Re: Bustin’ Out, Part IV (The Final Chapter)

This post is dedicated to the coin bra which I love and its close cousins, the armor bra and the leather bra. Let’s start by defining some terms and talking about design considerations for each type of bra.

The coin bra, as I’m going to be using the term, refers to a bra in which the cups are entirely covered with individual coins which are hand-sewn on. I am not talking about coin bra covers which are pre-made meshes of coins and/or coins mixed with other elements such beads, bells, mirrors, etc. that are meant to be tacked onto a covered bra nor am I talking about lengths of coins used as trims.

In my day, the coin-covered bra was THE dream bra that every dancer aspired to. It wasn’t as easy to buy pre-made bra and belt sets as it is today so a dancer who owned a coin bra (see below) had either worked her fingers to the bone or had paid someone else top dollar to make it. Either way, she would be the object of much admiration and envy among her fellow dancers.

Marta Schill Kouzouyan on the cover “The Compleat Belly Dancer”, the first bellydance book I ever bought.

When designing a coin bra, your first consideration must be the weight of the coins themselves. Real coins or coins stamped out of metal are heavy and many of them together are very heavy. Aluminum coins are our friends when it comes to covering bra cups. If you are reluctant to give up the real coin look, consider mixing real coins with aluminum ones or add the metal coins to the belly drape of the bra. If you are still determined to go with real coins (and the finished look is indeed fabulous), remember that you will need to do a lot of bra engineering to make that costume piece comfortable.

Americans: it is illegal under U.S. law to deface American coins by drilling holes in them. It is, however, perfectly legal to drill holes in foreign coins so deface that foreign currency all you want. You can pick up bags of mixed coins of other countries at coin dealerships. Jewelry supply companies may also have coins.

Metal coins without holes need to be prepped before you can work with them. You need to have access to a coin press to make the holes and then you need to spend some time filing off the burrs (rough edges of the holes). When I was looking to drill some coins, my friend, Glynda, talked to her metal smithing teacher and he let us use the metal drill press in the university art dept. lab. I only had a small handful, probably about 20 coins altogether, and it still took us about a hour and a half. The drilling goes quickly, the filing takes a while.

When you’re sewing the coins onto the bra, start at the bottom of the cup and work your way up, overlapping the top row over the below one as you go. You will need to use tough thread such as dental floss, carpet, or button hole thread because the back and forth movement of the coins will eventually saw through the thread. Speaking of coin movement, don’t sew the coins down too tightly. They have to be able to move freely or you won’t get the characteristic jingling sound. To do this, it helps to use a bead as a spacer between the coins and the fabric. You take your needle through the back of the bra cup, through the bead, through the hole of the coin, around once or twice, back up through the bead, and into the fabric. Before you tie it off, flip the coin back and forth to check if it is moving easily. If not, loose the thread up until it does. Then tie it off and repeat. (I did mention that coin bras are a lot of work, didn’t I?) Depending on the smoothness of your knotwork, you may need to line the inside of the bra cups to keep them comfortable.

Be sure to buy more coins than you think you are going to need. Murphy’s Law of Costuming states that if you run out of coins before your bra is completely covered, it will be next to impossible to find an exact match. If you are using aluminum coins, you may find that you need to use two coins together instead of just one in order to get that clink-clink sound.

Metal bras appeal to those of us who have never lost our Red Sonja fantasies. The She-Devil with a Sword was a creation of sword and sorcery author Robert E. Howard and appeared both in print and in the comic book adventures of Conan the Cimmerian. Ignore the modern re-incarnations. My Sonja will always be the lady below.

As a young woman, I never saw Sonja’s chain mail bikini outfit as sexist. After all, Conan himself was only wearing a loin cloth most of the time. More importantly, Sonja could take care of herself in a fight unlike the other damsels Conan usually encountered who cowered behind him and needed rescuing from various eldritch horrors. So it’s understandable that everyone likes the “warrior woman” vibe that a metal bra gives off.

If there were any justice in this world, Jennifer Lopez would play Red Sonja.

Lotus bra cup made Talon Armory. Click here for their Etsy page. These bra covers are made with small holes so you can sew them onto an existing bra.

First, a word of caution: working metal is an advanced skill. If you are a novice, you are better off commissioning your bra from a skilled metal worker. Second, a great many metal bras on the market are art bras. They are meant to be shown off as sculpture or worn on a runway, not danced in. So it pays to deal with a metal worker who has had experience creating bras for dancers.

Chain mail bras are actually quite common these days and aren’t the one-off project they once were. Again, knitting metal links into a 3-D form is an advanced skill

Metal-look bra made by Organic Armor. Latex over foam or cloth which is then painted to resemble metal.

A compromise solution is the Organic Armor bra seen above. These bras look like metal, but are lightweight and more comfortable to wear. And because they are made of latex, they can be painted any color and molded into fantastic shapes. Click here to go to Organic Armor’s home page and be sure to check out the dancer videos on the Belly Dance Wear page which shows their creations in action.

Re: Bustin’ Out, Part III

Now we come to my favorite part of bra construction: decoration. Let’s spend a little time talking about general considerations when it comes to decorating your bra:

  • Is this your first costume bra? If so, you will want something that will go with a lot of different outfits so consider making it in either gold or silver. Some dancers split the difference and use BOTH gold and silver. You could also go with copper if that suits your coloration.
  • Keep your decorations lightweight. Pick up the bag of sequins, coins, shells, washers, or whatever you’re planning on putting on your costume bra. Does it feel heavy? If it feels heavy now, the completed bra is going to be heavy, too, and it is going to feel like a ton once you’re dancing in it.
  • Unless that’s the look you’re going for, avoid placing your appliques, beads, coins, etc. right over your nipples. Instead place your decorative elements either above or below the nipples of your breasts. If you really want to highlight your nipples, take a tip from burlesque dancers and put your decoration slightly above your natural nipple line. It gives you an automatic “breast lift”. A cultural note: Egyptians do not regard breasts in the same way Westerners do. Breasts are just devices to feed the baby with and do not have the sexual connotations they have in the West. Therefore, Egyptian-made bras and costumes often feature nipple-centric designs which is something to keep in mind if you are purchasing an imported costume.
  • Hand sewing is the order of the day. Yes, a low temperature glue gun will help you tack ornaments and trims into place, but don’t rely on glue alone to keep a critical costume element like your bra together. There is no substitute for sewing down or at least tacking down trims and ornaments. Depending on how you are constructing your bra, you may be able to use a sewing machine to make the straps and possibly the sides as well. However, the cups typically have to be done by hand.

In my day, we had two options when it came to decorating our bras: ethnic (which meant coins) and cabaret (which meant beads).  Today’s dancers have a lot more options. My advice is to collect photos where possible of designs that you appeal to you and ask yourself what you like about them.

Here’s a nice example of a hand beaded cabaret bra made by Ozma, an American dancer living in Japan. I like the restrained yet luxurious beading and the sleek, modern feel. Ozma made this as part of her peacock costume. Yes, she made and beaded the skirt and the arm and ankle bands as well.

Zipperbra by HeyCarrieAnn (Craftster).

I hadn’t considered using zippers as a decorative element before, but I like the effect. HeyCarrieAnn created the above as an art bra, but you could adapt it for a costume bra. If so, I would suggest sewing the zippers down rather than gluing them as she did.

Button covered bra found on Ebay. Seems to have been taken down now. I like the cheerful play of colors although I would have covered the bra base in hot pink fabric rather than leaving it plain.

Buttons have become a popular decorative motif these days. Buttons have the advantage of being relatively cheap and easily available. Be sure to use flat rather than shanked buttons for your decorative purposes. Shanked buttons stand up from the surface of the fabric and tend to catch things like veils, etc.

Button covered bra from Gypsy Rain in Australia. These kind of bras are meant to be worn over a choli, not on their own.

Geekella models her bra and hip scarf Craftster (2008).

Tassels are always a fun alternative to coins for a tribal or semi-tribal look. I like the way Geekella has used stretchy black fabric to add horizontal interest across the clevage. A nice tribal fusion design.

Pink ruffled, black-striped bra by webs55 (Etsy). Here’s a link to her Etsy page.

We’ve haven’t talked about the selection of the base fabric for the bra because the base fabric is usually secondary to the beading or other decorations. However, the above bra is a great example of the visual punch you can achieve with minimal decoration and the right selection of covering fabrics. What I like about this bra is its versatility–you could wear this for a tribal fusion costume, you could wear it as part of a burlesque costume, it could go gothic, it could go steampunk.