Barbra Streisand wore a Middle Eastern belly dancer-inspired ensemble in her fifth television special Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments (1973). This special was Barbra’s first in five years due to how busy she had been making films. It was shot over the course of ten days at Elstree Studios in London. Though some fans find this to be one of the weakest specials, I absolutely love it for its quirkiness, experimentation, fun musical re-arrangements, and risk-taking.
The segment that Streisand wore this costume in features a fourteen-minute journey across several continents using the song “I Got Rhythm” as its framework. Throughout, Streisand transitions from culture to culture as seamlessly as she became various paintings in her 1966 special Color Me Barbra. Watching these scenes feels like going on the It’s A Small World boat ride but with Barbra instead of animatronics, which, of course, is far better. Some of the instruments used Barbra Streisand… and Other Musical Instruments had never been heard before in the United States. International musicians who were experts at these were flown in from all over the world to appear in this special. The costume supervisor for this production was Robert Pollexfen, however, the majority of the outfits seen onscreen were from Streisand’s personal collection and designed by her.
The costumes for the majority of this segment are all centered around a variation of a simple maxi dress with multiple spaghetti straps. The burgundy belly dancer look appears very briefly, at fourteen minutes into the special just after the Japanese segment. In this scene, Streisand belly dances her way into the frame wearing dazzling burgundy and gold. She sings “People” with the lyrics changed to “People, people who got rhythm, are the luckiest people in the world”, while accompanied by musicians playing a Turkish Qunan, Doumbek, tambourine, G clarinet, and bağlama.
Streisand’s costume featured a burgundy maxi dress with a scoop neckline. Two spaghetti straps fasten over the shoulder and there is a heavily gathered low waistband. When looking closer at the back of this dress, I noticed that the open back has additional spaghetti straps which tie across horizontally.
A beautiful, ornately embroidered hijab covered in gold and floral motifs and gold sequins is no doubt the most eye-catching piece of this costume. This is secured on her head with a black Egal. The edges of the hijab fabric were attached to bracelets secure it to Streisand’s arms while she danced. This look was accented with a traditional belly dancer coin belt.
Streisand also wore zills (finger cymbals) on her hands, which are used frequently in belly dancing. Before the invention of elastic, these were tied onto fingers with leather strips.
Additional accessories included numerous beaded and wire bracelets, ornate rings, gold upper-armbands, and gold sandals with a block heel. This dress and coin belt were sold in a Julien’s auction in 2004 for $525.00.
Belly dance is an expressionist type of dance that originated in Egypt and that emphasizes complex movements of the torso. Though the majority of typical belly dance costumes are two pieces showing the torso, Barbra wore a more modest version which is similar to a Beledi dress that is worn in the Beledi form of Egyptian belly dancing that it is named for.
Belly dancers have been represented in imagery wearing coin belts as early as the nineteenth century, though they likely date back even further. The legend of how these began depicts that in the Middle East where belly dancing originated, young marriageable women would dance for coins that were thrown at them. They would then sew them into their hip scarves, saving them as dowry. Once a woman had earned enough she could enter into marriage and give up dancing. Some accounts detail that women sewed the coins into their clothes not only for safekeeping but also to let men know how much money they had. As men followed the caravans they could hear the jingling of the coins from afar, signaling that a marriageable woman was in that caravan. Eventually, coin belts evolved to be made out of round lightweight metal pieces instead of real coins, but have continued to be an important part of modern belly dance costumes.