Pirate Fashion: A Lesson in History

This is a guest post by Marie Sumner, who never grew out of playing pretend. In order to fund her trips to anime conventions, renaissance fairs, and other costume parties, she writes for Wholesale Halloween Costumes.

Pirates area very recognizable historical characters, often depicted with bandanas on their heads, peg-legs, eye patches. Pirate costumes are a staple in Halloween shops, and with Disney’s Pirate of the Caribbean franchise gaining popularity, the scurvy seafarers are in vogue more than ever.

But how much of our perception of pirates is based on reality? What did pirates actually look like? This post will endeavor to explore just that.

A Clarification

Pirates were real people, not fictional characters who lived for dressing up. They wore clothing that was convenient for their duties and that was available to them at the time. There is often not much difference in the dress of a pirate and the attire of a regular sailor of the same time period.

Ship’s Clothing

Manning a ship is tough work, and is not easy on clothing. There’s no place for fancy clothes in a place where stains and tears are a part of daily life and there is neither time, money, nor care for repairs. Generally, pirates were not overly concerned with their attire. It was simply not a practical concern.

Many pirates were unemployed sailors. They turned to piracy out of a need for work and payment. Some longed for the adventure of the sea. Others wanted freedom from regular society. Others just wanted the cash. Whatever the reason, many pirates had a background in seamanship. In the 1600s, the British Admiralty issued standard attire for their sailors, so this bled over into what pirates were accustomed to wearing and had access to. A pirate’s wardrobe often consisted of canvas doublets and breeches, which could withstand the rough and tumble of a ship better than other materials. They wore linen shirts and stockings for warmth, along with cotton waistcoats and drawers.

The Monmouth cap actually became regular attire because of an English law in the 1500s stipulating that everyone over the age of six was required to wear a wool hat on Sundays. This was put in place to stimulate the British wool trade. This was only enforced on the lower classes, to which many sailors belonged.

Pirates, of course, took pleasure in disobeying laws and getting away with it. They did this in their attire by disregarding the sumptuary laws regarding colors and materials allowed for people of different social classes. If a pirate could get his hands on fancy cloth of bright colors, he would wear it to flaunt his disrespect for the law- particularly laws intending to separate classes.

Ships have their own class system though. The clothing of the crew and the clothing of the captain often showed variance as well. Crew members needed tight fitting clothes that wouldn’t get in the way while climbing the rigging and performing other duties. Captains were not subject to such concerns and therefore could choose their clothing with more of an eye toward preference. Captains also got the first pick of any goods from overtaken ships, so they were often seen with more glamorous wear.

This is certainly why pirate captains in the media treasure their gold necklaces and fancy hats. They see them as hard earned treasure, a sign of status. They have earned the luxury to look nice and they will remind everyone who sees them of that fact.

No pirate’s life was ever predictable or consistent. The quality of clothing they wore was dependent on the success of their ventures. Of course, most clothing was stolen or bought with stolen money. So the nicer a pirate looked, the more successful you could guess they were.

As nice as the clothing may have been when the pirates acquired it though, it was subject to the activities of daily pirate life. This is why realistic pirate costumes often have tears and inconsistent coloring. That is just faithful to the times. Pirate ships didn’t come with laundry facilities.

Because of the variance of backgrounds in seamen, pirates’ wardrobes varied severely. Because many clothes were stolen, they were often ill-fitting. There was a popular British fabric called Motley, which was multi-colored and made of mixed threads. It often used scraps and was cheaper than higher quality fabrics. This made it a popular choice for seamen, and is the origin of the term “motley crew” when referring to pirates!

Pirates often had a taste for treasure, which is why the captains sought out flamboyant clothing. They wanted to set themselves apart from others. This is why pirates who could afford or acquire such goods sought gold jewelry, feathered caps, sashes and ribbons, and fancy boots. Many deckhands went barefoot, as it was convenient for tasks such as swabbing the deck.

Just like the British gentry sought to look refined with wigs, pirates did too. Many a captain procured a wig; some even had them specially made. These measures were their way of saying that they could be gentlemen too, without confining themselves to the restrictions of society.

What about other popular pirate costume accessories? The peg-leg? The eye patch? Well, these were mostly designed by artists and writers seeking to show the adventure and danger associated with pirating. It also adds to the romance of the role: a pirate must give up a part of himself in order to do what he loves.

Though actual piracy was not as romantic as some authors would have you believe, there were some seamen who lost limbs and eyes. Many of them were not able to continue their careers after such injuries. Some were, and they are the inspiration for the now stereotypical piratical accessories. From the media, you would think there was a pirate on every ship who had lost a vital body part. This simply wasn’t the case.

This article has mostly covered British pirates, but pirates in different times and from different regions had varied wardrobes, much as the normal citizenry did. The most important part of a pirate’s outfit was functionality. For crewman, functionality meant being able to perform their duties. For captains, it meant being able to demand respect and admiration.

For the modern pirate impersonator, functionality often means being able to be identified as a pirate. If you want to be historically accurate, you may have more fun dressing up as a Captain than a ragged crew member. But whatever choices you make, remember that pirates wardrobes were varied. So don’t be afraid to add your own flair to the ensemble.

For more information about pirates and their costumes, see the following websites.

http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/info_sheets_piracy.htm

http://blog.aurorahistoryboutique.com/tag/pirate-costume/

Resources Consulted

http://www.navcal.com/navcal/ETPGClothing.htm

http://www.gentlemenoffortune.com/

http://www.cindyvallar.com/dress.html

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