The look of a ‘Pirate’
An Introduction by Richard Rutherford-Moore


Pirate feature films and television dramas often depict ‘pirate captains’ dressed in a very flamboyant fashion with a fancy long coat, leather top-boots and a plumed hat. I’m not being picky and I doubt that anything except a very small percentage of the viewing audience noted it, but in a recent (2005) television drama remake of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island set in the year 1864 the pirate captain seen in the feature was costumed as the stereotype from the 18th Century, complete with three-cornered hat and feather plume – many of his pirate crew were obviously costumed and armed from previous ‘pirate’ dramas set in the same century.  Many pirates possessed ‘long clothes’ – taken from plundered prizes – but unless bought privately ‘before the mast’ these items belonged to all the ships’ crew and pirate captains had no preference at all. Several period accounts describe known pirates ashore in exotic locations - including some renowned captains - described as wearing ‘fancy laced hats and coats’ but also with shoes and no stockings, stockings but no shoes or even going barefoot, their lower garments beneath their fancy coats being ‘soiled and torn’ or in one instance ‘hanging in rags’.

The earliest illustration of Anne Bonny from Captain Johnson’s History of the Most Notorious Pyrates ; the later 1725 illustrations of Bonny and Read were later amended to make the female pirates look more ‘sexy’ but in both they are shown wearing what was then seen as ‘typical’ male seaman’s clothing – a short jacket and loose breeches. To avoid accidents, long hair would often be tucked away inside a cap or plaited into a ‘pigtail’ but here Anne appears to be wearing a form of ‘mob cap’.


Working daily aboard a wooden sailing-ship would damage and eventually destroy any ‘fancy’ laced clothes or clothes made from lightweight materials instead of hard-wearing linen, sailcloth, hemp or wool so the reality of the appearance of pirates is that - like their civilian counterparts - they would take every opportunity to replace or repair any damaged clothing and not appear in tatters by choice (unless falling-down drunk) ; as such many navies had a ‘make and mend’ day aboard ship each week enabling the crew to come on deck to wash and mend their dirty or damaged clothing or replace it from the ‘slop chest’ or through the purser. Feature films such as Cut-Throat Island and Pirates of the Caribbean for many reasons give a wholly mistaken impression of what the average historical seamen-pirates looked and behaved like - and don’t communicate the overall and ever-present smell of salt, tar and unwashed bodies - and due to this is what visitors expect to see at any ‘pirate event’. Depending on exactly what the ‘pirate events’ are you wish to be involved in, what you have to decide is : do you want to look like a pirate who has just walked straight out of the history books ; or - in a very extreme sense - a theme park employee on a lunch-break ? It’s an age-old question and a lot does depend on what the group you are associated with wishes to see themselves as and your personal goal.

Only the pistol in his belt indicates this seaman is anything other than a plain early 18th Century mariner in port ; he wears a short jacket with turn-back cuffs, a pair of ‘petticoat’ breeches, a dark blue linen shirt and neck-tie and on his head a loose knitted ‘stocking’ cap. His hair is gathered in a ‘queue’ at the nape of the neck.

Many of the modern reprints of Treasure Island have excellent illustrations – but note the date as a seaman of 1705 would look different from a seaman of 1765 (the date given in modern reprints and feature films). The indications are that in the original, R L Stevenson left the introductory date blank but intended the novel to be set in 1730, but this issue was complicated between events and names used in the text being 30 years apart in recorded history. To set the date of Treasure Island in 1765 as Walt Disney did would mean that Captain Billy Bones was finally hunted down by the pirates after almost a 40 year search !

With all historically-recreated periods, it’s not just about the pattern of the clothes but also the correct materials to make them from ; using cheap calico instead of canvas, cheap cotton instead of linen or even a cheap polyester-mix instead of pure wool is not a good choice as the look of a real seaman-pirate can’t be gained from wearing clothes made from the wrong materials and an investment in getting the correct materials always results in clothes that wear longer, look better and are more comfortable than any cheap short-term stuff.  Trying to do both the above – not just in going off to the pub at night, so changing into your ‘pirate gold-laced finery’ – is different from passing yourself off during the day at any kind of ‘living history’ event to visitors as a real 18th Century seaman-pirate but looking like Captain Hook from the novel Peter Pan. ‘Playing pirates’ is obviously fun but remember that any real-life seaman or yachtsman will spot you right away as a ‘landsman’ - or even worse, a fool of a landsman – especially if you are aboard ship or boat and haven’t any shipboard knowledge or can’t back up your costumed display with some well-presented and accurate knowledge. This begins from where we started at the beginning of this article with speech, mannerisms and dress but goes on to include weapons-handling, ship-skills and associated sea-faring practical skills such as knot-tying or rope-work and getting the right ‘balance’ is something you can only study and steadily work towards acquiring and again depends on your personal target.

Various illustrations from the 19th Century onwards showing the ‘type-cast’ pirate captain, wearing plumed hats, long fancy coats and top-boots ; the reality is that despite the 1720 woodcuts upon which most of these are based, only a tiny minority of pirate captains actually looked anything like this.

As previously stated, working a sailing-ship was hard work ; even in fine weather an assortment of cuts, bruises and muscle strains was normal. In ‘heavy weather’, the seaman risked both life and limb – literally – in setting, furling or reefing sails. All these experiences left seaman marked and scarred and you can use make-up in varying degrees to enhance a costume and reflect this. Taken together with costume - but in moderation - make-up can be a useful tool and you can’t beat using William Hogarth paintings and engravings for inspiration. Flick through any ‘pirate’ book and look for illustrations by 19th Century artists such as N C Wyeth or Howard Pyle – both men researched their subject and although flavoured with a little artistic licence, do reflect what pirates probably looked like in a ‘typical’ sense. A pale face can be transformed into having a weather-beaten look by smearing on the correct foundation, teeth ‘blacked out’ or stained with fancy-dress shop paint or by using permanganate (the latter gives an excellent natural effect but is toxic and must be used with great care) a dressed wig and a contact lens used to ‘white-out’ an eye gives a very hard-used appearance ; glue-on whiskers or moustaches aren’t recommended for the more athletic pirate as they often come loose or fall off during activity or hot weather.

The author wearing basic make-up special effects including missing teeth, ‘lacquered’  facial scars, ‘white-out’ contact lens, eye-patch and a dressed wig in a transparency from  his lecture ‘The Truth About Pirates’

Start with a small box or bag and acquire a few bits and pieces of make-up from wife, girlfriend (or Boots) before going on to any degree of expense – it takes some practice not to end up looking like something from either a circus or a horror film. Don’t forget that most make-up forms require a cream remover - getting make-up off is as important as getting it on unless you want to risk spots and blackheads from blocked pores. Don’t attempt eye make-up without supervision if you have no previous experience ; a good mirror, a steady hand and privacy is a must but someone who knows what they are doing and can assist is far better and watch out for allergies !

A long wig is a great investment in your appearance but these can be very itchy and uncomfortable to wear ; always try to get a wig made from real hair and not nylon as sold in fancy-dress shops as they never look natural, won’t take a curl ; and even worse in a pirate environment, are inflammable ! Keep any wig in a suitable bag and not thrown into a haversack with the rest of your stuff. Hand-wash your shirt, scarf or neck-tie with soap-powder or add clean gravel, stones or pebbles to a machine-wash (ask the owner first) ; this - along with the careful use of bleaches - gives any material a naturally ‘worn’ effect and complements your skin make-up ; using cheesecloth or muslin for scarves is very good as both these materials naturally crease up and take a good dye or stain - but avoid the ‘tatty’ effect though of loose hems. Take care with commercial hand-dyes : mix them thoroughly with boiling water and plenty of salt before dropping in your moistened garment to avoid getting multi-coloured spots, especially on pale materials. If you use walnut husks - this a period dye and much recommended - always wear rubber gloves during the dying process as any accidental skin stain can’t be scrubbed away and will only wear off in time !

Footwear is probably and usually the biggest problem you are going to come up against. The temptation to follow ‘Hollywood’ and choose some sort of modern top-boot from a charity shop or equestrian store source and gluing or stitching on leather ‘bucket-tops’ ; or going to a lot of trouble in making a pair of high boot-tops to slip over your Doc Martens should both be avoided as there is no historical justification for this form of footwear in a pirate sense. Pending your budget, makers of fine recreated historical footwear exist – such as Sarah B Juniper who makes all mine – and these buckle-shoes last for years. Various cheaper shoes and boots are also offered by suppliers in the USA and India on the internet but check them out well first as such ‘unseen’ purchases in the past have been disappointing. Search charity shops for an above-the-ankle lace-up boot having an inside ‘tongue’ in your size ; these as I have shown and demonstrated previously can be refashioned into reasonably-looking period shoes at the expense of a bit of careful razor-work, hand-stitching and fitting a pair of brass harness buckles. Sandals or espadrilles are the cheapest form of ‘pirate’ footwear (next to staying barefoot) ; in Portugal, Spain and in Mediterranean countries handmade ‘lace-up’ leather sandals are cheap but tough and serviceable – but take it from me these are not very warm or waterproof in an English autumn even if you have the local cobbler sew an extra thick sole on them !

A photograph of modern-day re-enactment pirates aboard ship showing a mixture of early 18th Century costume, from a plain able seaman mariner’s outfit to the cocked hats, tarpaulin coats and sea-boots worn by the warrant officers and ‘landsmen’


Part One & Part Two of this article is an abbreviation from the original.
The original article must not be copied or reproduced without permission from the author.



All photos supplied by & text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.


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