Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and the rest of the cast of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise surely helped popularize pirate costumes. But were their costumes a true depiction of what buccaneers wore during their time? There is a fair amount of confusion about what pirates might have looked like. While we may be loathe to accept anything other than the romanticized version force fed to us over the centuries, the reality could be a lot less spectacular.
Pirates, like everyone else, wore the best clothes they could lay their hands on. There was no standard attire. How could there be? Piracy has existed since boats and ships have been used for commerce and that is a very long time and which, subsequently, means many different types of fashion. Add to this history the different regions involved in piracy over the years and we cannot delegate one clothing style to cover all styles. For instance, Asian pirates surely looked a lot different than Vikings.
For now, let us focus on the English pirates who reigned from the 14th to the 18th century, including the Golden Age of Piracy. Unlike commonly held opinion, piratedom was not confined to ruffians. They came from all types of socioeconomic backgrounds. Rich pirates wore rich clothes and the poor pirates wore what they could get their hands on. It was only in the early 17th century when pirates were employed in large numbers that the British Admiralty codified uniforms to help identify them from other members of the society. One common piece of garment was probably the wool cap that all citizens, by English law, were required to wear.
For all sense and purposes, the clothes worn at sea must have been tight fitting, at least for seamen lower down in the hierarchy. Being aboard a pirate ship was not necessarily a cruise experience and individuals could not partake in arduous tasks, such as climbing the rigging, looking like Cary Grant. Wool, linen, cotton, canvass, leather, and sheepskin were materials of choice. The captain’s clothing was markedly different, particularly when on land. He had the wealth to look the part and often flaunted his sense of style. Velvet, silk, damask, taffeta were common for his type of clothing and perhaps also the use of exotic feathers.
There is something we are forgetting here. Ah, the iconic eye patch. The quintessential pirate wear on Halloween often features the eye patch. Why is that? The reason for this fashion is quite practical really. Pirates, though an eccentric group as any in history, did not take perverse pleasure in plucking out one eye off their enemies’ faces. The patch was to condition the eye to see in the dark, such as areas below the deck which housed the loot.