Orient Express: A Century of Costume Inspiration

1906 Ruth St. DenisDarling readers, in this lazy time of year between the frenetic drive of winter holidays and the turn of the wheel again to summer, I do enjoy delving into our back catalog of vintage photography to reflect on the various unique and interesting influences of history on costume.  Today I’d like to share this collection of 100 years of costumes shaped by the west’s recurring fascination with eastern exoticism, a silk road of inspiration that has influenced looks from fashion houses to movie stars.

Although the exact origins of the variety of dances included under the general umbrella of “belly dancing” are difficult to pinpoint, cultures across northern Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe have at various times contributed stylistic elements of dance and costume. In the west, interest in eastern dress and culture grew during the Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th century, as the expanding influence of Orientalism fueled the fad for all things exotic. This interest erupted into mania at the turn of the century, as belly dancing become more accessible to the west through French photo cards, performances at World’s Fair exhibitions, and early film recordings by Thomas Edison, including this surviving 1904 film of Princess Rajah combining elements of belly dance and vaudeville.

Both the term “belly dance” (a translation of the French “danse du ventre”) and the dance itself were popularized in the late 19th century by Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  Victorian observers were shocked and titillated by the uncorseted gyrations at the Egyptian Theater exhibit on the Fair’s Midway Plaisance, and suddenly the fantasy of the exotic belly dancer was everywhere, from Hollywood films like Cleopatra, Salomé, and The Sheik, to new trends in fashion, makeup, and jewelry.  The twin forces of Hollywood and fashion in turn influenced the look of the belly dance costume, popularizing the two-piece costume known as a bedlah, a fitted top or bra with harem pants or skirt, often heavily embellished with beads and sequins and accented by a snug hip scarf.

Sami Gamal, 1950

Legendary Egyptian Belly Dancer Samia Gamal photographed by Gjon Mili, 1950

As Egyptian cabarets began catering to tourists’ expectations in the late 30’s and 40’s and Arab immigration to Europe and North America grew, western influence was incorporated into the common dress and movements of the dance. Famed Egyptian dancers like Samia Gamal and Naima Akef drove the rise of the raqs sharqi style of dance, appropriating global influences to creating a more modern, flashy style of belly dance now familiar to western audiences. Costume and technique continued to develop through the late 50’s and 60’s, leading up to the emergence of Tribal style belly dance in the 1970’s, a fusion of styles characterized by a more rustic costume and the incorporation of central and south Asian influences.

The enduring global popularity of this dance presages the continued absorption and evolution of costumes and technique in a fascinating spice trade of history, culture, and fantasy, demonstrated by the gallery below of 100 years of belly dance’s impact, 1880-1980.

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18 thoughts on “Orient Express: A Century of Costume Inspiration

  1. Some of those costumes are gorgeous! I took a 6-week belly-dancing class once. It’s much more exercise than it looks and it’s a lot of fun to do. My favorite song to belly-dance to was “Comfort Eagle” by Cake, which surprisingly has the perfect rhythm.

  2. WOW – fabulous costumes for sure…..But best of all is that wonderful and adept belly dance with chair. I had no idea that the Library of Congress was such a wondrously diverse collection. Once again Eva I am really impressed by your research.
    Deb

  3. Fantastic post, Ms. Halloween. And fantastic pictures! Let’s hope the fascination with this form of dance endures well into the future.

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