I’ve written quite a bit about pirate clothing, but have not yet touched on what makes pirate costumes so special when they’re in the movies.
When we’re looking at a picture of a historical pirate in a book, or making our own costumes to wear for events, the largest consideration is whether or not this looks like pirate clothing. Movie costumes must meet a number of requirements.
In a movie, costumes must meet budget requirements, clearly identify the wearer as star or walk-on, provide a flavor of long-ago-and-far-away, and match the theme of the movie. Keeping the star happy is another consideration, which comes into the story of several pirate movies.
We’ll look first at The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was one of the earliest of the great Hollywood stars. He was the sexiest man on the screen, a dashing figure who did all his own stunts and swept the ladies off their feet, both on screen and off – kind of like a combination of George Clooney and Jason Statham. He was one of the three stars who created the United Artists studio.
When he set out to do a pirate film, he threw all historical accuracy out the window. After all, who knew what pirates looked like anyway? Fairbanks wanted to show off his (for the time) outstanding physique. At home he exercised in the nude, and his costume for this movie was as close to nudity as he could get in the mid 1920’s. In fact, it looks like nothing so much as a pair of running shorts and a tank top.
If you look closely at the group picture, you will see that the rest of the pirates are in standard pirate gear, baggy shirts, baggy pants and boots, though a few striped shirts show up as well.
The difference is star power. Very often, even today, stars are let loose a room full of assorted costume pieces to “create” their character in front of a mirror. Fairbanks in The Black Pirate is probably the most exaggerated version of this. He dressed himself so scantily that the posters don’t even show his costume as it really was… Notice how they modestly cut him off at the legs. Apparently the public wasn’t ready for such sex appeal. (At least in certain cities. Other posters were more explicit.)
Another very early pirate whose costuming dates back to the silent age is the infamous Captain Hook. Barry, Hook’s creator, was very specific in his description of the pirate. Hook looked like – and dressed like – Charles II, king of England from 1660 to 1685, a career as a ruler that runs almost exactly parallel with Captain Henry Morgan’s career pillaging the Spanish Main.
Hook’s costume of long coat, fancy buckled shoes and extravagant wig remain largely consistent throughout his many appearances, from 1904 (the original play Peter Pan) to the present. Hook’s extravagant dress is only limited by the constraints of the film’s budget and the requirement of the character to move.
For over a hundred years, Hook wore a flamboyant cavalier hat with an extravagant plume, a long coat covered with gold trim, tight breeches that ended at the knee and buckled shoes. It’s a pretty close approximation to what Charles himself wore, but Hook’s coat was red, always. Why? It could be just the image of the thing, a pirate captain in a red coat. Or it may hark back to Captain Morgan, who, famously, raised a navy in Jamaica by putting on his best red coat and going from tavern to tavern all night long, making speeches about patriotism and gold.
Only with the most recent incarnation of Hook has he lost his trademark look. In the current TV series, Once Upon a Time, Hook has a new coat, in dark brown leather and – for the first time, boots. The red remains only in his vest.
Why the change? Partially to update the character, making it possible for him to become a love interest. The traditional Hook regalia appeared too “swish” for the 21st century. Indeed, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins decided between themselves that Hook and Smee were lovers. In order to meet the requirements of the storyline, Hook had to modernize. The leather coat transforms a historic figure into a modern bad-boy, just like that.
Hook also sports guy-liner nowadays, and that can only refer back to the 21st century’s most all-pervading pirate, Jack Sparrow. Jack changed the pirate costume game. We’ll analyze him later.
Come back next week for more Pirate Costumes in the Movies.