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Pirate Attire Series: The Golden Age 1700 to 1740

Author: Ed Foxe

In 1716 Robert Drury described some pirates living on Madagascar: "He was dressed in a short coat with broad, plate buttons, and other things agreeable, but without shoes or stockings. In his sash stuck a brace [pair] of pistols, and he had one in his right hand. The other man was dressed in an English manner, with two pistols in his sash and one in his hand like his companion."


This is probably a fairly good description of the appearance of a common pirate, the kind of people who made up the bulk of pirate crews. The short coat was fairly typical of seamen of all nations at that time, but what of the sashes, and the man "dressed in an English manner"? We are fortunate to have a number of pictures of English seamen from the period available to us, and perhaps none is better than picture of English privateers under the command of the notorious Woodes Rogers, on which this figure is based.

(fig 1)

The men in this picture and in most pictures of pirates and seamen from the golden age of piracy are baggy and short, reaching to just about the hips. They are buttoned down the front, and appear to have buttoned openings at the cuffs, so-called "mariner's cuffs" (particularly noticeable in the picture of a sea-gunner above). Unlike the fashionable long coats of the time they do not appear to be particularly shaped to the body, but are loose and shapeless. Although none are shown in the picture of Woodes Rogers' men many seamen's coats had pockets. Waistcoats, worn underneath jackets, were generally short for seamen and pirates, and were often brightly colored or patterned.

There were a number of different styles of trousers and breeches popular amongst seamen of the early 18th century. Some sailors favoured narrow breeches, such as those worn by most people on land and shown on the left in this picture (fig 2).

Others preferred very much wider breeches, often called "slop-breeches" also shown in this picture. These were very specific to sailors, no other group of people wore such breeches. They were often made of old canvas or sailcloth, and covered with tar for waterproofing.

The early 18th century also saw the introduction of full length trousers for the first time since the medieval period, and they were most popular amongst sailors. The well known picture of the female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read gives a good idea of the appearance of these early trousers. Long trousers it would seem were only adopted by English speaking sailors, so it is unlikely that French pirates like La Bouse or Martel would have worn them. Long trousers were evidently popular during the golden age of piracy, for when Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the notorious female pirates wanted to disguise themselves as men they "wore men's jackets, and long trousers...".

Shoes were far more popular amongst pirates and other seamen than large boots were, for the reasons that large boots were many times more expensive than shoes, and they were many times less practical. All the pictures of seamen and pirates from the golden age show them in shoes rather than boots, and event the pictures of pirate captains from the period don't show large bucket-topped boots so popular with Hollywood film makers. Shoes of the time were fairly plain, leather, and either buckled or tied. It is likely that shoes were often tied for working at sea then buckled when the pirates went on shore, in order to protect the expensive fashionable buckles. Underneath the shoes were generally worn stockings which reached to just above the knee and were made of linen, cotton, silk or wool. Of course, some sailors often went bare-foot, but that was impractical when climbing rigging

According to one of the witnesses at their trial, Anne Bonny and Mary Read often had "handkerchiefs tied about their heads". In the early 18th century "handkerchiefs" were not necessarily the small squares of fabric that we have now (pocket handkerchiefs), but were often large rectangular pieces of material, which when tied about the head became bandannas, so often associated with pirates.

More popular perhaps amongst pirates were small cocked hats, nowadays called "tricorns". For most pirates these would have been smaller than the large hats fashionable on land, and were often turned backwards, perhaps as an aid to keeping them on in a wind. Backwards facing cocked hats are a fashion peculiar to seamen and pirates and are often shown in contemporary pictures, like that of Woodes Rogers’ crew mentioned earlier.

Just as popular as cocked hats were "round-hats". These were basically the same as cocked hats but without the sides turned up, as shown in this picture.

Also common were different forms of "cap". Monmouth caps were small woollen hats fitted closely to the head. Mounteer or montero caps often had a small peak and sides which could be folded down over the ears. Most unique to seamen was the "thrumm" cap. Sometimes made of fur but more commonly of shaggy wool, giving an incredibly warm and waterproof hat that would not blow off in the wind.

Bad Weather Gear
Many of the common seamen's clothes were designed to be suitable for different weathers, but extremely bad weather would have called for specialized clothing.

The short working jacket with an open front was probably replaced in many cases with a short smock or frock. This looked very similar to the jacket in shape and size but was not open down the front and was worn more like a pullover.

It has already been mentioned that sailors' trousers were often coated with tar to waterproof them, and so too were other garments some times, including smocks. An alternative to tar for waterproofing clothing, particularly in the Atlantic, was whale oil. Soaked into the fabric whale oil produced a surface which the water would simply run off.

Anyone wearing a large hat would probably remove it and replace it with a more sensible thrumm hat, or other type of cap. Many seamen too owned heavy overcoats of thick wool called "rug", and these heavy rug-coats would also be worn in extreme cold or wet. Accounts of the time also mention woollen gloves, mittens and knitted undershirts for keeping out the cold.

Neck cloths seem to have been among the most common items worn by seamen, and they are visible in the vast majority of contemporary pictures of English seamen from the 17th century well into the 19th century. Often they were patterned with stripes or checks, but they might also be plain. For a time in the 17th century for example all neck cloths sold to Royal Navy seamen were plain blue. It seems quite likely that it was the sailors' neck cloths which were tied around their heads to become bandannas.

Although sashes are popular with artists and Hollywood film makers there is some doubt as to their actual popularity amongst common pirates. Some officers wore sashes, as we have seen, but sashes were commonly worn by Navy and army officers generally so it comes as no surprise that pirate leaders should do likewise. In the passage by Robert Drury quoted at the beginning of the "Seamen" section of this article both the pirates are wearing sashes to keep their pistols in, but it is difficult to find pictorial evidence of common seamen wearing sashes, or indeed further documentation. Where there is evidence of common seamen and pirates wearing sashes they are very often French, leading to the conclusion that it was perhaps a particularly French fashion, explaining the lack of sashes in drawings of English or Dutch seamen.

Many seamen and pirates seem to have carried canes or cudgels when going ashore, certainly many pictures of the period show them. On the one hand they were a fashion statement, copying the fashionable walking canes of the city gentlemen. On the other hand they were a very useful weapon in an unexpected fight.

Clothing Details
Even from the pictures of seamen which have survived it is difficult to tell much about the material or construction of seamen's clothes. Fortunately several contracts relating to the clothing supplied to Royal Navy seamen survive which give us a good idea of the kinds of materials, colours, and cost of clothes. Obviously seamen had clothes which aren't covered by the contracts, but it is worth bearing in mind that many hundreds of pirates had been in the Royal Navy before becoming pirates, so many of them would have kept the clothes. In any case, the contracts give us an excellent idea of typical seamen's clothing of the time. The following garments are all mentioned in the slop clothing contract awarded by the Royal Navy in 1717: (fig 4)

Shrunk Grey Kersey Jackets, lined with red cotton, with fifteen brass buttons, and two pockets of linen. [Kersey is a kind of thick coarse wool. Cotton here does not mean a thin fabric in the modern sense, it probably means cottoned wool, a process to make wool thick and close woven.]

Waist Coat of Welsh red plain, unlined, with eighteen brass buttons. [Welsh was a type of woollen fabric]

Red Kersey Breeches lined with linen, with three leather pockets, and thirteen white tin buttons

Red Shag Breeches, lined with linen, with three leather pockets and fourteen brass buttons [Shag was a kind of woollen fabric, very thick with a long nap, closely resembling duffel]

Striped Shag Breeches, lined with linen, with three Leather Pockets, and fourteen white tin buttons.

Shirts of blue and white checkered linen.

Leather Caps faced with red cotton, and lined with black linen.

Small Leather Caps

Drawers of blue and white checkered linen. [Drawers are underpants]

Grey Woollen Stockings.

Grey Woollen Gloves or Mittens.

Double Soled Shoes, round toes.

Striped Ticking Waistcoats, with Eighteen Black Buttons, lined with White linen and two White Linnen Pockets. [Ticking is a very strong cotton or linen based fabric, often used for bedding nowadays]

Striped Ticking Breeches, lined with white linen, and two linen Pockets, with Sixteen Black Buttons.

It is very difficult to tell just how many clothes pirates might have owned, but we must assume for the most part that they owned several spare garments. Most seamen owned a sea-chest full of clothes, so when they turned pirate these seamen would have taken their clothes with them. In addition, pirates are known to have stolen clothes from their victims, so if anything most pirates probably owned more clothes than most seamen. Hopefully, by examining the wills of common seamen of the 17th and 18th centuries we can get a good idea of just what kind of things pirates might have owned. Most seamen's will show that they owned quite a number of garments, but let us look at one list of clothing in detail. Thomas Powell was a seaman in the 1730s and when he was dismissed he was forced to leave on his ship the following garments:

(fig 5)

One grey coat, waistcoat and two pairs of breeches. [This probably represents a suit of good clothes for going ashore in.]

One pair of olive coloured cloth breeches.

One pea jacket. [Pea jacket is one of the names given to short seamen's coats].

One thick flannel jacket. [Thick flannel would have been very warm so this is probably a jacket for use in cold weather].

Four shirts.

Some flannel waistcoats.

Two pairs of flannel drawers.

Four pairs of stockings.

Two pairs of woollen mittens.

Two new frocks, one half worn frock [probably smocks for bad weather wear].

One pair of thin canvas trousers.

One pair of blue and white striped cotton trousers.

One pair of ticking breeches.

One cotton cap.

One woosted cap [woosted, or worsted, is a type of wool fabric].

One brown holland waistcoat [holland is a type of wool].

One handkerchief.

Three pairs of shoes.

We can see then that pirates had a wide range of clothing available to them, but on the whole probably wore clothing most suited to their profession as seamen. Not the long coats, big hats and big boots of Hollywood; but shoes, canvas trousers and short oilskin coats. Hard wearing clothes designed for working in, designed to withstand the elements and designed to last.