Monday, April 8, 2013

Pirate Clothes

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?

In the early 1700’s, gentlemen were expected to wear a hat and a suit consisting of a coat, vest and breeches (short, tight pants – think George Washington) The shirt was a baggier version of a modern man’s shirt, and instead of a necktie, a long, narrow strip of cloth was tied around the neck and tucked down the front of the vest. The hat was a black, wide brimmed thing, with the brim fastened up on three sides. (Once again, think George Washington – that hat stayed in style for a long time.)

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
dress. Since they were not used to the “respectable” look of a conservative suit, and had access to very fine clothes (which they did not have to pay for) they wore coats more appropriated to royalty, whenever they could steal them.

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! 


  1. can you answer my question that is why do pirates wear stripped clothes

    1. Yes. As noted in my post 10 Terrible Misconceptions About Pirates I explain that striped clothes (especially striped socks) were the most expensive available. Like most people who have been poor and suddenly get a lot of money, they bought the most exponsive, flashiest stuff available.

    2. Yes. As noted in my post 10 Terrible Misconceptions About Pirates I explain that striped clothes (especially striped socks) were the most expensive available. Like most people who have been poor and suddenly get a lot of money, they bought the most exponsive, flashiest stuff available.

  2. can someone help me in need to know what they exactly wore and the exact date in time

    1. Contact me at and I'll help you out.

  3. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I've heard no one actually knew what pirates wore. An illustrator named Howard Pyle embellished upon what he knew, drawing from gypsy fashion, and created the stereotype we all know today.

    Really, though, I wouldn't be surprised if they dressed classy! ;D

    1. We have a couple of descriptions by people who reported being robbed by them. Most notable was the contrast of stolen clothing with working-man's gear.

  4. Pirates, Like any sailor, must have gone ashore sometimes. Are the tall folded over boots of pop culture pirates accurate for GAOP or are the small buckled shoes more common, also I'm speaking mostly of captains and Navigators etc rather than common sailors

  5. Buckle shoes were far more typical. Only one pair of pirate boots has ever been found. Rope sandals were never worn by pirates, either.

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  7. What kind of hats did pirates wear?