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Costume Care and Transport

Start with high quality pieces and inspect, clean and repair them after every wearing. Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.

Between-Performance Maintenance

When you are maintaining a costume, you have several concerns:

  • Identifying and removing stains as soon as possible so they do not set permanently;
  • Identifying and repairing rips and shreds before they get bigger;
  • Airing out the costume completely so that it will not mildew;
  • Mitigating perspiration odor;
  • Storing the costume so it does not stretch or rot.

In a 1986 edition of Middle Eastern Dancer magazine, Farrashah advises:

  • Thread rot is a concern. NEVER put costumes away until completely dry.
  • A plastic bag is a coffin! She stores costumes in color-coded terry cloth bags.
  • She lines all bras and belts with easily removable felt liners [This would be natural fiber felt, not synthetic].
Natasya Katsikaris::
  1. Always let your costume air out after a performance.
  2. Never store costume in air-tight or plastic containers. The odor of perspiration will not evaporate and your costume will start to smell like the men's locker room at the YMCA. DO store costumes in cloth sacks or drawers/shelves with plenty of ventilation.
  3. Lay costume out in sun (inside out so sun does not fade the color). Sunlight is a natural disinfectant.
  4. Spray the inside of your costume with perfume or natural air freshener with high alcohol content to disinfect.
  5. Fumigate your costume with incense. This is how the ancient Egyptians and Japanese cleaned many of their textiles. Hang your costume over a drying rack and place incense below it. Make a little tent over the costume to hold the smoke. Use common sense about fire safety!

Dawn Devine Brown recommends developing a routine that starts with HOW you make your costume pieces and ends with careful inspections after each wearing.

  • Wash all washable materials and decorations BEFORE you make a costume so that they won't shrink AFTER you make it.
  • Make all lining removable by applying it last during construction. Change linings frequently to extend life of garment.
  • A light dusting of cornstarch on costume lining before wearing will help keep costumes fresh.
  • Spritz inside of costume BEFORE performing with solution of half water and half vodka in a spray bottle. This will change and cut through the odor of perspiration.
  • Inspect surface of garment after every wearing; scan for food remains, tears, loose beads or coins, raveling fringe, stains.
  • Lay your costume out to dry with adequate support to avoid stain. Mesh drying racks work well.
  • NEVER put a moist or damp costume away, or mildew will attack and destroy it.
  • Store costumes with dangling beads and bias cut skirts flat. Yes, this takes up space. Yes, you need to do this to prevent stress and stretching.
  • Have at least two costumes and rotate them. This extends wear and gives you time to make repairs.

Ambriehl: "Another method is to put a costume item in a pillowcase. Pour clean kitty litter in the bottom of a large container with a lid. Lay the pillowcase-covered costume item on top of the litter and close the container. Let the item sit inside for 3 days to 2 weeks, depending on how bad the odors are."

Cleaning Costumes

When you clean costumes, you have several concerns:

  • Possible shrinkage, possible color bleeding;
  • If it is a spot-clean, you must determine what the stain is and how to remove it;
  • If it is a bedlah set or a dress with cups, you must determine what the stiffening layer is and how to clean it;
  • You must have a place to lay the costume flat while it dries;
  • Bras and belts stiffened with buckram will have to be reshaped and dried on forms.

Rukshana Raks has a very detailed page on how to clean costumes. Her recommendation of Synthrapol, a cleaner designed to keep dye particles in suspension and not allow them to reabsorb into fabric, is excellent. In short:

  • If your bra and/or belt is NOT reinforced with buckram or cardboard and the embellishments can be washed, then swishing in a tub and then rinsing should be fine.
  • If your bra and/or belt is reinforced with buckram, then spot cleaning is best. A very quick swish in a bathtub can be used for buckram if the costume is really dirty.
  • Dry the belts and bras on forms made of rolled washcloths or towels so that they will maintain shape.
  • Tribal costumes made in India are made from fabrics whose dye WILL bleed, you simply have to try to minimize it.
  • Great hints on spot cleaning:
    • Hair spray for ink pen marks;
    • Simple Green for grease marks;
    • Hot water for wax;
    • Spray stain remover;
    • Thick jelly made of Fels Naptha bar soap. Dip a brush into the jelly and scrub the stain away.

Princess Farhana frequently publishes directions on how to wash beaded costumes in a bathtub. Essentially, the procedure comes down to:

  1. Be sure that the bra and belt do not use buckram or cardboard to stiffen or shape them. (Buckram is a stiff white mesh that is shaped by wetting.. which means it can be distorted by wetting).
  2. Do a spot test first, to make sure the colors won't run.
  3. Fill a bathtub half-full with cool water and a very mild detergent, like Woolite or baby shampoo or even a mild dish-washing soap.
  4. Swish the costume gently for one minute.
  5. Drain the tub, fill with clean water, and swish to rinse.
  6. Repeat this rinsing process three or four times. Any soap residue left in the garment will put the natural deterioration process on fast-forward.
  7. Remove costume from water and roll pieces separately in clean towels. Squeeze gently to absorb moisture.
  8. Arrange the costume on a FLAT surface on top of a dry towel (not in direct sunlight!). On highly-embellished costumes, this may take up to a few days.
  9. Your costume and fringe will now sparkle like new!

Farhana also has an interesting approach to cleaning costume coins, rhinestones and crystals, kuchi jewelry or ethnic items from unknown metal alloys - toothpaste! She says it is less acidic and much less abrasive than jewelry polish, and will remove dirt and tarnish withouy removing the patina.

Some dancers eschew the tub and use a separate bucket for costume washing, avoiding any residue from any other cleaning chemicals that can damage the costume. Natasya Katsikaris also hand washes costumes in cold water with gentle soap, but recommends you drip-dry on a drying rack or clothes line out of the direct sun.

Ambriehl recommends cleaning dirty or dull coins on costume items with jewelry polish rather than silver or brass cleaner. Do a spot test first.

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service published an article on Caring for Your Textile Heirlooms which has a lot of information that is applicable to modern fabrics. Light, high temperatures and humidity, closed environments, abrasion, soil and insect damage: how to avoid and how to repair. Their description of wet-cleaning is especially interesting; soaking, not agitation; water, not water with detergent; long soak times (30 minutes); three to five or more soaks, each followed by a complete rinse.

Traveling with Costumes

Princess Farhana:

  1. Always have a one complete costume in your carry-on, because checked baggage often does not arrive when you do!
  2. Make sure you have a portable costume BEFORE you need it. A portable costume is lightweight, wrinkle-resistant, and with most of the embellishment at bust and hips, with simplicity the rule for the rest of the costume.
  3. Verify that there is an iron or steamer available at your destination.
  4. Roll skirts and pants up small and tight and use them as filling around the heavier pieces.
  5. Protect hair-flowers and other fragile items by packing them inside sturdy plastic bins, cushioned by folded or rolled veils.
  6. Jewelry and shoes should all go into plastic bags of appropriate size.
  7. The Princess prefers to put each costume and all its accessories (including zills and music CDs) inside one large zip-lock freezer bag. She also packs her street outfits in the same way. Not only does that keep everything together, but it protects from travel accidents like down pouring rain or spills.
"We use shaped or padded hangers to keep the costumes hanging securely. Very heavy costumes are hung on drapery hangers. Extra hanging loops are sewn into the waistbands so the weight of the costume hanges from that point and does not stretch out the bodice or should straps. Beaded gowns are laid flat between shows or placed folded in boxes because the weight of the beads can make them grow inches if they are hung... Wrinkles are steamed out with the same kind of portable steamer used in retail stores. A steamer also freshens flowers or feathers." — Pat Swope, Hands On with the Wardrobe Supervisor, Threads Magazine.


Ambriehl, What's Old CAN be New Again, ISAMEDT newsletter, Nov 2010.

Dawn Devine Brown, Hints and Tips for the Belly Dance Costumer, 2002, Web.

Middle Eastern Dancer magazine

Natasya Katsikaris

Pleasant Gehman (Princess Farhana), Raq the Recession— Belly Dance on a Budget, Web.

Rukshana, Cleaning Your Dance Costume: Cabaret Costumes The Rukshana Method, Web.

Marjorie Baker, Caring for Your Textile Heirlooms, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Web.

Rust stains on cotton and linen:
Maura Enright, Proprietor
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