Dance costumes have constantly evolved throughout history, as have the dances that incorporated them. There have been such nuanced changes in the fashions, with traditions literally spanning hundreds of years, that we have had to tackle this subject in multiple parts. Here is the first part in our series on dance costumes through history.

Historical Dance Costumes

The European courts of the 15th to 18th century had a tradition of elaborate dance costumes. The fashion within the court at the time was mirrored in the dance costumes, featuring puffy and sleeves, laced corsets, shoulder capes, farthingales (immensely wide skirts), and attention-grabbing decorations.

Related: Beginner’s Guide to Types of Dance

Folk and Square Dance Costumes

The term “folk dance” encompasses a large number of traditional cultural dances, as folk is a broad descriptor. Folk dance traditionally features elaborate costumes. Folk dance became popular in Europe during the 15th century. Each country and often regions within have local nuances to their dance style, observed customs, and dress.

Eastern European folk dances, such as mazurkas, polkas, and czardas, were adopted in England and France. The dance costumes worn incorporated bright colours over dark backgrounds. These Eastern European costumes were adorned with metal, silk, and beads. A basic women’s dress was a short, light-coloured chemise with a petticoat, with several layers of fabric over the top. The draped headdress the women wore indicated their marital status, with more elaborate headwear conveying that a woman was unmarried.

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an old couple in square dance costumes

Square dance, a popular tradition in America, actually derives from European folk dance. European settlers landed in New England and soon enough their style of square dance began to gain popularity. Women wore ankle-length hooped skirts while men were outfitted in formal jackets as they danced. More variations on this style of folk dance and the dance costumes worn spread across America as the country expanded. Today’s vision of men in cowboy and farmer attire and women in gingham dresses are based on the common dress of the time.

The waltz, minuet, polka, and quadrille from France and England brought more elaborate dance costumes to the US: tailored long-sleeve shirts and trousers in a Western-cut style for the male dancers and floral-embroidered skirts and blouses for females. Western belts, string ties, and silk kerchiefs completed the look.

In the late 1990s, there was a trend of designers, such as Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Miu Miu, championing the “urban cowboy look,” which incorporated pointed-toe boots and Western-inspired dress embellished with floral patterns on tuxedo shirts and jeans.

In the early 2000s, female square dancers often wore double-swirl skirts with alternating ruffles in the fabric and wide white lace. The lace is used on bodice and sleeves, with an appliqué and bow on the fitted midriff. Male square dancers wear cowboy-style shirts with a scarf tied around the collar, high-pocket jeans, and often a cowboy hat. Pants cuffs were generally worn inside the cowboy boots.

Belly Dance Costumes

In the Western world, the most common belly dance costume is the bedlah (Arabic for “suit”). It owes its creation to the Victorian artists who painted “Orientalism” and the harem fantasy productions of burlesque, vaudeville, and Hollywood in the early 1900s, rather than reflecting authentic Middle Eastern dress.

Related: How Culture Affects Dance Trends in 2022

a belly dancer wearing pink

The bedlah style includes a fitted top or bra (usually including a fringe of coins or beads), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid, and embroidery. The can be a separate piece, or sewn into the skirt.

Badia Masabni, who owned a cabaret in Cairo, is credited with bringing this type of belly dance costume to Egypt, to align with the image that Western tourists expected.

Ballroom Dance Costumes

The fashion of ballroom dance costumes has been everchanging since the 1700s. For brevity, we’re going to stick with the last few decades.

It was really in the 1960s when people began to challenge the idea of wearing what everyone else wore. You could see a mini skirt made of metallic fabric alongside a flash pattern with dress surfaces and trimmed plastic elements, sequins, or beads.

Ballroom dance partners in elaborate costumes

In the late 60s and early 70s, pantsuits with full-legged trousers and palazzo pants with complementing tops became popular on the dancefloor.

The style then quickly moved on by the mid-70s to long dancewear made from soft fabrics which clung to the body.

The glamourous evening dress came back into fashion in the early 80s, introducing vibrant colours with a dazzling array of sequins, embroidery, glitter, and beading. Mini-crinolines—short and wide styled skirts—were also a defining look for the era.

The late 80s saw the rise of short, strapless dance costumes with tiny shoulder straps. They were commonly made from elasticized material to be as tight and form-fitting as possible.

By the 1990s, basic slip dresses made from soft crepe fabrics became popular. The mid-90s saw the return of full-skirted, short, strapless evening gowns, usually in black, rebelling against the colourful fashions of recent decades. You might also see elaborate lace or showy bustiers across dancefloors.

We hope this brief look into the history of dance costume has left you inspired. We’ll be back soon with part two. If you’re looking for a dance costume that’s comfortable, high quality, and fits alongside modern styles, welcome to The Dance Store.

Banner image by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash