Shepherds, Angels and Wise Men…oh my! Church Costuming for the uninitiated.

It’s almost that time of year. When the Four-Year-Olds Sunday School class is asked to all dress as little sheep and the middle school girls are trying to be as pious as possible in order to be cast as Mary. The middle school boys are all slinking to the back praying to be just Shepherds instead of Kings or, worst of all, Joseph. When the pastor is eyeballing all the newborns to see if this year there is a good candidate for a live Baby Jesus. And everyone else gets to be an angel.

It can be a ton of fun or an abject disaster.

I’ve costumed numerous Nativity pageants, in my own church, in friends churches, as well as a professional costumer through a rental company and as commission work. I’ve learned quite a bit about making costumes that last and can be used on different people from year to year. These never go out of print:  No need to reinvent the wheel, they are good-enough patterns, use them. There’s a good chance someone in your church already has a set in their stash. If you are making more than one set from scratch “stack and whack” is a great system. Stack as many layers as you can cut at one time. Thus instead of cutting out one robe, you’ve cut three or four.

Lesson One: Make everything machine wash and dry.

Acetate lining fabric is tempting; it’s shiny, it’s cheap, and it comes in tons of colors. It also frays like mad and melts in the dryer when accidentally placed there by a well meaning volunteer. Stick with polyester cotton broadcloth for all of the basic angel and shepherd robes.

Lesson Two: don’t make sized costumes, especially for animal suits.

It’s sweet that grandma made and donated that sheep suit from this pattern:  But you know what? the chances of some other little kid fitting into it next year are slim at best. And it’s hot. These are far superior for churches: All the classic stable animals can be made including donkeys and camels when done in the right colors. Paired with sweatshirts and leggings it works, the kids are comfortable and the costume parts get used every year. And they take up less room in the closet in between pageant seasons.

For the robed characters like shepherds and angels, go big. Make everything XL Tall. You can belt the skinny guys and hem long robes for shorter players, but starting with big robes gives you the most options for the most people. If your church is large, say more than twenty costumed persons, you can break down the sizes some, say a 50/50 split of Large and XL.

Lesson Three: have a little more than you need.

The three wise men actually need about five or six robes to choose from. In many churches these same robes double as Pontius Pilot and the caliphates at Easter, variety is good. Same simple pattern as the shepherds and angels, just fancier fabrics. Maybe a brocade or a flashy stripe. Otherwise the same three guys get stuck being the wise men every year. Good headgear is also a nice way to differentiate a wise man from a shepherd  from Roman officials a few months later. A recycled Shriner fez (with the name taken off and plastic gems added), a purchased turban (along these lines works nicely, add some jewelry: )  and a fancy keffiyeh make them stand out appropriately from the crowd of shepherds and angels. For the Easter Passion Romans of course the laurel wreaths and the caliph head pieces are very unique and should never double as your Kings headgear.

“Today, a majority of the Arab men wear keffiyeh, also called shemagh. It is basically a traditional square cotton scarf which is placed on the head and secured with an igal. Different tribes, countries and even neighborhoods have their own traditional colors for the keffiyeh.” – Arab News

Lesson Four: Basic robes, fancy shawls and drapes.

If you need 12 shepherds robes, do four each of plain solid colors, maybe a beige, a soft green, and a mustard yellow. Avoid going too dark on any of your basic robe colors, no forest greens or chocolate browns. Then make the draped sashes or over vests from broad stripes or heavily textured fabrics. This is what catches the eye and conveys the idea of ‘biblical shepherd’ to your audience. For younger children as shepherds, doing the simple open vest instead of the drape is easier for them to wear. This reduces fidgeting mid-service.

Get some loosely woven fabrics, cut into one yard+ squares, and get a group of girls to spend the time fraying the edges to make fringed shawls. Having [half or] a dozen un-assigned any-character shawls is always useful. They can be shepherd headgear one year, ladies wraps the next, and baby Jesus swaddling the following year.

Oh, on the belts? Spend the money on good cotton decorative rope from the upholstery section. Get a couple Boy Scouts to put pretty knots in the ends so they don’t fray. And don’t scrimp on length! Kids belts should be two yards long, adult belts three and four yards long! A man in a common 34 waist pants can’t even tie a one-yard robe belt around his waist!

Lesson Five: Angel wings.

I personally an not a fan of ready made wings like these:  For one they look more butterfly  than angelic, but also they tend to be floppy and get bent out of shape way too easily.

If your church has a big budget for real feather angel wings, cool, but don’t waste that money by storing them improperly. Bag them in dry cleaners bags and hang them in a temperature controlled closet. Don’t stack them on the floor, don’t put them in a box in the attic, and definitely don’t leave them in an outdoor shed. It’s cheaper and easier to replace a stretched out elastic loop than the whole set of wings.

Speaking of elastic: don’t. ribbon ties hold better and last longer than elastic loops, plus they adjust to different sized wearers easiest.

For folks who don’t have that kind of budget there are still a lot of options. Some of the prettiest angels I’ve seen used a white fabric cape and gold glitter tee shirt paint; the wings were drawn on the cape in great detail and the kids loved wearing them. Another option that is budget friendly is foam core.

Last Lesson: feet & shoes.

You know what most shepherds wore on their feet in biblical times? nothing! Shepherds were generally pretty poor, shoes were a luxury. Nothing ruins the appearance of your Joseph faster than a pair of Nikes. A lot of people feel weird going barefoot in church, but it’s less out of place in a nativity performance than cowboy boots on your kings and sneakers on your shepherds. A lot of people wear sandals, but a pair of running Tevas is almost as bad as wearing Reeboks. One of the best shoe options for the barefoot phobic types is mens bedroom slippers. The less-than-ten-bucks-at-Walmart kind:  plus they are quiet, no hard soles to clonk and make excessive noise.

A fun little tidbit: Why do we always dress Mary in blue?

Because it has long been recorded that St. Luke painted a portrait of Mary, and in it she was wearing blue. This portrait hung in the Vatican for centuries, DaVinci and Michaelangelo used it as a reference when they did their depictions of Mary. Being on public display, it did not survive, but similar era works closed up in tombs have survived to give us insight to the amount of detail and realism of the time. Some can be seen here:

Good luck and Merry Christmas!


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