Variations for Biblical-era Costumes
This is a very general overview of some of the clothing that may have been worn in the middle east during this time period. I have tried to present styles that can be easily reproduced for pageants, which will be comfortable for modern people to wear, and yet still present a historical appearance. Then, as now, there was a great deal of variation in clothing for personal, social, economic, or religious reasons and it's not possible for me to put it all on this page.
For poor or common men: the earliest shirts worn in the middle east were simple rectangles folded over, with a bound or hemmed neck hole and an opening on the sides for arms. At this time, the neck slit went across the shoulder, instead of down the front like in modern shirts. There would be a simple button and loop to hold it closed. These shirts were made wide enough to be comfortable to work in, so using the entire 36" or 40" width of material would work well in reproducing one. Appropriate fabrics would be white or off white cotton or linen, or something with a simple stripe that looks handwoven. This shirt was worn with baggy pants that were also cut from a wide rectangle.
To make these pants, which can be worn by men or women, you will want to cut two big rectangles the whole width of your fabric, and as long as it takes to fit from waist to ankle, or waist to knee, plus about 4 inches. Sew up the sides and across the bottom crotch area, leaving openings for the legs. An 8-10 inch wide opening is a good size, but you may want to test fit. You can always open the hole or sew it closed an inch or three if necessary for comfort.
Fold the waist edge over and hem it, leaving an opening at the side seam to gather the waist onto a piece of elastic or a drawstring.
When worn, these pants will have a lot of loose extra fabric in between the legs. Some people find this takes some getting used to before they are comfortable with this style. You may prefer a more traditional european pair of baggy pants.
Alternately, for a more fitted look, or a warmer outfit, make the tunic as described, knee-length or mid-calf, but leave out the sleeve inserts. This means you may have to cut rectangles of the required sleeve length from separate fabric. Use rope for a belt. Add a simple rectangular drape for a cloak, or make the coat below from coarse fabric.
For rich men or Kings: make the tunic as decribed, and ankle-length. Add lots of gold embroidered trim, colored cord or ribbon, and large rhinestones around the neck and wrist. Use a leather belt with a fancy buckle, or a bright sash. Add a half-circle cloak, or make the coat below from rich fabric, and wear pants in a bright color with gold trim at the ankles.
Men wore triangular shaped headresses over their hair, held on with a heavy cord across the forehead. Richer men wore geometric patterned headscarves and had fine silk cord in bright colors with gold trim.
For women: there is a variety of clothing to choose from and, like men, richer women wore finer, more decorated clothing in bright colors while poor women would only have fabric in natural white, brown and black and would not have time or money to decorate it.
Some women could wear pants like those above, or like harem pants, with a simple white tunic shirt, under a longer, looser tunic and maybe a coat (below). It's been pointed out to me that, according to the law, nice Jewish girls did not wear pants, though. Women can also wear a full-length tunic with long sleeves, made as full in the skirt as you can manage, with a second tunic or coat over that. Women's tunics sometimes had "angel" sleeves as shown at right. Add a large rectangle for a shawl or drape. A veil can be made from a large rectangle or half-circle of gauze, or tie a triangle kerchief over the head.
The key for women's clothing is to have layers. If it is too warm, or you are on a budget for fabric, you can make false sleeves and dickies for one tunic, to make it look like there is another one underneath. Add a tube of fabric in the sleeve so a little bit shows at the wrist, and sew a strip around the neck-hole, too.
For Angels: Use the sleeve variation shown. Add a long cord for a belt.
You'll need about 3 yards of fabric to make this simple coat, an extra half yard or so if you're fitting tall men. In the middle east this garment is known as an "aba". White or very dark colored cotton works well, linen, heavy satin, or that "antique" drapery fabric. Choose fabric in solids or stripes. Poor men and common laborours would wear plain white, or brown or black striped robes. Rich men can wear colored fabrics, with gold embroidery. Joseph's Coat of Many Colors was probably an aba in striped fabric similar to this one.
Fold the yardage in half so the selvedges match and you have approximately 1.5 yards in a double layer. From the fold mark down each side about 12 inches. (Longer if you are fitting a larger fellow) These will be the arm holes.
In the center of the top fold, mark a space for the neck. 6-8 inches is good to start with, you can widen it later if you need to.
Make the shoulders as wide as you have material for. A richer man will be able to use more fabric in his clothing, and may have a coat that covers him from fingertip to fingertip. A poor man will probably only have about 10-12 inches from the neck opening to the arm opening.
Mark a straight line all the way down the center of the yardage. This will be your front opening. Taper the neckline from either side of the neck opening you marked, to approximately 8-10 inches below the fold.
Sew up the side seams. Hem the arm openings if you need to.
Cut up the front opening and hem or cover with bias tape trim, including the neck opening. Upper class men would have brightly colored silk cord or embroidery on the front opening of their robes, across the shoulders, and around the arm openings.
Even out the bottom of the garment and hem it.
Some more suggestions:
Simplicity and McCall's both have biblical themed pattern sets. You can find them on sale for a dollar or two, and ought to consider picking up a couple copies of the ones you like when they're cheap. They're good to have on hand for cutting multiple sizes, or if you have a group of volunteers who are making costumes.
Look at the other "halloween" costume patterns, disregarding the labels and looking only at the actual costumes shown. Several of them have very nice gown, robe, and cloak patterns that you can use for passion plays if you make them up in the right fabrics. These patterns may be marketed as fantasy or science fiction characters. Some of them have pieces you might be able to use with other costumes you already have. Nothing says you have to make up the costume exactly and completely like it is shown.
Remember the Ten Foot Rule. Your players will be on stage, most likely more than ten feet away from the audience. If you can't see a costume "mistake" from ten feet away it doesn't count. The same goes for details. Don't get too hung up on fiddly things. If nobody past the second row is going to be able to see it, why are you doing it? Big and bold works well for the stage. Fine and delicate generally does not.
All text and artwork copyright D. Duperault. NOTHING on this site may be reproduced or distributed by any means without my written permission. This information offered in good faith, and worth only what you paid for it.
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