Monday, March 17, 2008
What Pirates Wore
Here's a fairly good depiction of a common sailor in "southwest" gear for cold and rainy conditions. Notice the bell bottom jeans and bare feet. Most of the clothes were made from canvas or "duck" similar to bluejeans of today, although much looser. The colors were white, blue, and whatever a pirate could raid. Simple tube shirts were worn over the duck pants, not too different from a T-shirt. The gray-black "southwest" style was just sail canvas treated with tar on the outside. In short, a typical pirate and sailor looked exactly like a hippie in bell-bottom jeans.
There is a vast misconception that pirates wore clothes like Johnny Depp all the time. The Captain might get dressed up for a battle or to go on shore but otherwise he looked just like the rest of the crew. This is because those special garments were expensive and when on deck, grease would splatter down onto the deck, fouling anything you wore. The ropes and pulleys (called blocks) were all lubricated with a mixture of pitch tar and lard, which is why clothing was simple and why they cleaned the decks first thing on any sailing ship.
Hairstyles were mostly braided until the early 1800's, often dipped in tar as well. I have no idea where those romantic picture of pirates with flowing manes of hair come from, other than perhaps vanity - and a few more Johnny Depp movies. But the part about beaded braids is fairly authentic.
On Sunday, "make and mend day," everyone would clean and sew clothes and fix their hair braids, often with colorful threads if the sailmaker had any. Experienced sailors would teach the younger lads how to make as much clothes out of their allotment of canvas, often adding very detailed piping (folds of material). Tobacco pipes were cleaned and repaired - most sailors were horribly addicted to tobacco and at least a gallon of beer-like grog a day as well. From reading many history books and historical novels, I got the opinion that Sundays you'd get a little cleaned up, get a buzz, play some music, catch some fish, wrestled, told big lies called "yarns," and gambled.
When it came time to "prepare for battle stations" the ships bell and drummer boy would toil. The crew would go put on their worst clothes. And of course the Captain, Quartermaster, and at least one Mate would get "pimped up" for the show. The typical pirate ship had a complement of about 40 to 200 men (and sometimes some lady pirates in men's clothes), but only a half dozen would get pimped out at most. You know, like how Johnny Depp dressed up for his movies.
One thing I learned about the colonial and pirate ship crews was that they detested the rules of the British Navy, which did try to require standard uniforms for their crews - as many were AWOL from the British Navy and if found could be seized or even hung from the yardarm. For Sundays and "go-ashore" days, straw hats with ribbons and color-coordinated tops over pure white duck trousers seemed to be routine. Part of the tradition for special coordinated clothing was so the Quartermaster could identify his drunk crew in the flop-houses and gin-joints, and drag them back to the ship.
I just thought that as we get closer to our Town Anniversary and Pirate Days that I'd throw in my two cents about what pirates would wear.