Monday, February 24, 2014

Pirate Fashion

The Appearance of Pirates Clothes and What They Mean 

Every person’s clothes, from those of a soldier to a librarian, are worn not only for function but for appearance. When we meet a person, we judge them first by what we see. And when we dress, most of us are conscious of what other people will think of our clothes
What message were pirates sending to the world?

On a day-to-day basis, most pirates dressed and looked like ordinary sailors, because that is what they essentially were. Being a pirate did not change the work of sailing a ship, only provided more hands to do it and made it pay much better.

A sailor need loose clothing to allow movement. Calf-length trousers would not tangle in the ropes when he climbed. He needed a wide leather belt to support his abdomen as he hauled lines. And it was comfortable to have a sash under the belt and bandana tied around his head to absorb sweat as he worked.

Looking at the cheapest identifiable pirate costume, we see the basics. A puffy-sleeved shirt, striped, ragged pants at a length between ankle and knee, a wide belt and a bandana. Striped pants are the mark of a pirate because patterned fabric, like stripes, was more expensive than an average sailor could afford. When they were in town and needed clothing, pirates had theirs made from the best materials available.

As they lived the lives of working pirates, money and travel changed the look of these men. One of the few good descriptions we have is of Henry Avery’s men getting off their ship, the Fancy after years of pirating in the Indian Ocean.

They were still dressed in the style of common sailors but the materials had changed. Separated from the materials of their homeland, wool and linen, the men had fashioned European-style clothing from oriental materials. Their shirts and breeches were of bright Indian calicos, spangled Indian silk. They wore patterned paisley, something largely unseen in the Western hemisphere.

But they had worked in these clothes. The fine fabrics were worn, torn, patched and dirty. And the men themselves were hard-bitten, work-hardened and tan. This was the classic look of a pirates – grand fabrics in working class styles on working class men.

I don’t think this look has been done often enough in pirate costumes… Asian fabric, European construction. It’s a look I plan to exploit in my own future pirate costumes. Anyone want to join me?

Working class people weren’t supposed to have good looking clothing. In fact, during the 18th century laws still existed to keep poorer people from owning nice clothes. When trade with India brought calico prints  into Europe, it was the first brightly colored, patterned fabric that the poor could afford. But the rich immediately clamped down with laws to prevent working class people from buying or wearing these fabrics. 

Pirates were already outside the law.

The pirate Jack Rackham expressed himself by buying as much calico as he could get his hands on and having an entire suit made out of it, earning himself the name “Calico Jack.” No one was going to arrest him for his suit when he’d been a pirate for years.

Pirates also stole clothes from rich ship passengers and captains. They had no use for the tight, knee length breeches of a gentleman. Besides, who wanted to wear another man’s pants? But the coat was a prize. Gentlemen’s coats and vests of the time were made of silk, satin, velvet, brocade, the most expensive of fabrics. They were often covered in embroidery. A pirate wearing one of these was a successful pirate. That was the message.

Very often he was a brave pirate, too. Several ships had rules that the first members of a boarding party, the ones who took the risks, were the ones who got the clothes.

Pirates looked for rich things that they could wear. The clothes they stole would quickly fall to pieces from constant wear, dirt, and lack of care. The look of a man with a grand, expensive coat, a simple sailor’s shirt, and ragged pants was the classic pirate style.

Cloth might fall to bits, but jewelry lasted. This was a world before “costume jewelry.” If it looked like gold, it probably was. So poor people did not own jewelry. A pirate, encountering necklaces and earrings did not trouble himself with whether they were mean for a man, a woman or God himself.

Bartholomew Roberts, probably the most successful of all pirate captains, was famous for wearing an enormous gold cross, set with many gems. The size of the thing was enormous, as large as a lady’s hand. It was Spanish in origin, probably intended as a gift to a cardinal, or perhaps even the Pope himself.  Roberts wore in when he attacked ships, to show everyone what he was capable of doing.

That’s another rule of pirate costumes. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Pirates might take anything. After a rush of the first boarding party, they were at their leisure to take literally anything that caught their fancy… Rings, shoes, boots, powdered wigs. The costume designer of Starz’ series Black Sails seems to think that they might even have stolensunglasses (technically possible, though highly unlikely.) 

When pirates attacked the next ship, these trophies were puled form sea chests and bags, looking ragged and rakish. Wearing such things showed that pirates had seen action before. 

It also sent a message to the owners of other wigs and rings and fine buckled shoes that their safe world, the world where the lower classes were content to remain downtrodden, was not going to last. Unlike common working men, the pirates demanded their fair share of the riches available in the new world. And woe to anyone who stood in their way. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pirate Ship Names

It’s common knowledge that naming the ship was one of the toughest jobs facing Bruckheimer and company in bringing us Pirates of the Caribbean. Coming up with the right mix of romance and menace wasn’t easy. But in the end The Black Pearl must go down as one of the classic names for a pirate vessel.

Other fictional pirate ships include Captain Hook’s Jolly Roger, Jamie Warren’s Black Swan and Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Fictional pirate ships benefit from having a literary individual available to name them, and also from there being no rush in the process. Naming Scarlet MacGrath’s pirate sloop for my own series, The Pirate Empire, took over a year. The Donnybrook finally fit my requirements of being realistic, Irish in origin, and implying violence, since the word is Irish slang for a huge chaotic fistfight.

In the seminal pirate novel of all time, Treasure Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson gives us two ship names, the Hispaniola on which Jim Hawkins has his adventures, and the Walrus, Flint’s pirate ship of days gone by.

Hispaniola is the name of the island that today holds two nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a perfect, exotic ship to take an English boy on adventures. But to a modern reader, who has seen Wally Walrus cartoons, and maybe a meme involving a bucket, a walrus seems an odd choice to reference in a book about pirates. But let me take you back in time, to an era when men in wooden ships explored the edges of the known world.

A rocky, frozen shore is in sight, and the longboat goes into the water. The sailors bend to the oars, and are drawing near, when what a first appeared to be a rock stands up to a height taller than a man, bellowing a war cry to the frigid air. The creature looks like nothing the men have ever seen. Huge fangs, like swords, protrude from its mouth.  It seems to have no arms or legs, and is massive, as large as the longboat itself. Into the men’s minds flash images of sea monsters, unknown creatures outside of the natural order of the world.

The creature rushes into the water and disappears for a moment. But then it rises under the longboat, throwing men into the water and ripping the sturdy craft to splinters. Five men are killed, three more struggle back to the ship, terrified.

Later, speaking to natives of the island, the captain asks the name of this horrifying apparition and gets the word “walrus.” A fitting name, suddenly, for a terrifying ship.

Historical pirates were more pragmatic. Nearly one fifth of all pirate ships were named Revenge, or some variation thereof, from Blackbeard’s elegant Queen Ann’s Revenge to the somewhat clunkier New York Revenge’s Revenge (which is confusing, but conveys the message that someone was ticked off about something.)

Second in popularity was the name Ranger.  It conveyed speed and the ability to travel great distances. Pirate Charles Vane had several ships, and named each one Ranger in turn. Other pirate ship names included Defiance, Rover, and variations on the word “fortune,” including Happy Fortune and Royal Fortune. Pirates named their ships to tell the world who they were and what they wanted. One ship was called the Bachelor’s Delight.

Henry Avery’s crew voted to change the name of their captured warship from the Charles II to the Fancy.  And another pirate crew named their ship the Flying Dragon and later changed it to the Fiery Dragon. One wonders if this was meant to be more frightening, or if it announced some misadventure with the galley stove.

Many pirates, however, saw their ships mainly as tools, and made no effort to customize the vessel’s names. Sometimes, such as Sam Bellamy’s Sultana, this produced a vessel with a pleasant, piraty name. For other ships, such as the pirate ship Merry Christmas, not so much. Some pirate ships carried names such as the Holy Trinity or the Rose Pink.

The tendency for pirates to simply use whatever name the ship came with also caused such incidents as a battle involving the ships Anne, St. Anne, Mary Ann and Marianne, all of which joined together to attack the merchant ship Mary.

Modern authors sometimes go overboard when trying to give their ships names that sound evil, but it’s important to remember that pirates thought of themselves as the good guys, and the navies and merchants who had beaten, humiliated and functionally enslaved them to be the evil ones. So names like the Poisoned Damnation don’t really work. A pirate was much more likely to name a boat after his sister or mother than to call her the Drunken Wench.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pirates in Love

Pirates are a sexy bunch, but they aren’t generally associated with romance. That’s a shame, because there are some really good pirate love stories in history, and they should be known and enjoyed.

Sam and Mary

I’ve told the story of Sam Bellamy – the dashing pirate revolutionary – before. But with Valentine’s day, let’s remember Mary Hallett, Sam’s true love, left behind in Boston wile Sam went off to the Caribbean in search of a treasure that would make him a rich enough to marry her.

For Sam and Mary it was love at first sight. Sam was in his mid-twenties, Mary only sixteen. They met in a tavern after Sam had been discharged from the English Navy in 1715. Mary was a girl from a respectable family, and Sam was a man from a poor family, with no job and no prospects. They spent the night together on the day they met.

Mary’s parents would never allow the two to marry, so Sam vowed to make a fortune on his own. News had just reached the area of the wreck of the Spanish Treasure Fleet. Gold, men said, was lying on the beaches of Florida, waiting for adventurers to come and claim it. Mary stole a silver teapot from her parents and gave it to Sam to finance his journey south. He vowed to return as soon as he could.

It turned out that gold was not lying on the beaches of Florida, and it took Sam several years to gather enough riches to come back. And in the meantime, Mary had a problem. She was carrying Sam’s child. She hid her pregnancy from her family until she gave birth.

Mary was found with the dead child in her lap, laughing madly. Her family was too important for the authorities to pursue an arrest for infanticide, but public opinion held that the child’s death was Mary’s fault. After that, she lived as a recluse.

When Sam finally did return, a massive storm was right behind him. Some villagers claimed that they saw Mary standing on the headlands waving her arms and raising the sea with her witch’s powers. They claim that this was her revenge for being left so long alone.

But others claim that Mary spent her magic in rescuing Sam from the storm. It’s historical fact that his body was never recovered. So he may have been rescued by his old love, and the two of them went off together with chests full of stolen gold. There are many stories in New England about Sam and Mary. This could be the one that’s true.

Mary's Heart

Mary Read fought beside Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, but she was not really their lover. Mary was no lesbian, and no woman besides Anne was ever going to sleep with Jack. Mary had already wed and lost a husband when she became a pirate.

She did not live celibate however. Mary took a lover on the ship.

It has been said that women on a ship cause trouble because men fight over them, and this may be the reason that another pirate challenged Mary’s lover to a duel.  For whatever cause, the challenge was issued, and Mary’s friend had no choice but to accept.

History does not record the man's name, but Mary had chosen him for affection, and not for any fighting skills. But if she tried to prevent the fight, her lover would be found wanting among the pirates. Mary had her own solution, however. She challenged the challenger, met him in battle, and killed him before the time of the man’s duel with her lover.

The Lioness of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson's husband was killed by King Philip VI of France, who believed him guilty of treason. Jeanne did not take this lying down. She raised money by selling her family’s land, her own personal possessions, and her body, which she prostituted to the French nobility.

She then turned on the same nobility, using this money to buy three of the best warships available. She painted the ships black and began a thirteen year pirating spree that entirely targeted French vessels. De Clisson took personal revenge on every nobel she caught, beheading them herself with an ax. After the king who had killed her husband was dead, she retired. She also married an Englishman, Sir Walter Bentley, who had personally fought against Charles de Blois, the person she believed had prompted her husband's execution. Now that's revenge. In the name of love.

The moral of these stories? Don’t mess with a pirate, be true to your vows, and never underestimate the power of a woman’s love. Happy Valentine’s Day, all.

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.