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Pirate Costume
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:01 am    Post subject: Pirate Costume Reply with quote

PART ONE

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.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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’.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

PART TWO

Pirate feature films and television dramas often depict ‘pirate captains’ dressed in a very flamboyant fashion with a fancy long coat, leather top-boots and a plumed hat. I’m not being picky and I doubt that anything except a very small percentage of the viewing audience noted it, but in a recent (2005) television drama remake of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island set in the year 1864 the pirate captain seen in the feature was costumed as the stereotype from the 18th Century, complete with three-cornered hat and feather plume – many of his pirate crew were obviously costumed and armed from previous ‘pirate’ dramas set in the same century. Many pirates possessed ‘long clothes’ – taken from plundered prizes – but unless bought privately ‘before the mast’ these items belonged to all the ships’ crew and pirate captains had no preference at all. Several period accounts describe known pirates ashore in exotic locations - including some renowned captains - described as wearing ‘fancy laced hats and coats’ but also with shoes and no stockings, stockings but no shoes or even going barefoot, their lower garments beneath their fancy coats being ‘soiled and torn’ or in one instance ‘hanging in rags’.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Working daily aboard a wooden sailing-ship would damage and eventually destroy any ‘fancy’ laced clothes or clothes made from lightweight materials instead of hard-wearing linen, sailcloth, hemp or wool so the reality of the appearance of pirates is that - like their civilian counterparts - they would take every opportunity to replace or repair any damaged clothing and not appear in tatters by choice (unless falling-down drunk) ; as such many navies had a ‘make and mend’ day aboard ship each week enabling the crew to come on deck to wash and mend their dirty or damaged clothing or replace it from the ‘slop chest’ or through the purser. Feature films such as Cut-Throat Island and Pirates of the Caribbean for many reasons give a wholly mistaken impression of what the average historical seamen-pirates looked and behaved like - and don’t communicate the overall and ever-present smell of salt, tar and unwashed bodies - and due to this is what visitors expect to see at any ‘pirate event’. Depending on exactly what the ‘pirate events’ are you wish to be involved in, what you have to decide is : do you want to look like a pirate who has just walked straight out of the history books ; or - in a very extreme sense - a theme park employee on a lunch-break ? It’s an age-old question and a lot does depend on what the group you are associated with wishes to see themselves as and your personal goal.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Many of the modern reprints of Treasure Island have excellent illustrations – but note the date as a seaman of 1705 would look different from a seaman of 1765 (the date given in modern reprints and feature films). The indications are that in the original, R L Stevenson left the introductory date blank but intended the novel to be set in 1730, but this issue was complicated between events and names used in the text being 30 years apart in recorded history. To set the date of Treasure Island in 1765 as Walt Disney did would mean that Captain Billy Bones was finally hunted down by the pirates after almost a 40 year search !

With all historically-recreated periods, it’s not just about the pattern of the clothes but also the correct materials to make them from ; using cheap calico instead of canvas, cheap cotton instead of linen or even a cheap polyester-mix instead of pure wool is not a good choice as the look of a real seaman-pirate can’t be gained from wearing clothes made from the wrong materials and an investment in getting the correct materials always results in clothes that wear longer, look better and are more comfortable than any cheap short-term stuff. Trying to do both the above – not just in going off to the pub at night, so changing into your ‘pirate gold-laced finery’ – is different from passing yourself off during the day at any kind of ‘living history’ event to visitors as a real 18th Century seaman-pirate but looking like Captain Hook from the novel Peter Pan. ‘Playing pirates’ is obviously fun but remember that any real-life seaman or yachtsman will spot you right away as a ‘landsman’ - or even worse, a fool of a landsman – especially if you are aboard ship or boat and haven’t any shipboard knowledge or can’t back up your costumed display with some well-presented and accurate knowledge. This begins from where we started at the beginning of this article with speech, mannerisms and dress but goes on to include weapons-handling, ship-skills and associated sea-faring practical skills such as knot-tying or rope-work and getting the right ‘balance’ is something you can only study and steadily work towards acquiring and again depends on your personal target.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

As previously stated, working a sailing-ship was hard work ; even in fine weather an assortment of cuts, bruises and muscle strains was normal. In ‘heavy weather’, the seaman risked both life and limb – literally – in setting, furling or reefing sails. All these experiences left seaman marked and scarred and you can use make-up in varying degrees to enhance a costume and reflect this. Taken together with costume - but in moderation - make-up can be a useful tool and you can’t beat using William Hogarth paintings and engravings for inspiration. Flick through any ‘pirate’ book and look for illustrations by 19th Century artists such as N C Wyeth or Howard Pyle – both men researched their subject and although flavoured with a little artistic licence, do reflect what pirates probably looked like in a ‘typical’ sense. A pale face can be transformed into having a weather-beaten look by smearing on the correct foundation, teeth ‘blacked out’ or stained with fancy-dress shop paint or by using permanganate (the latter gives an excellent natural effect but is toxic and must be used with great care) a dressed wig and a contact lens used to ‘white-out’ an eye gives a very hard-used appearance ; glue-on whiskers or moustaches aren’t recommended for the more athletic pirate as they often come loose or fall off during activity or hot weather.
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Start with a small box or bag and acquire a few bits and pieces of make-up from wife, girlfriend (or Boots) before going on to any degree of expense – it takes some practice not to end up looking like something from either a circus or a horror film. Don’t forget that most make-up forms require a cream remover - getting make-up off is as important as getting it on unless you want to risk spots and blackheads from blocked pores. Don’t attempt eye make-up without supervision if you have no previous experience ; a good mirror, a steady hand and privacy is a must but someone who knows what they are doing and can assist is far better and watch out for allergies !

A long wig is a great investment in your appearance but these can be very itchy and uncomfortable to wear ; always try to get a wig made from real hair and not nylon as sold in fancy-dress shops as they never look natural, won’t take a curl ; and even worse in a pirate environment, are inflammable ! Keep any wig in a suitable bag and not thrown into a haversack with the rest of your stuff. Hand-wash your shirt, scarf or neck-tie with soap-powder or add clean gravel, stones or pebbles to a machine-wash (ask the owner first) ; this - along with the careful use of bleaches - gives any material a naturally ‘worn’ effect and complements your skin make-up ; using cheesecloth or muslin for scarves is very good as both these materials naturally crease up and take a good dye or stain - but avoid the ‘tatty’ effect though of loose hems. Take care with commercial hand-dyes : mix them thoroughly with boiling water and plenty of salt before dropping in your moistened garment to avoid getting multi-coloured spots, especially on pale materials. If you use walnut husks - this a period dye and much recommended - always wear rubber gloves during the dying process as any accidental skin stain can’t be scrubbed away and will only wear off in time !
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Salty Dog
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Footwear is probably and usually the biggest problem you are going to come up against. The temptation to follow ‘Hollywood’ and choose some sort of modern top-boot from a charity shop or equestrian store source and gluing or stitching on leather ‘bucket-tops’ ; or going to a lot of trouble in making a pair of high boot-tops to slip over your Doc Martens should both be avoided as there is no historical justification for this form of footwear in a pirate sense. Pending your budget, makers of fine recreated historical footwear exist – such as Sarah B Juniper who makes all mine – and these buckle-shoes last for years. Various cheaper shoes and boots are also offered by suppliers in the USA and India on the internet but check them out well first as such ‘unseen’ purchases in the past have been disappointing. Search charity shops for an above-the-ankle lace-up boot having an inside ‘tongue’ in your size ; these as I have shown and demonstrated previously can be refashioned into reasonably-looking period shoes at the expense of a bit of careful razor-work, hand-stitching and fitting a pair of brass harness buckles. Sandals or espadrilles are the cheapest form of ‘pirate’ footwear (next to staying barefoot) ; in Portugal, Spain and in Mediterranean countries handmade ‘lace-up’ leather sandals are cheap but tough and serviceable – but take it from me these are not very warm or waterproof in an English autumn even if you have the local cobbler sew an extra thick sole on them !
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