As we discussed in the previous article, the costumes in pirate movies have jobs to do. They need to make the star look good, give us a strong sense of the exotic, and enhance the theme of the movie. With the advent of Technicolor, pirate costumes needed to fulfill another requirements. They needed to be colorful!
The first movie we’ll look at is The Black Swan, from 1942. For the time, this show had a relatively gritty look. It also gets one thing about pirates just right… Shipboard clothing was often very different from what the pirates wore to impress the ladies on shore.
Tommy Blue, a secondary character and comic relief, doesn’t care much for his appearance. He’s usually in work clothes, baggy pants, a head scarf, and my favorite, a baggy shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the elbows. This small detail was the reason I first began to like the movie.
The main character, Jamie, is shirtless (sexy male lead) or coatless throughout many of his shipboard scenes, but on shore he wears a dashing cape and a black hat – not period clothing at all, but romantic, as befits a leading man. I don’t know how much input the actor Tyrone Power had into his costume, but these are clearly clothes that are used to make him look good.
Another character in this movie is Henry Morgan, closely based on the historic pirate. The costume designer (Earl Luick) takes this very seriously… The fictional Morgan, governor of Jamaica, dresses much as as the historic Morgan would have done… Including a “full bottomed wig,” an extravagant piece of headwear that looks extremely foppish, even stupid to the modern viewer. But this character is supposed to be sympathetic.
This problem is solved partially by dressing the character in somber tones – grey, brown, earthy red. His wig is a restrained as the style of the time would allow. And the actor is given a charming bit of business where he takes the wig off, scratches his head and then puts it back on. This both establishes that the character isn’t comfortable in his elaborate formal attire, and endears him to the audience.
Later on, as with most of the piratical characters, Morgan goes to sea and appears in a much more practical outfit… Pirate clothes in the more classical sense, rugged, drab and plain.
Contrast this with the evil Don Miguel, who wears the same type of formal clothing that Morgan does in his “official” scenes. The bad guy’s outfit is far more over-the-top. It’s very shiny satin, elaborately decorated with lace and bows (both appropriate to men of the time, but effete by modern standards). The wig is shiny as well, and extreme in both length and fullness.
The character’s black beard (not historically typical) and eyebrows contrast with all this, letting us know that, even though he looks like a poof, this bad guy needs to be taken seriously.
One more costuming note: While we don’t know about Tyrone Power’s input into his costume, we do know about George Sanders, who played evil pirate Captain Leech. Sanders was forced into the role by his studio. He demanded, however, that his character wear a long, distinctive red beard. Why? He didn’t want his fans to see him playing a dirty, unsophisticated character. And he wanted to make it as easy as possible for stunt doubles to take over.
In Against All Flags, a lower budget pirate movie, color was an even more important feature. Many of the characters wear very modern shades of very bright colors (notice the lavender stripe on O’Hara’s head scarf, and the matching feather). Such shades are only possible with modern chemical dyes.
The female pirate’s main job is to be sexy, and she comes outfitted with a gold spangled green coat that sets off her hair, and a pair of black leather crotch-high boots that have one, only one, obvious function.
O’Hara also features a hairstyle that makes no pretense of being current with her costumes. It’s an interesting fact that in movies set in the past, characters often wear hairstyles current to the time the moves was being shot. (Saying “modern” doesn’t quite work with a movie that was made over 60 years ago.) The people who analyze such things tell us that this helps the audience to relate, since the character’s “head” is in the present.)
There’s also a scene where she gratuitously puts on an evening gown – probably just so the men in the audience have a chance to see Maureen O’Hara in an evening gown.
The bad guy, played by Anthony Quinn, also wears the height of sexy pirate fashion. Tight bright and color-matched, the costumes display the character’s success as a pirate. The very white shirts highlight his swarthy skin, emphasizing his exotic attractiveness (Quinn was Mexican American). His black silk head scarf sets off his dark eyes.
The good guy, played by Errol Flynn, is much more conservatively dressed throughout. This serves to remind the audience that he’s not really a pirate, only a navy officer spying on them.
Flynn, who had been the king of the swashbucklers for years, was no longer the man he had been. Deep in alcoholism, he was forbidden to drink on the set, but got around this rule by spending his evening injecting oranges with vodka, then snacking on the fruit during the day. He was pickled throughout most of the film.
This wasn’t a serious pirate movie… Not with the bad guy in such tight white velvet pants, and the leading man almost too drunk to stand. Other signs? Ship footage from The Black Swan, a decade before, is prominently used during the movie.
But all the costumes were brand new.