Today, centuries after last pirate crews were exiled from the seas of Caribbean during the last years of Golden age of Piracy, historians, general public and entertainment creators remain very interested to both emulate the costumes of these fabled sea “adventurers” and discover the true history behind the modern myths who have elevated endeavors and fashion styles of pirates into highly romanticized versions of themselves. Just a quick look online can give you thousands of examples how pirate costumes have evolved over the centuries, becoming more and more elaborate, stylish and with a heightened sense of fashion over the true state of reality.
To find out more about real pirate costumes, we must go back in time and examine what was the actual “fashion” and government regulations for regular navy crews which were later pressed (or who were willingly ready) to become pirates, as well as fashion moves that some pirate captains expected to gain additional fame and notoriety. All these elements played a part in establishing the standard pirate clothing fashion, which was reported by the contemporary press and eventually adopted and modified by the news reporters, art and media creators. They all focused their tales on adventure and lifestyle, but almost none delegated a lot of resources on showcasing the proper pirate fashion.
There are few reasons why we don’t have a proper historical view on proper pirate clothing. Most importantly, there are no original clothing items from their period that have survived until today. The best that historians can dig up are second-hand reports or crude illustrations originating from between 11th and 18th century. During the age of pirates, pirate crews were almost never painted directly by artists, and very few reports of their clothing were written after they were apprehended by authorities and being prepared to be hanged. Such reports were often crude, and illustrations of the captured pirates were without much detail. Another important fact that has obscured the pirate fashion from our eyes is the general lack of both literate people during those old ages, and the severe lack of authors who were interested to record fashions of such exoteric type of people who preferred to live on the sea, far from the eyes of general population and historians.
After a closer look at the trends of pirate lifestyle, available records that were saved from decay and common sense, modern historians have come to the conclusion that contemporary pirates who lived during the Golden Age of Piracy wore fairly traditional clothes that closely matched the clothing style that was worn by almost every other sailor of that time. While this includes general clothes of merchant sailors and navy crews (rugged, warm, simple and fit to enable ship crew to climb on the high ship rigging easily), pirate crew had one advantage that other (law abiding) sailors could not match – they had access to stolen clothing which enabled them to augment themselves with fashion style that was uncommon to ordinary sea crews. Many pirate crews elected to take advantage of such clothing, often mixing normal rugged sailor clothing with elaborate high-fashion pieces of vests or pants. This was often seen in the clothing style of pirate captains, who had first picking of captured loot and often wanted to “represent” their crew by creating an unique fashion style that would either promote them as fashionable leaders or feared mercenary kings who relied on theatrics and extravagant clothing to frighten their opponents during the moments of naval battles and ship to ship boarding. Blackbeard is the most famous example of this type of pirate fashion.
Pirate captains were those who promoted new clothing trends, often choosing to defy current fashions in a bid to look more stylish or terrifying
According to historical records, early maritime fashion was as plain as it can be expected to be. Sailors did not wear anything out of the ordinary for their times, with the majority of them preferring to wear simple pants, shirts, and shoes. Hats were uncommon on regular crews on the sea, except for officers and captains on navy or wealthier merchant ships. Most navy fleets of large countries (such as England) had few rules about the attire of officers, but crewmembers were left to wear common sailor clothes.
By the time 16th century arrived, new naval technologies had enabled ships to remain at sea much longer and travel over larger distances, which opened new naval merchant lanes and pitted large naval countries against each other. These sea conflicts brought the rise of corsairs, privateers (government-backed ship crews who fought against opposing countries, for example, English privateers against anything on the sea that had Spanish flag), and pirates (outlaw crews who raided fishing crews, merchants, government ships and coastal settlements). Clothing of pirates after 16th century was closely connected with the term “clop chest,” an accepted baggy garment “uniform” of the pirates that were often painted in dark or black ink so that it would provide a bit of visual protection against the aim of enemy archers.
Pirate clothing was quite basic, but many pirates aimed to visually distinguish themselves by either wearing stolen clothes of many fashion styles, or sewing for themselves new or adapted pieces of clothing. Most commonly, pirates liked to customize or embellish their garb with accessories. Pirates (especially wealthier ones) also wanted to defy the accepted “Elizabethan Sumptuary Law,” which defined what kind of clothes should be worn by people of certain “class.” This defiance of common fashion laws pushed many pirates and pirate captains to embellish their clothes with finer materials, bolder colors that were previously limited only to Upper-Class citizens of England.
While the modern authors like to showcase pirate fashion as elaborate and stylish (or in many cases, even “sexy”), in reality it was quite subdued and focused on pure protection against elements and simplicity. This was even true for rare female pirates, who were believed to be wearing similar or same clothing as their male crewmembers.
Real pirates were sensible seamen who preferred to wear rugged and comfortable clothes that protected them from elements and allowed easy movement in high rope riggings of their ships
There is no historical evidence that pirates liked to accessorized as much as it is present in their modern clothing style. This means that they did not commonly wear bandanas around their heads, which is one of the most popular pirate accessories in their modern romanticized costumes. Eyepatches are on the other hand were a real thing. Some pirates wore them from necessity after their eye was lost in the battle (most famously as Arabian pirate Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah), but other preferred to use it even when they had healthy eyes. They apparently did so so that they could more quickly adapt their vision to nights.
As for footwear, the vast majority of pirates preferred to live and work (high in the rope riggings) barefoot while on the ships and to wear very simple shoes during their time on the shore. Boots (both simple, durable models and elaborate fashion pieces) were used mostly by pirate captains, first mates and high-level members of the crew.
As you could expect, hats that were frequently used by ship crews between 11th and 18th century were either ceremonial (worn by navy officers or wealthy merchant officers) or were common skullcaps (with or without chin strap) whose sole purposed was to protect sailors from coldness and water without limiting their movement while they were doing their jobs. By the 16th century, all sorts of leather skull caps were started being surpassed by lighter wool, most commonly styled in the “Monmouth caps” style that is very reminiscent of the modern regular winter wool cap. Pirates started being associated with more elaborate hats with the arrival of Cavalier Hat in early to mid-17th century. These flamboyant felted hats (often worn by military officers) featured wide brims with two or three-corners that were often accessorized with the plume of an ostrich or other adornments. Hats of this style soon became a point of fashion pride among wealthier pirates, who started sawing into their hats more expensive and exotic accessories such as jewels and gems. Hats with three corners were preferable to those with two corners because they were more resilient to strong wind gusts.
Pirate costumes that are promoted today in books, Hollywood films, and pop culture media is almost nothing like the real clothing that pirates wore several centuries ago. Modern pirate costumes are fully focused on styling, with almost no regards to usability on the sea. They are multi-pieced, elaborate, embroidered with fine detail, made from fine materials, high-end leather, large and cumbersome belts, boots, hats, and often with as many accessories as possible. Female pirate costumes can also be very provocative cut, with little imagination being left in the open chest area and pirate boots that often feature high heels. Modern pirate costumes can today often be found in several variants – party style, sexy style and battle style.
Modern books, movies, and games that had shaped modern look of pirate clothing are too numerous to list, but some of the most notable examples can be found in visualizations of the famous pirate captain Blackbeard (most notably 1920 painting “Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris), 1950 film Treasure Island, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, and the video game Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag.