Pirates are typically portrayed as wearing baggy trousers and eyepatches, wielding hooks instead of hands and donning tricorn hats or bandanas. They might even be walking on a wooden leg.
Though this image of a typical pirate infuses stories like Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean, the truth is more nuanced. Pirate garments varied depending on job and rank, and were tailored to suit the needs of the physically demanding rigours of sailing, harsh weather conditions, battle and looting.
The so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ lasted from around 1650 to 1730. During this period, hundreds of pirate ships plagued the seas, attacking and robbing any non-Naval vessels that crossed their paths. As a result, swathes of pirates of all colours and creeds donned a wide range of clothing.
Common sailors wore fairly standard clothing
Many pirates were jobless sailors who were destitute between times of war. They were first and foremost seamen, so they wore clothing typical of all mariners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Typical clothing known as ‘slops’ included breeches, caps and linen shirts made up of an array of materials and colours.
Clothing was hard-wearing and practical. It was commonly made of broadcloth, kersey, shag (which was a sturdy cloth much like a coarse velvet), wet plains (which resembled flannel) and ‘cotton’, an inexpensive woollen cloth that got its name from its fuzzy surface.
The style of clothing reflected the work of a sailor
Clothing also reflected the hard work that sailing and piracy required, such as hauling heavy lines and lifting cargo. Shirts were often left open at the neck, though were otherwise tight, since a billowing shirt could prove dangerous when climbing rigging and working in tight spaces. Moreover, shirts were never untucked, since pirates went without underwear in order to reduce bulk under their trousers.
The crew generally went barefoot, and scarves were occasionally worn on the head to protect their heads and faces from the sun, while wide supportive belts helped to protect the back. A sash was worn under the belt to absorb sweat. Trousers were generally baggy, which meant they could be easily rolled up when swabbing the deck, climbing rigging or wading ashore.
Jackets might have been worn for warmth, but were similarly cropped to prevent them from getting tangled in rigging. These jackets were made of heavy blue or grey cloth and were known as ‘fearnoughts’, since they were worn by seamen who climbed high masts to reef in sails (which is where the name ‘reefer jacket’ is derived from). Buttons for coats and other clothing were typically made of tin, brass, horn, bone or discs covered in fabric.
Officers and captains wore smarter attire
Pirate officers and captains wore more fashionable and luxurious attire, both because they were entitled to a greater share of clothing plunder and to denote their rank. The quartermaster or boatswain might wear a slightly longer jacket, which ended at the mid-thigh.
Many captains wore a long coat which had typically been taken from a wealthy captive or bought onshore. Fashion at the time dictated that coats should have a vast array of buttons down the length of the front and wide cuffs should be buttoned back.
Fearsome Captain ‘Black Bart’ Roberts (c. 1682-1722) was so famous for his scarlet attire that his principal enemy, the French, named him ‘le jolie rouge’ (‘the pretty red’). He was also known for wearing a great gold necklace with a diamond-encrusted cross.
Captains were also not known to have worn tricorne hats, though there is some evidence that more gentrified ones like Captain Kidd may have done so. The pointed front brim would have obscured the all-important horizon, while a large hat would prove troublesome when ducking under swinging rigging and engaging in battle. There were exceptions, however: the aforementioned ‘Black Bart’ Roberts wore a feathered hat, while Blackbeard wore lit fuses under his hat whenever he went into battle to enshroud himself in smoke.
Some Captains wore wigs which were fashionable amongst the gentry in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were expensive to make, so a bigger wig denoted greater wealth (hence the term ‘big wig’). A more gentrified pirate might decorate their wig with coloured ribbons.
Eyepatches and jewellery are a myth
The story goes that eyepatches were worn by pirates so that they could automatically adjust to above and below deck lighting. It’s also commonly believed that mariners wore a gold earring in order to pay for a funeral on land, rather than to be buried at sea. However, there is very little evidence within the historical record of either being worn.
Earrings were regarded as effeminate. Elizabethan courtiers were the only men who sported such jewellery, and were mocked as a result. Eyepatches might have been worn, as eye injuries on board were not uncommon when sailing a ship, and eyesight damage was common as a result of sun glare. However, in the world of piracy, showing one’s scars was a way of denoting experience and fearsomeness.
Similarly, wooden legs and hook hands were far less common than popular culture would have us believe. Pirates who were injured in such a way were more likely paid a benefit out of the ship’s operating fund so they could retire comfortably.
Pirates sometimes wore extravagant clothing for their executions
While fancy clothing on board was reserved for senior crew members, elaborate clothing was more often donned by pirates who went ashore as a means of denoting success and wealth.
More morbidly, there are records that ordinary seamen wore extraordinary clothes for their executions. Pirates about to ascend the gallows or put their head on the block are recorded as having worn fancy velvet coats and jackets, taffeta breeches, brightly coloured silk shirts, ribboned stockings, buckled shoes and felt tricorne hats.
Though many of the stories surrounding the image of a pirate are all but myth, there’s no denying that they knew how to dazzle and delight with their attire. Imagine a captain in their finery with a pistol in their hand and a cutlass at the hip, and you’ve got the perfect picture of a fearsome, salty, marauding pirate.