The earliest pirates whose clothing it is possible to reconstruct and describe in any sort of reliable detail are the sea-dogs of the 16th century. The English crews that sailed with Sir Francis Drake and his contemporaries, and the Dutch “Sea-beggars” – freedom fighters who used the sea and waterways of Holland to wage a war against the Spanish conquerors.
It is probable that the English and Dutch seamen wore similar clothes to one another, though some fashions do seem to have been predominantly Dutch or English. Like all seamen of all times the pirates of the 16th century wore the clothes best suited to their environment, hence the similarities.
One garment which seems to have been almost universal amongst European seamen in the second half of the sixteenth century was a kind of smock, sometimes referred to as a “frock”. The smocks worn by 16th century seamen were short, reaching only to the top of the hips, and had to be pulled on over the head like a modern jumper. They were open at the neck for a few inches, and this opening was often laced. Most pictures of the time show small collars and many show openings at the wrist known as “mariners’ cuffs”. One other feature of these smocks, which can be seen in original illustrations, is buttoned pocket flaps. Pockets did not enter general everyday fashion until some decades later, personal possessions being kept in a pouch or bag. A pouch or bag is obviously impractical for a working seaman, and so pockets were a logical invention.
This type of smock probably had its origins in the medieval period, and went through several minor changes, finally evolving into the fisherman’s smock common in Europe in the 20th century. Even in the 16th century seamen of all nations wore smocks. Fragments of knitted garments found amongst artefacts recovered from wrecks of 16th Basque whaling ships in Canada are believed to have come from similar smocks. It is highly likely that smocks were sometimes coated with a thin layer of tar to waterproof them.
Some pictures appear to show smocks without sleeves being worn over other garments. It may be that they in fact just that; woollen sleeveless smocks. Alternatively it may be that they are actually a kind of leather garment, fastened at the side. Several examples of these have been recovered from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s great ship which sank in 1545 and whose excavation and recovery has revealed enormous amounts of information about the lives of 16th century seamen. Not all of the Mary Rose jerkins were fastened at the side however, others were laced or buttoned up the front, some with a large overlap – presumably to keep the spray out.
The Mary Rose has also revealed a great deal about the footwear of the common sailor of the 16th century. Several shoes have been recovered, some in pairs but many singly, and they reflect such a wide variety of styles and patterns it would be impossible to catalogue them all here. Suffice it to say that most had round, square, or “ear” shaped toes; were laced, buttoned, or buckled closed; and many had the fashionable slashing, common in the mid 16th century. A number of boots were also found, mostly laced or buckled, and varying in length from ankle to knee.
Amongst English seamen very baggy breeches, fastened at the knee, were very common – they certainly appear in several illustrations of the time. Heavier breeches, open at the knee and possibly made of canvas or some kind of oil or tar covered wool were also worn. Full length trousers, quite full in the leg but curving in towards the ankle can also be seen in a limited number of illustrations. Probably they were simply an extension of the open canvas breeches already mentioned, and they appear to have been uniquely English. The Dutch pirates also favoured baggy breeches and heavy open kneed breeches, but they too also developed a style of trouser unique to themselves. A very large number of contemporary pictures of Dutch seamen (and indeed seamen of other nationalities drawn by Dutch artists) show a very peculiar style of trousers. Moderately baggy, they reached to somewhere below the knee where they divided into two points, one down the shin and one down the calf. What practical purpose these points served, if any, is now lost, and it would be difficult to believe that they were not an artist’s fancy were it not for the number of independent artists who depicted them.
One common form of headgear amongst 16th century pirates was probably the flat round cap, now known as a Holbein cap. A number of illustrations show such hats being worn by seamen and they were a very widespread fashion for most of the 16th century. Both Dutch and English pirates wore woollen “monmouth” caps, knitted short like a skull cap, or long and floppy – the modern “jellybag” hat. More or less unique to the English seamen was the “thrumm” cap, a tall hat with a shaggy exterior, superb in all weathers.
In home waters – the English Channel, North Sea, Irish Sea and Western Atlantic – cold was one of the principal enemies facing English and Dutch pirates. A series of drawings which appeared in 1588 show two different garments worn to combat the low temperatures of the northern winter. One man can be seen wearing a long, heavy coat. It reaches almost to the ground and is clearly worn over his other garments. Another man in the same drawing is huddled beneath a large rug or blanket which he has wrapped around his shoulders like a cloak.