabric such as charmeuse, it's a good idea to line it with cotton in a color that matches the main fabric. Cotton next to your skin allows it to breathe, and helps prevent perspiration from soiling the main fabric of the blouse. If you use fabric or trims for your blouse that can't be laundered at home, then put dress shields in the armpits of the blouse to protect it from perspiration.

Make your blouse long enough to allow you to raise your arms above your head without having the bottom edge of the blouse expose the lower edge of your breasts.

Saadia's Vest Pattern Cover

The blouse shown in the "Sparkly Aesthetic" drawing above can be made using the Saadia's Vest pattern from Atira's Fashions.

The choli shown in the "Earthy Aesthetic" shown above can be made using the Tribal Style Belly Dancer pattern from Folkwear.

Folkwear Tribal Belly Dance Pattern Cover

You might also look in mainstream pattern catalogs at your local sewing store for blouse patterns that might be suitable to wear as midriff blouses. Look for peasant blouses, halter tops, and blouses that button down the front and tie under the bust. Either short-sleeved or sleeveless tops are recommended, because long-sleeved blouses are much too hot to dance comfortably. Beware of the section of the pattern catalog for Halloween costumes--the patterns in that category are usually "one size fits all", and therefore fit no one. They also usually designed for standing around eating and drinking at a Halloween party, and aren't so well suited for the movement of dancing.


"B" - Hip Wrap

Sparkly Aesthetic

For the look shown in the "Sparkly Aesthetic" above, try making a hip belt from stretch sequin trim. It actually consists of two parts: a 4-inch (10 centimeters) wide band of stretch sequin trim, and a row of either 9-inch (23 centimaters) long chainette or sequin chainette fringe such as that shown on the right attached to an elastic band worn underneath it. If you use chainette fringe, you can tie some false coins periodically around the fringe to add some sparkle and make a jingling sound when you shimmy.

For a little added interest, sew a sequin appliqué in a contrasting color to the center front of the belt.

Sequin Chainette Fringe

Earthy Aesthetic

For the look shown in the "Earthy Aesthetic" diagram above, you can wear a simple shawl with fringe on the edges or inexpensive hip scarf.


"C" - Pants

Made out of opaque fabric, pantaloons can stand by themselves as a costume component, as shown above. Their top edge should fall well below the navel, just above the fullness of your hip line. In the back the top edge of the pantaloons should come about 1/2 inch (1 centimeter) or 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) above the cleavage between your buttocks, and in the front it should be about the height of your pelvic bone.

Hathiya's Harem Pants Pattern Cover from Aitra's Fashions

For dancers who like to work with commercial patterns, the Hathaya's Harem Pants pattern from Atira's Fashions offers "Sparkly Aesthetic" inspiration. The Sarouelles pattern from Folkwear is well suited to the "Earthy Aesthetic" for dancers who would enjoy a more ethnic look.

Folkwear Pattern Cover for Sarouelles

The style of full legs gathered to the ankle seen in the "Sparkly Aesthetic" diagram is a retro look that invokes old Hollywood harem fantasies and belly dancers of the 1950's and 1960's.

Although practical and affordable for student attire, this style of pants is usually worn under skirts today, rather than being worn on their own.

Vary your pantaloons design by putting slits in the outside of the legs (where the side seam would go), and outline those slits with sequins, paillettes, or glittery trim sold by the yard. Or, put the slit in the center front of the pant legs, so that it runs from the middle of your thigh to the middle of your shin. Or, instead of using elastic at the bottom edge of the pant leg, gather it to a cuff on the with a self-fabric tie that ties around your ankle.


Dancers who want a more updated "Earthy Aesthetic" might consider wearing yoga pants. For class, a simple pair of inexpensive yoga pants from your favorite discount store should be fine.

For a performance, consider making a pair out of an interesting fabric such as burnout velvet or a textile from India. Mainstream pattern catalogs should offer plenty of options for yoga pants patterns.

For another variation, try flared pants. Slit the side seams from the ankle up to the knee, and attach dangly decorations such as fabric fringe, strips of leather, or sisal cord decorated with shells or feathers at the top of the slit.

There are several patterns for pants here on this web site:



Fabric Suggestions

Sparkly Outfit

The fabric used for your outfit plays a major role in defining what the finished garment will look like.

Use the suggestions below to choose fabrics that will promote the overall aesthetic you are trying to achieve.

Tribal Outfit

Sparkly Aesthetic

Earthy Aesthetic


  • Charmeuse
  • Crepe-backed satin
  • Sequin-covered fabric
  • Foils
  • China silk
  • Burn-out velvet
  • Double georgette
  • Silkessence

These fabrics drape beautifully and work very well for both pants and tops.



  • Stretchy cotton knit
  • Cotton broadcloth
  • Ethnic textiles such as those sold in sari shops
  • Burn-out velvet

These fabrics drape attractively and work very well for both pants and tops. See also Arabella's article, "In Search of Authentic Middle Eastern Fabrics."



  • Glitter organza
  • Tissue lamé
  • Bridal satin
  • Baroque satin
  • Brocade

These fabrics may shine beautifully, but they are so stiff that pants made from them balloon out to the sides like a clown suit.



  • Poplin
  • Upholstery fabric
  • Brocade

These fabrics may catch your eye, but they are very stiff and pants made from them will not drape attractively. In addition, they are very hot.

Consider Care

If you plan to wear the outfit frequently, for example for attending weekly classes, choose a washable fabric and trims that you can launder at home.



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