What did pirates wear?
We all have a vague idea of baggy white shirts, striped pants, a vest, and a bandana. But why this outfit? Did all pirates dress the same? What’s the deal?
This was the clothing of the middle class, and thereby the clothing of ship’s captains.
Pirates, including pirate captains, usually rose from the lower ranks of sailors, and this was reflected in their
Common sailors from the period did not wear a gentleman’s clothes. Doing the hard work of hauling lines and lifting cargo, they left off the coat, and oftentimes the vest. The short, tight breeches were too constricting, so they wore long, loose trousers instead. The shirt, open at the neck, remained, as did the neck cloth. Shoes weren’t necessary on a ship, so often the sailors went barefoot.
Sailors needed the protection of a hat, but it was more comfortable to add a scarf as a sweatband, which gives us the “pirate” look of the colorful bandana under the black hat.
Sailors also commonly wore wide, supportive belts, serving the same function as a modern day “weight belt,” a protection against ruptures when hauling on heavy ropes. Once again, to absorb sweat, a band of cloth was also worn under the belt. This is the pirate sash.
One of the interesting things that one might notice when looking at pirate costumes is that the pirate’s shirt is never untucked. There’s actually a reason for this. Remember the tight breeches worn by “gentlemen”? Well, to reduce bulk under those breeches, the guys went without underwear. That’s right, all pirates went “commando.” But, given the wool pants of the day, they wrapped up the family jewels with their shirt-tails.
Pirates never failed to tuck the shirt!
This is the basics of the classic “pirate costume.”
One of the other, actual facts about why pirates dressed the way they did is that pirates did not have a chance to get into a civilized port and purchase clothing. They patched their clothes with what they had handy, and since they traveled to distant locations and stole the most valuable trade goods, the most easily available materials were often exotic silks or rare printed Indian gauze.
The final item that set pirates apart from ordinary sailors was jewelry. Pirates needed wealth that was easily portable and hard to steal. Rings and necklaces were things they could hang onto, even when falling-down drunk. Pirates also kept jewelry as souvenirs. The notorious Bartholomew Roberts was noted for wearing a huge diamond-encrusted gold cross, intended for a member of the Spanish royal family, which he had stolen from a ship bound back to Europe from the West Indies. It was a mark of success.
Obviously, common sailors could not afford these kinds of things, but the ordinary sailor had one piece of jewelry in common with the most exotic pirate. This was the single gold earring. While some of these were larger than others, they were the most common mark of a seafaring man, and they had a specific purpose.
In the 18th century, communications were slow and expensive and life was often short, especially for people involved in dangerous work like sailing a ship. For these people, dying far from home, among strangers, was a genuine risk, and the religions at the time stress the need for proper burial in order to get into heaven.
This was the reason for the gold earring. All cultures value gold, and it was understood that, should the wearer die, the earring would pay for his funeral.
If you are more interested in pirate clothing, come to another post here to learn abut pirate fashions, and get a few ideas for making your own pirate costume!