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

Ask the Costume Goddess

Dina Lydia, the Costume Goddess

Ask the Costume Goddess:

What to Wear for Debke

by Dina Lydia



The Question

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!!

--Debke Queen



The Costume Goddess Responds

Dear DQ,

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 these.

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 elastic.

Pattern Cover for Hathiya's Harem Pants

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.

Costume Ideas for Debke

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.

Folkwear Pattern Cover

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 helped!

--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.

Shira Wearing Syrian Dress
Folkwear Pattern Cover

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.

Cover for Folkwear's Syrian Dress Pattern<



Related Articles

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 wedding gowns.

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 figures.

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.

Photo of Dina Lydia, The Costume Goddess

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 For reviews here on of some of her books, see:

Photo of Dina Lydia, the Costume Goddess

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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