Designing Costumes for the Hill Cumorah Pageant

Since its inception in 1917, the Hill Cumorah Pageant has become a significant stage spectacular. Presented before an audience averaging 14,000 observers nightly, it is the largest outdoor production of its kind. The visual presentation involves some 650 performers wearing a combination of well over 1,000 costumes. Designing, creating, and maintaining such an extraordinary wardrobe becomes a balancing act as directors and designers work within the limits of outdoor drama to use costuming that makes for effective visual storytelling and also is reasonably true to the different time periods it represents. What’s more, approaching the costume design of such a unique production requires an innovative interpretation of Book of Mormon story locations and a creative realization of costume history.

Meeting the Pageant’s Physical Challenges

Outdoor theater exhibits a style unlike that of most stage productions. An audience attending an indoor presentation might not think about the structural design of the auditorium and how it provides positions for lighting and the ropes and pulleys for scenery. Yet that same audience expects a quality performance in an outdoor arena, where lack of walls and ceilings makes the production a daunting challenge. Like scenic and lighting design, costuming too must be adapted to an open-air stage. As this article will show, distance from the audience, a typically short rehearsal period, and inclement weather are significant factors in the final costume design.

Distance is a key visual concern for outdoor drama. Viewers will not readily identify characters if costume color and detail do not project well from the stage to the expanse of the audience. But the unique nature of the pageant as a missionary tool adds another layer of costume requirements. Before each show, actors in full character dress mingle with the audience to deliver brochures and answer questions about the upcoming performance. At this time the audience is close enough to examine, touch, and photograph the costumes as part of the pageant experience. Accordingly, costuming must be realistic enough to bear close-up scrutiny yet broad enough in detail to “read” at a great distance once moved to the stage. For this reason, the costumes are designed on two levels.

The first level concerns the actual materials used. Though contemporary fabrics can rarely match the textures of historical textiles, loose weaves and specialty cloths are used to represent the hand-produced look of Old World costumes. Because volunteers sew the costumes, their hours must be carefully utilized for maximum effect. Sewing machines speed the process (and the durability of the costumes), and afterwards seams are enhanced by hand detailing. Edges of contemporary cut fabrics are frequently turned under and stitched carefully to represent the “loom edge” of historical clothing. Traditionally hand-wrought accessories, such as jade-bead necklaces, shell-earring plugs, and elaborate wood-pulp headdresses, are replicated with more resilient contemporary versions that can withstand heavy use and be produced quickly.

The second level concerns how these textures and details will blend together onstage. Too much detail will muddy at a distance. Too many colors will only confuse the eye. The designer must choose colors and details in a value range that will achieve the proper effect at a distance. Much like the pointillist dots of color in a painting by Seurat, the costumes assume a tone onstage that ties like colors together in harmony and pulls disparate colors apart in sharp contrast. So while the fine detail will appeal to the individual audience member in close proximity, the intricate colors and textures will work together under the stage lights to offer rich color tones during the performance. Employing these techniques helps ensure that the costumes are successful both as close-up and distant designs.

The short rehearsal time becomes the next challenging factor for costuming the pageant. Each summer the 650 performers arrive five days before the first full-dress rehearsal. Casting takes place on the first Saturday morning, when the actors are assigned their roles. Costume fittings begin within minutes of those decisions. Alterations are kept to a minimum since stitching and cutting considerably limit a costume’s usable life. Consequently, the costumes must be adaptable to a range of body shapes and sizes. This requires a structural design that allows for quick alterations in length and width. Whenever possible, adjustment capabilities are built into the costumes. Fortunately, the kind of clothing worn by Bible and Book of Mormon peoples allows for such adaptations.

Most of the garment shapes from the ancient world could accommodate significant changes in the wearer’s body shape and movement. For example, long articles of clothing were “girded up” about the waist for work and travel, allowing the legs to move freely. Loose pieces were bound to the torso with long sashes to allow upper-body movement. Overall, large pieces of fabric allowed a loose environment for the body. Length could be adjusted by the simple use of a waist sash. People owned fewer changes of clothing and kept them longer than we do in a world where ready-made clothing is so easy to find. Because thread had to be hand spun, fabric had to be hand loomed, and clothing had to be hand prepared, final clothing pieces were valuable. In fact, they were frequently offered as collateral in place of money (see Exodus 22:26–27; Matthew 5:40). People slept in their clothing, especially when traveling, because laying aside an article of clothing might mean having it stolen during the night. By working closely with authentic pattern shapes, the costume designers for the Hill Cumorah Pageant capitalize on the adaptive nature of the historical clothing. While elastic, belting, and Velcro might be added internally to help contemporary actors wear unfamiliar clothing pieces, the outward construction of the costumes stays very close to the historical shapes of the ancient world. Thus historical accuracy offers simple solutions for making the costumes adaptable to varying body sizes.

Another physical challenge of outdoor theater is the weather. The Hill Cumorah Pageant is staged during the first few weeks of July, when New York State evening temperatures can fluctuate widely. Humidity is high, rain is always a possibility, and the actors’ perspiration is a constant. Here again, costume solutions come through historical findings. Cotton and other agave fibers were common ancient American choices for fabric construction.1 They could be spun in light- or heavyweight varieties, they allowed excellent airflow to help the body maintain a comfortable temperature, and they held up well in humidity. Such fibers have proved to be strong choices in the New York environment for the same reasons, offering comfort for the actors and ease of maintenance for the wardrobe.

From initial construction through performance and into storage, the costumes are maintained in top working order by a skilled volunteer staff. The actors receive training on the proper care of their costume pieces. Laundry facilities are available on-site for costumes that need quick attention. Damaged items are dealt with promptly and professionally to ensure the actors’ safety and comfort as well as a consistent visual look during performances. Throughout the year, the costumes are stored in a facility with a fairly consistent temperature. Through all these means, the costumes can survive the climatic and other challenges of repeated outdoor use.

Visual Storytelling

Theater as an art form relies on a director and that person’s vision of a script. Obviously, the costume, scenic, and lighting designers consider the visual “story” of the characters on stage. But more importantly, their designs must embody the message of the entire production as seen through the director’s eyes. Again, the Hill Cumorah Pageant offers its own unique application of this collaborative process. Charged with training a cast of some 650 actors in 78 scenes during a five-day rehearsal period, 10 directors supervise the full staging of the pageant. Following the leadership of one executive director, this team works in numerous rehearsal locations at the same time to bring the entire story to life. This requires a unified vision of what the pageant needs to say to its audience and how that message must flow from one scene into the next. Each spring, the team of directors meets to consider the script page by page. All directors review videos of the last year’s production. They discuss scenes that worked well and scenes that need further development. They plan the upcoming year’s rehearsal process, and each director receives assignments for the upcoming pageant. During this spring meeting, the designers offer input regarding the storytelling process. Visual research is presented, and ideas for new looks are discussed. And then, with only months to go, construction begins on any new or revised costumes.

The most important consideration for each revisiting of the pageant is how to tell the story in a way that will make its message clearer for the audience. Past pageants emphasized visual spectacle within each individual part of the story. The original costumes and large set pieces supported that concept. Each story segment stood on its own in a succession of scriptural stories. But over the past few years, the aim has been to tie the individual stories together into one cohesive unit. The current directors want the pageant to tell a powerful tale of human agency: the universal message that following the teachings of Christ will ultimately lead a people to great blessings, while ignoring those teachings will ultimately lead to their destruction. This new approach requires that the costumes tell a much larger story.

To visually support that overriding theme, the costume design is being reconceived to show a constant similarity between each of the prophets portrayed in the pageant, even as the time periods change. While historical silhouettes must remain accurate for each location and time, an overall evolution of color and detail must underlie the primary message. The design team has decided that earth tones and simple silhouettes will draw visual parallels between different generations who accept the messengers of Christ. In contrast, artificial colors and multiple layers of detail will cloud the forms of those who deny the prophets. To the audience, a rich display of increasing costume detail reflects the social development of a people drawing further away from the gospel. This color-and-layer approach demonstrates how the theatrical nature of the pageant must sometimes overrule historical accuracy. Obviously, different colors and clothing layers were worn by people from all walks of life, but in this production visual control of color and costume layers underlies the message of the script. Logistically, this redesign, which began in the summer of 2003, will rework the entire 1,072 costumes of the pageant over a five- to six-year period. Targeted segments will be handled annually in careful succession so that, during the process of integration, the new costumes will work with the old costumes in telling the stories as effectively as possible.

Each year the costumes change in one way or another, though only minor steps can be taken in any one year toward a greatly different look. Any redesign of the Hill Cumorah Pageant must recognize the foundation laid by past designers and their contribution to the full pageant vision. Janet Swenson helped create the original look of the pageant during its formative years. With her theatrical training, she helped originate the spectacular look of an outdoor production. She used costumes from Brigham Young University stock and some garment pieces created on-site to complete the look. Gail Argetsinger worked on an arduous redesign of an entirely new set of costumes during the late 1980s and early ’90s, bringing the pageant to an exciting and historical level. Informed by the best research at her disposal, she oversaw various refinements that enhanced the colorful and majestic visualization of the Book of Mormon narrative. Many other hands have touched the pageant over the years, incorporating costuming ideas gained from ongoing research. Much like the world of fashion, each new clothing piece evolves slowly from the last. Eventually, a new look will be achieved, but from year to year, the process will be gradual.

Historical Reconstruction

Costuming the Hill Cumorah Pageant would be much more difficult if it were not for solutions found in the historical world of the stories represented. As already mentioned, the period clothing of Book of Mormon peoples had to address many of the same physical problems encountered by a contemporary cast on the slopes of the Hill Cumorah. The daily life of Book of Mormon peoples was an open-air experience: temperatures varied, the climate was naturally humid, and the physical nature of daily routine demanded practical clothing styles that allowed range of movement and easy adjustment for fit. History also informs the directors’ concept of individual agency. Research indicates that the dress of peoples likely related to Book of Mormon peoples in time and place showed elaborate costume detailing for those of wealth and high social status.2 In contrast, the humble lower classes likely wore clothing that was plain and simple. This simple fact was a major consideration in planning a new look for the pageant consistent with its overall theme.

As the redesign process began, it was necessary to study Book of Mormon geography and ancient dress. The directors felt it was important to keep religious and archaeological research separate, at least in direct application. While one can educate the other, historical research can be strongly persuaded by religious dogma, often obscuring the actual discovery of human individuality in the process.3

For costume design, it is imperative that each character be seen as a living, breathing individual in a real world. Once the designers have a strong sense of how the costumes’ historical detailing can reflect actual social structure, they create initial designs and then modify them as needed to address vital stylistic demands. This process is especially important when designing costumes for well-known religious personalities, since religious groups tend to deify them and place them into idealized worlds. Thus a strong sense of factual research must come first. Fortunately, the costume design that would match the pageant’s new direction was attached to a research project already well under way through several grants from the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University. This project, involving BYU student assistants and a faculty supervisor, had begun in 1998. Copies of illustrations and photographs of historical figureswere archived, and an exhaustive bibliography of books, articles, and reference materials were compiled. The project to date has accumulated a rich collection of images sorted into a historical chronology based on archaeological periods for the ancient Near East and ancient America. These scientific timelines are then superimposed onto a new period breakdown that matches the storytelling accounts of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. With the aid of this project, the pageant’s scriptural characters were placed within their appliedarchaeological periods (and broad geographical contexts), facilitating further library research on clothing practices of the ancient peoples associated with those basic identifications.

To make full use of the research, Book of Mormon geography had to be addressed with greater specificity. While controversy still surrounds this issue, contemporary scholarship on the subject proposes helpful regional identifications. Two comparative studies by John L. Sorenson4 and Joseph L. Allen5 helped to sort through the various hypotheses concerning the location of Book of Mormon lands. Initial study showed that the majority of Latter-day Saint scholars tend to place Book of Mormon events within Mesoamerica. It became obvious that while Aztec and Inca images dominate most current Latter-day Saint visual images of Book of Mormon peoples, these cultures were much too late to satisfy a Book of Mormon world. Historical mapping and population studies6 indicate that the greatest rise and fall of human populations during the period of the Book of Mormon likely centered in Mesoamerica.

With a general region provisionally determined, associated historical cultures needed to be identified and studied. Archaeological studies seemed conclusive for an Olmec-Maya dominance within this region, with smaller influences from the Mixteca in the north, the Zapotec in the central region, and the Moche in the far south. While these identifications were only broad brushstrokes in a complicated interrelationship of ancient names and cultural movements, they at least offered pageant designers a context for a more concentrated study of ancient dress. It was not necessary to definitely tie any one Book of Mormon site to a particular Mesoamerican center, since clothing influences make a much larger sweep in historical contexts. What’s more, comparative studies reveal that the most basic clothing pieces from northern Mexico all the way to the mountains of Peru varied little in original shape. The regional differences in the clothing had much more to do with details like how each piece was worn or some unique outerwear additions than with overall shape and design.

What became even more interesting in the initial research were the strong similarities between Mesoamerican and Old World garments. Costume pieces from Chiapas, Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala offer striking resemblances to the clothing of the world that Lehi left, both in original construction and in finished garment shapes. The pageant designers decided to spend much of their time in Mesoamerican studies to uncover cultural clues to meet production requirements.

Now began the second level of research needed to complete the costume designs. Designers studied the collected research images to identify basic shapes and clothing pieces that were common to males and females. They carefully reviewed the work of Patricia Anawalt and of Margot Schevill, both costume experts of the Mesoamerican regions. While the bulk of the research deals mainly with the Classic and Post-Classic periods (AD 250 to 1500), a comparative study of earlier garments disclosed a long history of common clothing shapes. Anawalt’s categorization of clothing according to construction techniques helped the designers to identify clothing styles heavily influenced by Mesoamerican cultures.7 The categories also helped them to pinpoint cultures whose costume shapes were unique, informing judgment on costume detailing for specific locations.

Another approach for studying ancient garments deals with direction of fabric drape. Some civilizations (such as the Greeks) draped fabrics horizontally, wrapping the body in consecutive layers of cloth. Other cultures (such as the Romans) tended to place fabric vertically on the body with a “hem to hem” philosophy. These garments frequently included a slot for the head to protrude through. Still other cultures (such as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians) blended these two approaches. Judging from our research, the style of the Mesoamerican region was also a blend of the two. The male maxtlatl (or loincloth) wrapped repeatedly around the waist and once or twice between the legs and then ended in a full front hang or was knotted somewhere at the front of the body. While this garment followed the horizontal trend, the male ichcahuipil and the female huipil were created from lengths of fabric draped over the shoulders and stitched up the front and down the back, leaving an opening for the head. These garments followed the vertical drape approach. In this study, Mesoamerican clothing showed strong similarities to the historical blend of fabric drapes found in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

A clothing practice that showed a strong similarity to the Old World was the use of embroidery work, especially on the female garment. A woman in Old Testament times spent countless hours hand stitching around the neck opening and the immediate neck-front placket of her kthoneth (a basic slip-on tunic). Likewise, Mesoamerican women added extensive embroidery to the neck and front of the huipil. In both cases, the embroidery added color and individuality to the garment while offering reinforcement to the neck opening. Colors used in both regions were quite similar, both in color range and in dye materials.8

However, one strong difference in construction became apparent in our research. While the ground loom was most common in the world of the Bible,9 the backstrap loom was more common in Mesoamerica.10 The choice becomes obvious when one understands the climates of Mesoamerica. For instance, much of the year the soil is muddy and unusable as a work surface. The backstrap loom allowed the weaver to relocate easily and to work either indoors or outdoors. The Old World ground loom manufactured wide fabrics that allowed the weaver to produce full wraps in one piece, without having to seam together several individual widths. The backstrap loom, on the other hand, offered only narrow fabric strips. This required more handwork as the strips were sewn selvage to selvage to produce the finished width. Mesoamerican clothing, on the whole, contained less fabric than Old World garments. However, the amount of handwork involved produced more color and detail in the Mesoamerican finished garments.

Because of the humid climate, ancient Mesoamerican fabrics have not survived to our day to take the guesswork out of fabric research. However, higher-elevation Peruvian climates have preserved many exciting samples of fabrics created by advanced weaving techniques, suggesting that this technology was known throughout the time frame of the Book of Mormon.11 A few scraps of ancient fabric discovered in the cenotes (water holes) of the Petn region of Mesoamerica exist,12 but since they were preserved in water, a great deal of fiber distortion and loss of dye work has taken place.

The costume design research had to focus on two very important concepts as it progressed. First, the discovered images in Mesoamerica known to the world today deal almost entirely with the upper echelon of the civilization. The figures depicted on the stelae (stone monuments) and architectural surfaces were leaders. Even most of the artisans and scribes of the Mesoamerican cultures were members of royal families.13 We have less information about what common people wore. Second, and closely related, the vast majority of the images in the iconographic style of Mesoamerica represent people as embodied gods with symbolic headpieces and costumes. While it seems safe to suppose that similar pieces were worn during rituals, it has to be assumed that they were not daily attire. Thus, costumes as represented in a majority of the research images are “theatrical” by nature and not necessarily representative of everyday dress.

From the research accumulated, designers found strong theatrical images on which to base the costumes for official characters, especially those in ritual settings. The research also offered clues to the clothing worn by common people, at least in garment shapes and layers. But some interpretation was necessary for the entire scope of the pageant’s costume design to emerge. To remain true to history, elaborate costumes from the Classic period of Mesoamerica were reserved for final segments of the pageant. The elaborate nature of these ritualistic costumes offered a strong visual representation of how far people had gone to represent a God they had ceased to understand.

In contrast, costumes in the beginning of the pageant would have to lean toward a strong Old World flavor with earth tones, textures, and larger garment pieces from a world with greater temperature differences. This look, again, supported the directorial concept of a beginning that displays people who are both close to the earth and simple in their faith and lifestyle.

Bringing Home the Message

The costume design for the Hill Cumorah Pageant reflects a strong understanding of the physical and artistic needs of the production as well as a good grasp of the historical setting of the Book of Mormon. Through a rich blending of theatrical techniques, the pageant dramatically re-creates scriptural episodes to underscore the wisdom of human agency based on moral choices—a message made poignantly relevant by the historical realism conveyed in large part by authentic costuming. It is anticipated that the finished garments will help transport the audience to an ancient world split into those who chose to follow the prophets and those who did not. While this might be an oversimplification of a complicated society, it is true to Mormon’s own worldview, as reflected in his use of the terms Nephite and Lamanite.14 Hopefully, audiences will come away from the pageant having drawn instructive parallels between their world and that of the Nephites. Conceivably, those who wove fabrics, dyed materials, and constructed clothing in a day gone by can help educate us as we live in our own world of human choices and very human needs.


  1. See Margot Blum Schevill, Costume as Communication: Ethnographic Costumes and Textiles from Middle America and the Central Andes of South America in the Collections of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, Bristol, Rhode Island (Bristol, RI: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, 1986), 9.
  2. See Ralph Whitlock, Everyday Life of the Maya (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976), 44–46.
  3. “There is a tendency by some Christians to assume too much from archaeology. Sometimes the words confirm, prove, authenticate, and substantiate can be employed. It can be proved that historical conditions were such that Solomon could have been as powerful a king as the Bible says he was; but it does not prove that God gave Solomon wisdom. It can be fairly well substantiated that there was a census when Jesus was born; but this confirmation hardly proves his divinity. No archaeological evidence will ever prove the atonement. It must be recognized that there is a clear separation between historical and theological proof.” Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 20.
  4. John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992).
  5. Joseph L. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, UT: S. A. Publishers, 1989).
  6. See John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon Mapped,” in his An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985).
  7. See Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Indian Clothing before Corts: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 9–14.
  8. See Ralph Whitlock, Everyday Life of the Maya (New York: Dorset Press, 1976), 43.
  9. See Henry F. Lutz, Textiles and Costumes among the Peoples of the Ancient Near East (New York: G. E. Stechert and Co., 1923), 70. For more contemporary information, see Florence Eloise Petzel, Textiles of Ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt (Corvallis, OR: Cascade Printing, 1984), 21–28.
  10. See Anawalt, Indian Clothing before Corts, 209–14. Also see Margot Blum Schevill, Costume as Communication (Bristol, RI: Mark-Burton, Inc., 1986), 13.
  11. See Federico Kauffmann-Doig, Ancestors of the Incas: The Lost Civilization of Peru, trans. Eulogio Guzman (Memphis, TN: Wonders, 1998), 108–17. See also Raoul D’Harcourt, Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques, trans. Sadie Brown (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1974), 3.
  12. See Patricia Rieff Anawalt, “Textile Research from the Mesoamerican Perspective,” Beyond Cloth and Cordage: Archaeological Textile Research in the Americas, ed. P. B. Drooker and L. D. Webster (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 2000), 214.
  13. See Michael D. Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 97.
  14. See Mormon 1:8–9; Jacob 1:14.