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Transforming a Tribal Bra

 Cues & Tattoos Deep Roots 2014Over my many years of performing, I have accumulated quite a collection of costuming, some of which has been timeless and some which was very “of the day”. Some of my performance bras have fallen under the latter category, and faced with some new costuming looks with my recent performances, I have been making some new costume bras to suit my current aesthetic. For instance, teaching and performing at Cues & Tattoos last year warranted a new ensemble, and I made a completely new costume bra to complement it, as shown to the left. I was thrilled with how it came out, and it has been getting ample use!

Just a year later, I realized that I really needed another new bra for another look we were using this season. I took lots of photos during the project to show you the process I went through, as well as give a little insight into the kinds of materials I use, and how I use and store them. This post is very photo-intensive, but I hope it will be helpful. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments below and I’ll explain anything I can.


Shay Moore World Rhythm Festival 2015
photo by Wayne Buck
Here is the finished bra, whos maiden voyage was at World Rhythm Festival in 2015. It was comfortable as all get out and worked out just as well as I hoped for the overall look!

Remember that whatever base you use, it should be sturdy and supportive. You are going to be adding significant weight to this, and it needs to withstand it through frequent, rigorous dancing. You don’t want the appearance of sagging, pendulous…um…costuming, now do you?

Original Assuit Bra

These projects are labors of love–they take more than a little time and resources to get them “just so”, which is why I don’t embark on these projects often. Starting from scratch seemed exhausting, and given that I had a relatively short period of time to do it in before dress rehearsals began (a little over a week), I figured it would be safer to rework an old bra, one which I already knew fit me but maybe wasn’t getting as much wear as it deserved these days.The bra I chose to go under the knife is this beloved bra which is about 10 years old. It is very sturdy, has modest coverage while still showing off “the girls”, and shows very little signs of wear despite its age.


In the initial design, I covered the cups with assuit, and then used an Afghani/Kuchi belt as the primary decoration. A single pendant in the middle. I didn’t convert the straps because my troupe at the time primarily wore vests and wrap tops over the tops of the bras, so it wasn’t necessary to disguise it in any way. In this photo, I had begun converting the straps to ties to see if the bra would still fit as intended when it was configured in this way, before I went to the trouble of stripping of the current decorations and get deep into the design of the new one.

Blank Assuit Bra Kuchi Belt Front Kuchi Belt Back with Dart

Often when I know I am going to be covering a bra with other materials, I won’t cover the base entirely. Particularly in a case like this where I was using assuit, which is a limited resource for many of us and not cheap, it made sense to use scrap from another project rather than get a whole new shawl. I was worried when I stripped this bra down I would have only half-covered cups as a result, but I relieved when I removed the belt portion that the scraps managed to cover fully 99% of the bra cups after all. WHEW!


These next two photos show the removed belt piece. You can see how simple this bra really was. I basically put a big dart in the middle of an already constructed belt and then hand-stitched it to the bra base. D-U-N DONE. I didn’t even cut the belt into two pieces–I think I just removed some of the little dome buttons to accommodate the pleat, so I could ostensibly remove the dart and make this back into a partial belt again. Instead, I am saving this piece so that if I have second-thoughts about having disassembled this bra (it was a great, versatile bra all those years after all!), I can quickly stitch it back on to another base.

Trim Attempt 1

As with any bra project, reworking or not, once the bra cups are covered I start experimenting with other fabrics and trims. I get my trusty pincushion, gather together any trims or fabric scraps I am considering and get to pinning.


Pro Tip: trims along the top edge of the bra, or at least from the center up, universally enhance the sense of “lift” in the bust, while heavy trims and embellishments on the lower half of the cup may add perceived weight and may make you appear “saggy”. If decorating the lower half, keep it lighter and less dense, particularly if you have a generous bosom. One exception to this are for very small busted women, heavier embellishments on the bottom half can give the illusion of a fuller bust. Pin some stuff in place and make a note of ways in which it effects the visual impact of your costume for your bust shape and size.

Trim 2

I opted for a brocade trim I had lying around for ages. I had twice as much as I needed for the project! Instead of using it straight along, I opted to trim and fold the lower edge into an upward curved arc, which you can see pinned here in anticipation of me stitching it down. The magic is in the trim being thinner at the outer edges and thicker at the center, making the center seem to swell forward.


Pro Tip: Upward curvature universally creates a visual fullness and lift. Downward curves has a diminishing effect, draws the eye down, and will often create a visual sagging. Curves in general also suggest softness and read as more organic and flowing than straight lines. So think upward curves or v’s for the most flattering lines.


I loved the sparkly teal sequin trim from the first design idea, so I used it to trim along the lower edge of the brocade, plus a flattering “swag” of additional trim below that. A little glitz in with my earthy elements is how I roll.

You can see here that I had also cut off the factory straps and hooks from the back of the bra and added O-rings for a tie closure. You can see how this works in the last step of this walkthrough.

Now to decide what I want to add in the way of other embellishments.

 09_necklacewhole109_necklacewhole2 09_necklacewhole3 Here’s a shopping tip for you: Forever 21 has a staggering variety of cheap jewelry that is fantastic for costuming. Even if you don’t have one near you, they have a lot of it listed online. The only downside is they consider jewelry a “final sale” item, so there are no returns. But I always figure I will find a way to either a) use the item eventually on some project of b) sell it to another dancer at a swap or garage sale. And ultimately, with most of the pieces I buy being $10 or less, I can afford to splurge on a few pieces as a gamble here and there.


Other places to look can include mall shops like Icing, Claire’s, and Hot Topic. Check the clearance racks at department stores like JC Penney or Sears, as believe-you-me some of the gaudy stuff many women choose not to purchase end up being great for stage. Don’t look at it as jewelry, instead as a collection of components you can use together or as individual pieces. I buy hair clips, necklaces, even belts just for the parts I can strip off them.


All these items were in contention for the bra, but what I decided to use…

 12_necklacewhole2  …was this bib-style coin necklace. I know, not the most creative of the choices, given that I have bags of real imported coins. But I liked the size and shape of these, and more importantly I liked the light weight! Imported coins are heavy, though admittedly would have been cheaper. This necklace was $6 and I got about 30 clean, lightweight, pretty coins. I actually bought two of the necklaces and used certain coins from each–I always buy two of any cheap necklaces like this, as sometimes you can use the jewelry AS IS, without taking it apart, and simply sew it on to the bra whole, so you might want one for each cup.
 13_takingapart15_necklacepieces  16_coinbits I got out my trusty pliers (a spring-loaded set of needle-nose pliers are best–my faves were broken, WAH!) and started pulling them off the jump rings–that is, the little o-rings that connect the parts together. I don’t save mine because I used to and never used them. But if you think you might want to put these back on a necklace or some other similar way, keep the jump rings as well.


As you can see from the third pic, there actually ended up being three “types” of coins–to achieve the necklace design, they had different loops on each row. I only used the ones with the single loop on top, as on the far left, but I am intrigued by future possibilities of the other ones, particularly the middle one with double loops on top and bottom. But I digress…

 14_bowls 11_necklacepieces17_storebits I keep some little bowls or dishes handy so as I work I can just drop the pieces into each to keep them sorted. While I had all my tools out, I opted to take apart all my recent jewelry purchases and store them for future projects. Snack size ziplock bags work great for this for me.
 18_otheroptions 19_domiclesbeforedomicles I took a few days away from the project and came back to it having changed my mind. I didn’t want to use any of those pieces I had prepped, so I want back to some other options. You can see in the first pic some of the other things I considered, including an old Kuchi necklace of mine, some buttons I got on clearance, some earrings my husband gifted me 15 years ago I don’t wear much any more, bits of chain, even a big rhinestone hair clip in the upper right.


In the second photo is a sample of dome buttons and coins.


In the end, it was yet another set of Forever 21 necklaces. It was made of layered chains of different styles and weights. The first two chains were too “short”, meant to fit around a narrow teenager’s neck rather than my massive tatas, so I had to remove those (and save them), but the third chain fit perfectly, draping under the second two of trim. The longest chains ended up draping flatteringly below the bra cup, which had me scrap the previous plan of making a separate chain drape.


The center piece is a lapel pin I got from JoAnn Fabrics & Crafts. I have several others in my collection from Icing or Claire’s, which can be hair clips, hat band accessories, etc. They make great accent pieces, and since they are simply clipped on, I can swap it out later if I want to change up the look!


Though I didn’t have a lot of time to keep futzing with it for this show, the current design still didn’t feel finished. I didn’t like that it was more blingy than folky, and the wide expanse of the trim, while pretty up close, wouldn’t look that detailed on stage. I needed something else…

 21_sidebyside22_button23_medallion Here I am testing out the dome buttons.


If you look to the right side, you can see the o-ring which connects the various chains on the necklace I chose. I didn’t like the look of it plain there, so you can see there on the left and in the second picture that I took a simple faceted gold and black plastic button and sewed it right over the top (bought on clearance at a local fabric store years ago and waiting for the right project!).


In the third image, you can see all the elements close up, and the beaded medallion which covers the o-rings on the other end of each necklace where they meet at the center.

 24_yarnbuttons 25_yarn Pro Tip: When attaching a row of small embellishments, be it coins or buttons, it is helpful to string them first on something sturdy and then stitch that strip down. Way easier than sewing them individually, assures you get the spacing you desire, and the best part is it is more durable. If I had a coin for every coin that slipped its stitches somehow and went walkabout, I could make a whole other coin bra! But when looped on a piece of trim, leather, or in this case a crochet chain of color-matched yarn, they ain’t goin’ anywhere.


I made a simple crochet chain in the length I needed to fit across the bra cup, then strung the domes on it. I took a needle and sturdy thread (I like upholstery thread) and stitched it down securely, adjusting the dome spacing as I went along. I made a good knot in the end, cut off the excess, wrapped the loose end to the inside of the bra and stitched it down.


In that second photo you can see the trims which wrapped around the edge. This can be itchy sometimes; if it is then you can take a small piece of felt or other soft fabric and stitch it over any rough spots to make it more comfortable. It has the bonus of making the inside of your bra look as finished and lovely as the outside.

 braback brainperformance  And here is the finished product! As promised, here is a photo from the back which shows the o-rings at work. The straps are made of sturdy jersey knit fabric, which I then criss-cross on my back, loop through the o-rings and tie. It is very comfortable, and way better for me personally than tying around the neck (as demonstrated by my lovely student Melissa next to me). It’s not just a big boob-small boob issue–the weight of the embellishments of a decorated bra or coin bra can be a strain on anyone’s neck. I have been tying my bras like this for 14 years and it’s only even more comfortable since I started using jersey instead of ribbon or cotton bias tape.


The final picture is us in performance with the whole look put together. You can see that though not a complex design, it has good texture, color, sparkle, and movement as I outline in my Tribal Bellydance Costuming 101 Tutorial. In fact, if you follow that link, you will see the original bra in the first photo!

I hope this little walk-through was inspirational in your costuming endeavors!







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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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