‘Pirate’ Costume

A short introduction & reference
by  Richard Rutherford-Moore

An illustration used in a recent schoolbook as to ‘what a pirate looked like’

Note that this article is intended as a basic reference and has been abbreviated from the relevant chapters ‘Pirate Costume’ and ‘The Ships Crew’ within his ‘Pirate Manual’ by the same author.

A Howard Pyle illustration of 1901 – just one popular image of a pirate used by Walt Disney costume designers to create ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ for the film Pirates of the Caribbean

Copyright of the National Maritime Museum


Most historical pirates have a heritage of being ordinary seamen or mariners first, from either the merchant trading service or the navy before becoming privateers or pirates. Pirates were not always dirty, nasty or evil men – though some did, the majority didn’t bury treasure, didn’t make their victims walk the plank, didn’t have distinctive tattoos, didn’t wear ear-rings, didn’t have a parrot, have only one leg and habitually carry pistols, swords and knives. There were of course exceptions to this general rule but here we deal with ‘typical’ as an aid to costume, so here we’ll look at what a typical pirate would look like between the years 1690-1720.

There are currently plenty of books about Pirates to read, mostly using the same set of illustrations ; the useful books by Angus Konstam (published by Osprey) are now rare - but it’s the pirates in the background of the plates that you should be looking at as ‘typical’ rather look at the foreground characters. It’s unlikely the real hardcase or business-like pirate captains such as Low, Jennings, Lowther, Vane or Hornigold wore finery in any form when aboard their ships – if you take the illustrations in Captain Johnson’s History of the Most Notorious Pyrates to be accurate men like Avery and Roberts probably only got away with wearing such outstanding finery because they were exceptionally successful in the Orient where these fabrics originated : it is a fact that just before his death Roberts went below to put on his finery when he saw the Royal Navy approaching and when dead was flung over the side still wearing them.

This historical period was known for clothing ‘rules’ and fashion regarding dressing to suit your  status in society : wealthy people wore clothes made of a ‘broader’ cut and using expensive materials such as silk to show off their status - it was not unknown for a common man to be approached or stopped by the authorities and asked to prove why he was wearing what appeared to be clothes above his station (the suggestion being that if he could not give sufficient reason for wearing fine clothes he would be arrested on suspicion that he had stolen them). Typical European male civilians in town wore ‘long clothes’ ; being a jacket ending between the knee and mid-thigh with a waistcoat of the same length, a ‘cocked’ or ‘slouch’ hat, a neck-roller and shirt and wore breeches which were tied or buttoned at the knee, with a pair of stockings and buckle or lace-up shoes. Seamen ashore in a port like London or Bristol would immediately be identifiable from the ‘landsmen’ in three ways : their dress, their mannerisms and their speech. Seamen habitually swore terribly – ‘ordinary’ folk would not go to a port tavern frequented by mariners without expecting to hear a mixture of what sounded to them like unintelligible sea-faring gibberish and frequented with violent oaths ‘like to turn the very air blue’. A seaman would never say downstairs, upstairs, left, right, front, back and many other casual terms even when ashore replacing these with a host of sea-faring terms used instead which would quickly confuse or amuse any ‘landsman’ involved in a conversation with a seaman.

The frontispiece from the edition of Alexander Exquemelin’s book The Buccaneers of America published by Nicholas ten Hoorn in 1700 : the man standing on the left holding a cutlass is described as being a ‘typical’ seaman in appearance, wearing a buttoned ‘short’ jacket and loose breeches open at the knee. The two figures on the ground represent ‘disruption to trade and commerce’ in the form of a captured African slave and a merchant being robbed of his purse and goods by pirates ; and the man standing on the right could be a depiction of Sir Henry Morgan.

In the street, a seaman would walk with a swaying-gait from serving aboard ship on a rolling deck for long periods and always ‘spit to loo’ard’. His clothes would be a separate cut and fashion according to his trade : a waist or hip-length jacket sometimes named a ‘fearnought’ (usually the name for thick material, cut in such a fashion as to be remarked upon in period works as ‘short cloaths’)  with dark blue being the most popular colour, though this would fade with use ; and a pair of loose-fitting breeches with a button or narrow-fall fly or instead a pair of what became commonly known as ‘ducks’ and later ‘petticoat breeches’ made from sailcloth or canvas which ended in wide un-hemmed ‘flapping’ bottoms anywhere between just below the knee and just above the ankle. Ashore the seaman would wear his knitted worsted stockings – often dark grey in  colour, rarely made from any ‘fine’ material – and a pair of stout buckle-shoes ; around his neck and shoulders a large linen scarf, often in a ‘gay colour’ such as scarlet. His shirt would be a very loose-fitting affair - having a yard of material in each sleeve - made from linen or calico and often having a stripe or chequered pattern to the cloth. On his belt would hang his trusty ship-knife, a stoutly-sheathed serviceable tool honed to be razor-sharp (but often without a sharp point). Many seamen often seem to have worn a seven-buttoned short waistcoat, often ‘gay’ in a colour such as dark blood-red from the dye of the logwood tree (haematoxyn campeachiatum) and made from a variety of materials depending on the seaman’s experience or wealth (silk was favoured if the Orient had been visited).  Brass buttons were popular – they wouldn’t rust after being soaked in saltwater – but pewter, wood, bone and horn buttons were also cheap and plentiful.

Seamen’s clothes were designed to be functional above all else ; the short jacket and loose breeches permit great freedom for limbs in climbing aloft to set or furl the sails.

On his head - nobody in this historical period went about ‘bare-headed’ at any time - the mariner would wear either a ‘cocked’ or ‘slouch’ felt hat, a knitted woollen cap painted or daubed with tar and known as a ‘thrum cap’, a ‘stocking cap’ or bonnet or just a simple headscarf bound around his head to keep his hair from being blown into his eyes ; many veteran seamen ‘clubbed’ their hair at the nape of the neck into long ‘queues’, wrapped with cod-line with this ‘pig-tail’ often plaited and tarred to hold the long hair in place. From working aboard ship, a seaman would have a ruddy weather-beaten complexion and several weals and scars about his hands, face and body from working rope and canvas in cold and wet whipping winds and other shipboard trips, falls and ‘accidents’ - a missing toe, finger, eye or ear was not uncommon and some pirate ‘Articles’ make the distinction of payment for fingers, limbs and eyes lost ‘in battle’ as opposed to being lost in an accident to do with general sea-board life.

A seaman’s pipe was a faithful companion and kept safely tucked behind the ear, into a box in a pocket or kept somewhere in his hat or cap. He might carry a smaller knife – sometimes known as a gully and often with a folding clasp-knife blade – for dressing and eating his food. In the navy and aboard some trading ships since Elizabethan times, a ships’ warrant officer would carry a small whistle for giving orders in a howling gale or amidst gunfire. Other pocket-fillers could be a small ‘fid’ made from wood, bone or horn and used for splicing rope, a plug of tobacco to chew on when his pipe could not be lit, and perhaps a bone or horn spoon. In his sea-chest would be patching and darning materials, along with needles, thread and some spare buttons all tucked carefully away in his ‘housewife’.

A good period comparison between ‘long’ and ‘short’ clothes in an illustration from Captain Woodes Rogers book
A Cruising Voyage around the World (1712)

Transport yourself to any port in the Caribbean during this period and you would see hundreds of these men around the port or harbour, perhaps having taken off their jackets but working or lounging in shirts, waistcoats and scarf. Aboard ship, many would also have taken off their shoes and be working barefoot. In bad weather, the ship would usually provide ‘protective’ clothing damp-proofed to a degree for the crew to wear on deck in wet or cold weather but many a seaman  - especially a professional warrant officer such as a master’s mate, boatswain or coxswain - would take their own heavy-weather ‘tarpaulin’ clothing aboard in their sea-chests in the form of heavy boat-cloaks or voluminous overcoats made from canvas or wool and lined with the same materials before being painted with linseed oil or tarred-over to make them water and wind proof as much as possible, with a hat that tied under the chin and was made from the same stuff. On deck, these heavy garments would be worn over the seaman’s usual clothes but many pirates chose to cruise ocean areas where cold weather did not enter into the calculations so none of these ‘heavy clothes’ would be needed very often. During the hurricane season in the Caribbean, merchant ships largely stayed in port so pirate vessels would have sailed elsewhere - up the east coast of North America, over to Africa or round Cape Horn on their way to the Red Sea or The Indian Ocean and a few pirate ships sailed west and reached Manila, Japan and China ; all these oceans and seas are warm-water areas.

From Captain Johnson’s  History of the Most Notorious Pyrates, an illustration circa 1725 of ‘typical’ pirates, ashore and indulging in some jocular play-acting  ; all these seamen are wearing ‘short’ waist-length jackets, loose-fitting ankle-length overalls, knotted neck-scarves and tarred ‘thrum caps’.

A Howard Pyle illustration of 1911 for The Buccaneers, depicting a group of ‘typical’ pirates watching two of their number fight it out ashore. Note the ubiquitous large neck-scarf and waist-sash, leather belts, a mixture of ‘petticoat’ and loose-fitting breeches, plain linen or calico shirts some with sleeves rolled and others with sleeves trimmed off, plain grey stockings and buckle or lace-up shoes. The pirates wear a mixture of headgear, from scarves and ‘stocking caps’ to a ‘cocked’ hat’. Only one man wears any personal jewellery in the form of a pair of earrings. One of the combatants has placed his dark blue ‘short’ coat and his cocked hat on the sand, whilst one of the pirates holds the other combatants’ fancy ‘long’ coat over his arm. Only one man in the entire group is not wearing a simple off-white linen or calico shirt.

“Marooned” : an evocative Howard Pyle illustration. Note the stranded pirate awaiting his death has taken off his short dark-blue jacket, wears ‘petticoat breeches’, a waistcoat over a linen shirt or smock with no cuffs, a patterned sash, neck scarf, headrag, a pair of woollen stockings and stout buckle-shoes.

Howard Pyle paintings, copyright of the National Maritime Museum


The ‘look of a Pirate’ is continued in Part Two of this article


Photo supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.


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