The Genus Piraticus comes in several species and sub-species, most notably Piraticus Historius (historic-reenactor pirates) , Piraticus Festivus (Pirate Festival pirates), and today’s species of study, Piraticus Faireus – that species of pirates common to Renaissance Faires.
At first glance, it would seem that Renaissance pirates would be easy to spot. They would reenact with a slant toward the Buccaneering era of pirates, and favor slashed doublets, muffin caps and bollocks daggers- a great look for a pirate.
However, in practice this is not the case at all. When observing pirates at most Ren Faires, even the casual observer will notice at once that these pirates are not rooted in any particular time. They are most especially not related to the swashbuckling pirates of the English Renaissance. Instead, the largest group of these pirates come to us from the realm of pure fantasy.
These pirates are most noted for their extensive use of the color black. Although black has not been associated with any working class occupation (and even the most dashing of historical pirates were definitely blue-collar) the pirates who attend renaissance fests are often covered in black from head to toe. This is especially notably because the color is so impractical. Summer events, especially in Midwestern America (my home grounds) often sport temperatures in the mid 90’s (Fahrenheit – perhaps 33 degrees Celsius).
Males of this species are a fairly homogeneous lot. The look is black pants – very tight black pants, often even tights – and sometimes even skin-tight black leather pants. The shirt – usually baggy in the “poet” style – is usually black as well, although other historically inaccurate colors such as red, burgundy and dark brown are also frequently seen. A black leather vest is also often in evidence.
Footgear for these pirates is often very distinctive. Although historic pirates wore buckled shoes almost exclusively, or went barefoot while on ship, our Renaissance pirates show nary a shoe. The foot covering of choice is a high boot. “Bucket boots” of the type favored by Jack Sparrow in the POTC movies are very common. Loosely based on a type of riding boot favored by the nobility of approximately 100 years before the Golden Age of Piracy, these boots have a wide top that can be worn folded over for walking, or pulled up over the thigh for riding through rough county.
The Ren Faire version has lost this ability. The “buckets” or turned-down upper part of the boot is far too narrow to be pulled up as any sort of protection. Instead, they remain as a fashion statement.
Another popular style of footwear can only be described as a “Ren Faire boot”. This design was invented by Ren Fair craftsmen, who used modern materials and a smattering of historical research to create a boot that “could have existed” during the renaissance, but didn’t.
Comfortable and durable, these boots often cost many hundreds of dollars. They usually lace up the front or sides, often with an incorporated button design. For a more piratical look, buckles are often substituted for the buttons. These boots look like nothing out of history, and their knee-high tight leather construction makes them hot, but they remain popular.
Piratical hats are also of a strange variety. Although in many venues the tricorne, a historically accurate hat, marks one as a pirate, the Ren Fair crowd is not to be satisfied with a common tricorne. Instead, these hats are extravagantly decorated with feathers and jeweled clips. Faire vendors stock plenty of hat pins featuring a skull-and-crossbones, crossed swords, or an octopus (a symbol favored by Faire pirates since Davey Jones in POTC 2 – Dead Man’s Chest).
In order to support yet more feathers, some pirates favor hats of the Cavalier style. These fanciful constructions can carry trailing feathers that rival a peacock’s tale – and must be equally difficult to carry around.
The female of the species Piraticus Faireus come in two distinct species – the Bawdy Wench and the Hard-as-Nails Hellion. Either or both may display a huge amount of bosom. The Wench, however, usually wears skirts, often hiked to above the knees with leather skirt-lifters. She is usually not as well-armed as the Hellion. Many Wenches are young and frolicsome, and are often wearing little beside a corset (usually from the Victorian era) a skirt, boots and a pirate hat. Often the Wench’s hat becomes an extravagant affair. I have seen women at Ren Fairs wearing hats with entire Spanish Galleons on them, in addition to yards of lace and pounds of jewels.
Often the Wench has kept company with a belly-dancer, or a belly-dancer has decided to become a wench. Yards of silk scarves are in evidence on these costumes, as well as Middle-Eastern tribal jewelry, the occasional turban, and a bare midriff. Since belly-dancers frequently carry scimitars, it may be difficult to tell where one occupation takes up and another leaves off… But by my estimation, if the woman is wearing flintlock pistols, she probably identifies as a pirate.
In contrast, the Hellion is often older, and is often firmly attached to a male of the species. Her display of bosom is often deeper but narrower, and her clothing may perfectly echo the male. The younger examples of the Hellion often wear spike-heeled boots of extravagant proportions. Older women favor tall, flat heeled boots. Often these women carry lots of steel… Sword, several daggers, stilettos (besides the ones on their shoes) and often a whip. This is the perfect costume for a woman with a take-no-nonsense attitude.
Faire pirates carry a lot of weapons in general. They usually resemble a boarding party, rather than a night on the town. Often the weapons of choice are broadswords or fencer’s rapiers. Many pistols are in evidence. Some pirates are carrying so much weaponry that it’s hard to tell how they move. And if weapons don’t take over, other accouterments may. The pirate may carry compasses, tankards, keys, extra scarves, manacles, and just about every other cool-looking vaguely piratical object that the Faire may wish to sell.
So what do I think of the Ren Faire pirate? As a species they are fun. Certainly, in my opinion, any pirate costume is better than no costume at all. And the amount of time and money invested in these costumes shows a certain dedication to the persona. But they are a species and a culture unto themselves – not much related to history at all.
That’s a shame, because the history of pirates – and their radical stroke for equality and generosity is worth knowing about . I guess I’ll take my pirates where I can get them however. As long as they’re a jolly crew.