Many traditions have specific goals for ritual clothing – this article discusses some of the options.
Why ritual clothing?
There are a couple of common reasons for using ritual clothing.
1) Changing clothes for ritual helps signal our minds that we’re doing something different. (Just like we might dress up for a special occaison, or change in to comfy clothes when we get home from work.)
2) It helps with a visual reminder that we’re in circle, and not doing other things. If everyone changes into ritual clothing, then that clothing can add to the dramatic effect of the circle, just like candles or beautiful altars or other aspects can.
3) In some cases, it can help even out differences between people in circle. One of the old arguments for going skyclad was that not wearing clothing (or non-religious jewelry) removes a lot of social markers, so it was harder to tell if someone was wealthy or poor.
Personally, I prefer option 1 and 2, with a side of ‘ritual clothing can also become a tool in itself’ that helps you to focus and direct energy for your goals.
I think it’s worth setting aside some specific clothing for ritual, even if it isn’t outwardly that different from your day to day clothing, or having a piece or two you add for ritual.
Things to consider:
There are a lot of different things to think about when choosing ritual clothing (or how you are choosing clothing for a particular ritual). Some of them are practical, some of them are about ritual preferences.
Some traditions and groups have specific requirements. These are for a variety of reasons. Often it’s so that people in the ritual help reinforce the other visual choices in the ritual (like the altar design, symbols, etc.) or at least don’t distract from it. It can be odd to be in ritual and see someone’s funny t-shirt across the circle at a more serious moment.
Some groups ask people to wear the same thing to help reinforce that people are the same in the circle, no matter what their background is (or what they do for work, or how much money they have.) In these cases, you wear the same thing except for the symbols that are specific to that circle.
If you’d like to use a shift of clothing to help trigger a shift in mindset, you don’t necessarily need to change your entire outfit.
Some people find it’s really helpful to do something small and simple for their daily ritual work. This might be putting on a specific piece of jewellery, putting a light veil over their head (perhaps lowering it at a particular point), or doing something specific with their hair.
I have hair down to the middle of my back, and it is almost always in a braid or simple bun. When I am in ritual, I normally have most or all of it loose depending on what I’m doing.
One of the biggest things to consider is material. I have a strong preference for natural materials, and not silk.
Why? If you’re working with candles, cotton, linen, or wool are a lot safer than poly-blend fabrics. Natural fibres burn away fast and fairly clean (or in the case of wool, maybe smoulder long enough you can put them out.) Poly-blends melt. Guess which one you want close to your skin if there is a problem with a candle.
(I’ve heard at least three different stories of people for whom this made a big difference in ritual settings from people who otherwise had ritual experience.)
I avoid silk because it’s often used as a magical insulator, and on a more practical level, it’s a bit more of a pain to wash and more expensive to buy. I’m more likely to use silk as a shawl or similar layer that can be adjusted
Sleeves and length
Long draping sleeves (or big poofy ones with cuffs) and trailing skirts may look very elegant, but they’re often quite impractical, especially if you’re not used to wearing them.
Both can be a significant safety risk if you’re working with candles, or doing any kind of dancing or ritual movement.
If you do want to do the really elegant trailing things, consider design your clothing so you have some way to pin the ends of the sleeves up or the skirt. It was common in the Middle Ages and Renaissance for clothing to have these options – a little loop and button tucked into a seam or a ribbon tie so you can securely tie up the sleeves, and a way to tuck a trailing skirt up.
Shirts might have a drawstring or elastic that allows you to push them up and secure them if you’re doing things where the cuffs might catch or get near flame.
If you’re wearing trousers, the same things go for cuffs – either figure out hemming them to the right length so you won’t catch your foot on them, or a way to tuck them up.
Pockets are a really excellent thing. They’re even more excellent in ritual.
Many rituals give you some sort of small token as part of the ritual, or have you hold a thing, or keep a thing. Or maybe have you bring a small thing to add to a bonfire or charge. If you don’t have reasonably sized and secure pockets, these things get awkward very quickly.
If you’re making ritual clothes yourself, it’s usually pretty easy to sew a side-seam pocket in (more on that in a minute). If your clothing doesn’t have pockets, a belt with a belt pouch is a really handy thing.
While we’re being demanding here, I prefer mine with enough space to hold a set of 15-20 index cards (sometimes used for ritual text) and to fit my hand into the bottom comfortably so I can get a small item (like a stone or acorn or other common ritual token out.)
You can make pouches out of fabric, or buy fabric or leather ones on online sites like Etsy. They’re also often seen at vendors who sell at Renaissance festivals, steampunk events, or similar places.
One excellent question is how warmly to dress.
Many people find that a cast circle (if your practice includes that) tends to hold in heat, so you may prefer shorter sleeves or lighter clothing than you’d otherwise choose for that setting. Think a step cooler, not lots. This is when a light shawl, sarong, or other layer can be really helpful, or tucking a warmer layer where you can get it if you decide you need it.
Many people enjoy wearing jeans (I am not one of them, but I know lots of you out there are). They – and other tighter fitting, less giving types of clothing – are often not a great ritual choice because they can restrict breathing or comfortable positions for meditation or movement.
Wear comfortable shoes, if you wear shoes, that you won’t need to fiddle with.
Shoes are usually the safest option outside unless you’re very certain the ground you’re on has been checked for glass and other dangerous objects. There are a number of options out there for lightweight leather sandals, with enough of a sole to protect your feet but that still allow you to feel the ground’s shifts and curves, if those work for your feet. Some people like minimalist shoes for ritual, for similar reasons.
Inside, it will probably depend a lot on what the temperature’s like. The floor is often a lot more chilly than the rest of the room! I did a lot of group work in Minnesota, and in the winter, we had our preferred sacred ritual socks or slippers. (I’m normally not a sock wearer, but put me on a bare floor in sub-zero temperatures in a basement-level room, and I will want something on my feet.)
Here, the goal is ‘shouldn’t distract from the ritual’, really.
Hair, masks, and veils
As with sleeves and gowns, long flowing hair is wonderfully romantic and also a terrible fire risk. If you’re doing work where it might get caught, or might get near flames, be careful to pin it, braid it, or put it up in ways that won’t catch.
Some traditions use a veil or masks for some ritual purposes. If this is true for you, be careful since they’ll affect how much you can see (masks, in particular, can limit peripheral vision more than you realise.)
It’s a good idea for rituals using masks or veils to have someone designated not keep an eye out and step in to help if someone seems to. be having problems, or there’s a risk of something dangerous or otherwise a problem getting knocked over.
What do I wear?
My default ritual clothing when I’m putting on ritual clothing is a basic chiton (two large rectangular pieces pinned or with ribbon ties sewn at the shoulders – four or five on each side, every couple of inches is a nice effect) sewn down the sides and belted as needed.
It can have a pocket sewn in (see the pockets section) but it’s easy to keep out of the way. Over it, a light shawl (or a heavier one, if you get cold in circle) or sarong can give colour appropriate to the ritual
I also have a black dress (with pockets!) I like for some rituals. If I’m doing ritual in ‘street clothes’, I prefer a black top and skirt with some sort of appropriately coloured shawl or layer, plus my ritual jewellery.
I have long hair that is basically all one length, and for ritual I wear the back down, or all of it down, pinning back enough it won’t get in my face for movement or near candles. I rarely wear my hair loose otherwise, so wearing my hair down is a signal to me that I’m doing something special.
How to make a ritual robe
The neat thing about this approach is that you only need to be able to sew straight seams for this, and do some very basic measuring (i.e. ‘not so long you trip on it’ and ‘wide enough that one width gives you room to move, then at least double it’.) You don’t even need anyone to measure you, which is handy if you live alone.
If you’re short, like me, try taking a 45” width fabric (one of the standard widths) and using enough to go out to your elbow on each side with your arms outstretched or a bit more.
If you’re taller, either aim at 60″ wide fabric, or do some measurements to figure out how much fabric you need (allow about a foot to be able to belt it up comfortably.)
You can sew along the top, use buttons, or sew on ribbon ties (about every 3-4” leaving a nice gap for your head – test the spacing with safety pins first if you want to explore this).
Leave a nice big gap at the top of the garment for arm holes on each side, then sew it together making a seam at least half the length of the garment. (You can sew all the way down, just make sure you have plenty of give in the amount of fabric so you can walk and sit comfortably). You can alternately leave it open at the bottom for a few inches (up to about your knees) for easier movement. The shape is given by how you belt it, so leave it loose and free flowing to start with so you have plenty of room to play with.
Hem up all the exposed edges (or the fabric will slowly fray, probably) and there you go! You can leave it plain, or you can decorate it in whatever way you like. This doesn’t take a lot of fabric, so you can buy fabric in different colours, play with dyes or fabric paints or embroidery – all sorts of things.
Here are some more illustrations and options. You can also make one with larger fabric, and fold it. I prefer to seam up at least part of both sides, since it prevents things coming undone at the wrong moment.
Of course, many people have different things they wear for different rituals. Most of us won’t change clothing for a small daily thing at an altar or shrine – but we might have a range of things to wear for different seasons or occasions, or for group ritual.
Some groups will ask for specific colours for particular rituals (black for Samhain, or green for Beltane are common, for example) so it can be handy to have a default piece of clothing, and a few sarongs or light shawls in different colours if you intend to do regular ritual work with other people.
Enjoy whatever you pick!
Added July 27, 2017. Reformatted November 2020.