Monday, February 3, 2014

How to Make a Pirate Costume

Festival season is just around the corner, and with a lot of people watching Starz new drama, Black Sails, on TV, interest is once again rising about how to make a really kick-ass pirate costume. That’s the subject of this post, and I’ll continue in future posts with a focus on individual pirate costumes and what makes them great.

There are three types of pirate costumes, and they appeal to different types of people

First is the historical pirate costume.
The person who likes this one may have a history as a reenactor. A truly historical costume could time-travel back three hundred years and blend right into a crowd. All visible seams are hand-sewn, buttons are cast pewter, and all the linen has been carefully researched and sourced.

People who do this love to research. The advantage to such a costume is that when wearing it, you know that you’ve got it right. It also makes a great teaching tool. When people ask, you can explain how this or that part of the costume worked for a sailor in the 1700’s. The drawback is that you might not be recognized as a pirate.

Second is the fantasy pirate.
This costume is pure fun. The look tends to draw a lot of girls who just want to have a slightly wild, assertive, sexy look. It also draws guys who are focused on “booty” jokes and rum.

This can be the most playful kind of pirate costume, as it requires nothing from the wearer. The sign on the package says “pirate” so it’s all good. This is a great place to start. The advantage is that it can be really simple to pull off. The disadvantage is that people in more historically accurate costumes might sneer at you. You also might look at the people in the linen coats and feel like you’re missing something.

Third is the in-between pirate.
This costume is a little of both. Research has been done, and the costume is probably handmade, but materials may include old tablecloths or Aunt Bernie’s castoff curtains. At first glance it may look perfectly historical, but it won’t stand muster next to pirate costume #1.

The advantage is that by taking this route, you can create a serious costume project that will really turn heads. The disadvantage is that you can spend a lot of time and money without ever creating the holy grail of the perfectly historical pirate costume.

If you can’t guess, the third style of pirate costume is the one I generally make. I do love the research, and I like to believe that my costumes MIGHT have existed back in the day. But I’m hampered by the fact that I’m portraying a female pirate, and there were only two historically certified female pirates in the whole Golden Age, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. I also love finding fabric at garage sales and seeing what I can turn it into.

So which one do you want to be? Some of it will depend on where you’re going to wear it. Being the only perfectly historically accurate costume at a high school party might make you stick out in ways you don’t want to. Hanging out at a historical event gives you one obvious choice. But a renaissance faire or pirate fest can open up tons of opportunities.

But the most important thing about a costume is that it’s yours. And the way to do that is to think carefully about who’s going to be wearing this outfit. You? Or a character you’ve invented? This makes a big difference. Do you want to show the world the pirate inside of you, or become another person entirely?

Once you’ve decided that, think of some ways to show who this person is. Has he traveled the world? Incorporate items from many cultures in your costume. A samurai sword, perhaps, a Chinese brocade vest, or ethnic jewelry from India, South America, or Africa? If your character is a runaway nobleman, maybe he should have a beautiful brocade or velvet coat. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if this coat was heavily worn, threadbare, falling to bits?

If you’re into the Jack Sparrow look, don’t just stick stuff in your hair. Think about each bead. Where did it come from? Is it valuable? Would your character sell it in a pinch? Or is an heirloom more valuable than life itself?

What’s your character’s favorite color? Red and black are the easy colors for a pirate. But real pirates wore mostly browns and tans. Or maybe your character wears the colors of her family crest? Or just a different color that he or she likes? If it’s who you are, go for bubblegum pink.

Most people think in terms of a Pirate Captain’s outfit. But just because you want to be a pirate doesn’t mean you want to be in charge. Going to a festival in the clothing of a common sailor, with just a few piratical touches can earn a lot of positive attention.

The point is to make it your own. If you have a wide stomach, maybe you’d like to play it up by dying the front of your costume with some fake food and drink stains. If you have a body you want to show off, then rip the sleeves off the coat and shirt, and show off those hard-won biceps. Or go shirtless, weather permitting.

Ladies have even more choices. Hair up or down? Pants or skirt? I personally like the look of a long skirt pinned up to show a little leg.  Will you go for a high-heeled boot, or something more practical for walking? Will you carry weapons, or rely on your good looks?

It’s the details of a pirate costume that make it special. Look around, take inspiration. Pirates were all about freedom, and now’s the time to show yours off. Start thinking about who you want to be.

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