short introduction & reference
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.
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.
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’.
Photo supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.