How to Choose Flattering Costumes

Shems shares her journey in finding costumes that fit and flatter.

Editor’s note: I recently asked on a Facebook group for some tips on choosing costumes that are flattering. There was lots of good advice all around, but Shems was super generous, offering up advice and using her own costume collection to illustrate her points. I asked her if I could publish her tips as an article… so here it is!

Every body is unique, so I’ll share some of the things that I find work specifically for me, acknowledging this might not be the same for everyone.

Skirt length

I find it particularly flattering when the dancer’s skirt is just long enough to skim the floor when the dancer is barefoot. There are a few modern styles, like some of the looks the Egyptian star dancer Dina rocks, that have more of an ankle length skirt and that works too. But even then, if it is too short, it seems a little awkward.

This is me from a while back in a gorgeous skirt that I was in love with because I bought it from the first professional Egyptian dancer I took a workshop with. I hadn’t yet admitted to myself that it was just too short for me. When I look back at the video of this show now, I just can’t help but feel the skirt length was really gawky on me.

This photo also shows another unflattering costume faux pas I’ve seen other dancers fall prey to, which is the top of my unders are sticking out above the belt. I think it is equally problematic when the top of the skirt is popping up above the belt. It looks so much nicer when the belt gets to make the clean line against the skin.

You can compare my too-short skirt with one of Dina’s ankle length skirts, as shown in this screen shot. Hers is still is long enough to look elegant. The mermaidesque A-line cut of Dina’s skirt also help to make this length work too.

I don’t think this length works as well with a full circle skirt, or a straight skirt like the one I’m wearing above. 

Here I am in a skirt I made that is long enough to skim the ground. Just so much more elegant!

I got into the habit of lengthening skirts from the top that were almost long enough, then hiding that addition under a belt. 

Break up straight lines

The next thing I’ve found works better for flattering my body is breaking up straight lines, and not hiding my torso behind a big wall of fringe. A lot of gorgeously beaded classic costumes come with these flat walls of fringe or sometimes a belt with a straight top edge and I just don’t think most folks look their best in those shapes.

For fringe I’d break it into smaller chunks or tassels, zig-zag the fringe, break it up into chunks by color, loop it, or create a dramatic focal point. 

One example of a dramatic fringe focal point is to put a longer fringe drape on the bra, often placed in the center. I like to make sure the proportion makes sense for my body, not too wide, not too narrow — it’s a judgement call. If it is shorter than my belt line, I like to make it a V at the end. Otherwise, I prefer to lengthen it dramatically which I think can help the torso to feel longer in an elegant way.

Avoiding straight lines on belts means either curving the front down just a bit (like a small smile under my belly) to make for a more elegant line against the body, or having a shaped or scalloped edge.

I found this example of the wall of fringe, straight belt look on Ebay on what looks to be like a really beautifully beaded costume in a very pretty emerald green color. I think just a slightly different shaped belt and a different approach with the fringe and it could be quite flattering. As is though, it is unlikely to look great on most bodies. I’m not sure about the ruffle, although, I think it could work on the right person. 

Here are some examples of more flattering shapes.

This super long center fringe swag on Egyptian star Mona Said really seems to lengthen her torso in a very flattering way. Notice the curve of her belt too. It is a smile under her belly. 🙂

Mona also wears her belt quite low, and keeps her bra in a fairly lifted position. All of these choices here combined really allow her relatively short torso to look very long which really highlights her amazing movement quality.

This generous front swag of fringe on golden era Egyptian dance star Naima Akef’s costume works well because the shape of the loop against the body is so much softer than a straight wall of fringe.

The Egyptian costume in this photo of me has a bit of a straight wall of fringe happening on the belt, but it is broken up into nice small alternating chunks of different colors, and has larger pearls at the bottom of the fringe, both of which I think keep it from feeling harsh.

The belt line here both smiles a bit and is scalloped, which I think works quite  nicely for my belly.

I quite liked this Egyptian costume on me, but the big square fringe swag on this didn’t have as much flattering elegance as other configurations on my body. It was quite blunt and heavy in appearance.

For example, compare the above big chunk of fringe look to the fringe on this Turkish Bella design. The Bella fringe is zig-zagging, it isn’t clumped heavily, and there are no straight horizontal lines. It makes such a difference.

The center swag ending in a V shape above the belly button is nicely flattering when the center fringe swag ends above the belt line.

Here is an example of a costume I made that I think was almost there. What is working are some beautiful shaped edges on the bra and the belt line, a long dramatic center swag of fringe on the bra and a swooping fringe placement on the belt.

What didn’t work was the diagonal fringe I put around the bottom edge of the bra that went around to the back. I liked it in theory, but it actually ended up visually shortening my torso, which for me wasn’t a bonus. It wasn’t terrible, it may have worked well for a dancer with a longer torso. I also think I could have shortened the straps to lift the bustline up slightly. It seems just a little too low here. Although, it may appear to be low because of the visual torso shortening effect of that around the body fringe.

One of the fringe looks I like most is when the fringe is chunked out into smaller tassels. It gives all the lovely shaky shaky with out feeling blunt or heavy like some fringe placements can be.

This is by Turkish designer Sim Moda Evi, and though I don’t own it anymore, it is still one of my all time favorite costumes on me.

Of course with many modern costumes there is minimal to no fringe. I find what works well for me is creating interest in the edges by breaking up straight lines and looking for dramatic focal points.

In this costume I had custom made, I didn’t go for the smile or scallop on the belt line, but instead had it visually dip down on one side, escaping a hard straight line and complementing the side slit.

I also went for carefully placed, high contrast patterns with shapes designed to compliment my body shape, highlighted with crystals.

This modern costume by Russian designer Angelica Asher, has a little bit of fringe on the belt, but the drama of the asymmetrical shaped edges I think really helps make the belt and bra be more flattering without heavy fringe involvement.

I’ve found that no-fringe bras often work really well for short torso dancers in particular.

Accessories

Accessories can visually balance what you think suits you, or it can just be used to complete the look.

I find that I’ve always been more happy with my costuming when I have a plan that includes my hair, neck, arms, even ankles. It may be a special matching accessory, or a particular style that matches the look, or just lots of sparkle. There is just something wonderful about feeling like all the details have been looked after.

I admit, part of it for me is trying to balance a perception I have that I’m a bit bottom heavy. I have been informed that I have a rather generous booty, so making sure I have some substance happening up top helps keep me from feeling too off balance. Although I just went hunting through my photos, and I think it might be more in my head than I thought! I still love having my arm bands, or vests or extra padding in my bra, or tassels and floof, or whatever feels right up top to balance harmoniously with the action in my hips and bum.

Here I am feeling ever so much more complete with my fancy matching armbands coordinated with my skirt and harem pants.

And here am I feeling nekkid and wishing I had tested my armbands first and fixed them so they’d be sure to stay on for my whole set!

Fancy headwear always makes me feel like something extra special is happening. Many of my favorite classic Egyptian performers rocked wonderful veils, hats, and flowers on their heads for performance, so I feel like I can channel their energy with this kind of detail.

Egyptian Star Aza Sharif in a fantastic black hat with sequins, feathers, and fringe.

A fellow dancer once told me that the first minute of my dance performance was lost to the audience just being dazzled by my incredible costume. I had a good laugh and took to heart the lesson. If I can win my audience over immediately with a well put together look, it makes the rest of my job of entertaining them so much easier. Here’s to the power of well thought out costuming, both a valuable asset for the entertainer, and so much fun.

Shems is a belly dance performer, instructor, and troupe director based in the United States.

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