And now we come to the most obvious Pirate Movie Costumes. Pirates of the Caribbean is the movie that changed it all.
Movies like Cutthroat Island had given us a bit of a grungy look for the pirates. And the effect of star power in costuming goes all the way back to the 1920’s. But it all came together in POTC. Let’s begin with Johnny Depp.
Mr. Depp came into the project with enough star power to be allowed to “create his own character” in the wardrobe room with some pre-selected costumes. Depp chose the hat, Depp chose the coat. And, famously, Depp chose the dreadlocks, which scared the Authorities half to death.
Depp had an unusual grasp of the pirate mentality. He has famously said that pirates were the rockstars of their day. Many pirates kept an eye on what their image was. They dressed the part, either of madmen or of gentlemen, as the occasion warranted.
Jack Sparrow has the fine linen coat of a captain, a good hat, and a number of baubles about his person. Looking at him, you see a man who travels with only the clothes on his back. All of his gear is well-worn. And yet it has style. Depp had finally found the perfect image of a pirate.
Although technically it’s not part of the costume, Depp’s eyeliner is now seen on a lot of pirates that don’t claim to be be directly copying. It’s become something expected, as a mark of the job. Real pirates probably didn’t smear kohl around their eyes, but it’s now a mark of the profession. We’ll see if it lasts.
The costumes for POTC were much better researched than was usual for pirate movies. This might not seem at first like no big deal. After all, most people wouldn’t recognized out-of-time clothing.
But the clothing and decorations of a time period have a way of going together. After all, at any given period in history, there were a large number of artistically inclined people – tailors, dressmakers, furniture makers, decorative artists, taking inspiration from each other’s work and trying to create a harmonic “look”. When a costume designer picks up on this, they are getting thousands of hours of free design time to help create mood.
The mood of POTC is an excellent one for pirates. The civilized world – as shown by the crisp uniforms of Norrington and the Marines, as well as Governor Swan’s elaborate wigs and Elizabeth’s corset, is trying to impose itself on the “wild west” of the Caribbean.
Jack and his pirates – as well as the average people on the street – are dressed practically in rags (in fact, costume designer Penny Rose aged the fabrics by throwing them in a cement mixer with gravel and bricks, and letting them tumble).
The wear may seem excessive, but in fact the poor people of the time often wore clothing until it literally fell apart. The line between rich and poor was very clear during the 18th century. That’s part of what caused piracy to rise.
It’s kind of symbolic that when Jack first meets Elizabeth, he frees her from her corset, releasing her to go on the pirate adventure. She still doesn’t have the corset on when she ends up on the Black Pearl, but is dressed primly in a nightgown and wrapper. Barbosa gives her dress to wear, significantly a dress from an earlier time (the red gown he gives her looks like it dates from Captain Morgan’s time – when piracy was a more acceptable lifestyle).
Elizabeth throws the gown back at Barbosa when he makes her walk the plank. What she’s left with is underwear – a lot of underwear for a modern-day viewer, but underwear all the same. So she’s wearing underwear when she reveals her true self.
She gets Jack drunk, then burns all the rum, creating the smoke tower that brings about her rescue. And then she makes her deal with Norrington to save Will. It’s as if she is finally stripped down to her true self.
For the final battle, she’s in a marine’s uniform, appropriately enough. Her return to “proper attire” for Jack’s hanging is meant to hint that she may yet be forced into her previous role. But a close look reveals details in her clothing and carriage that are no longer the same. Elizabeth is a woman now, and she knows her heart.
Norrington, another one of my POTC favorites, also has clothing that tells a story. Originally meant to be the “bad guy” in Curse of the Black Pearl, Norrie was just too nice a guy. His perfect uniform tells the audience who he is.
But James Davenport, the actor playing Norrie, wanted to look more like Depp, decrying his own look as being “an ice cream.” In the second movie he’s all roughed up, and dirty as well, but he doesn’t carry it well. For Jack a little dirt is just part of the persona. It doesn’t sit well on Norrington.
In the third movie, Norrington regains his position as a “proper gentleman” but at great cost. Now the long coat and gold lace which he had worn with such grace in the first movie have become over-conspicuous ornaments that weigh him down, almost hiding his real nature.
POTC has raised the bar for pirate movies, hopefully forever. And it made enough money that other films will copy it. We can only hope that the next good pirate movie comes out soon.