Breeches for Seamen

Seaman’s Breeches and Trousers

The lower body garments of seamen in the Golden age of Piracy can be roughly divided into three categories, each linked to the others by style and cut.

The most iconic leg garment for seamen of the period are open kneed breeches, known as “slops”. They are instantly recognisable as sailors’ clothing, but their popularity is debatable. On the one hand we have references to seamen in the “wide kneed” breeches which imply their commonality, but on the other hand it is very hard to pin down specific references to such a garment in documents or the pictorial record. We have, at most, no more than one or two pictures of slops from the years 1690-1730 (though they become much more common in pictures of the mid-late eighteenth century). Similarly, a perusal of the inventory of Joseph Haycock’s slop shop (1699) lists only 10 pairs of “open kneed breeches” out of nearly one hundred pairs of breeches and trousers. We should perhaps conclude that while they were distinctive enough as to make a useful illustration for period authors (as well as for modern reenactors) they were not especially common.

Deatil from a trade flyer of about 1740, advertising a business “at the sign of the jolly sailor”

We have little information about the materials used for slops, but it is probably fair to assume that they could be made of the same materials as other breeches — wool, linen, fustian, and in the case of seamen, canvas sailcloth. Looking at the pictorial record, both from the Golden Age of Piracy and from the periods around it, slops should be straight cut, fairly wide, and pleated into a waistband. In length they should reach to just below the knee, or a few inches longer.

Similar to slops “petticoat breeches” might also be worn. Petticoat breeches were considerably wider than slops and very heavily pleated at the waist. Generally they were no longer than knee length. The evidence for petticoat breeches is even more scarce than for slops, but they are shown in at least one period illustration of seamen.

England’s Safety…or a Bridle to the French King. Frontispiece, 1693

Experimental archaeology may provide the reason for the relative absence of petticoat breeches from the record. Quite simply they are far from practical aboard ship: they get caught around the legs when climbing the rigging; the knee opening easily catches on things like belaying pins, and the sheer bulk of fabric makes them easy to snag on any protrusion. However, when dealing with small boats they become an excellent and practical garment. If made from light material they dry out fairly quickly, and their wide legs make them very easy to roll up when wading through the surf. Later eighteenth century pictures which show petticoat breeches are often depictions of men in small boats or members of a boat crew, which to a certain extent bears out this hypothesis.

An issue which has been raised is whether slops were a garment in their own right or whether they were designed to be worn over normal breeches as a kind of overall. The case for slops as an overall is more or less limited to a small number of pictures which appear to show another garment just visible beneath the knees of the slops, and some descriptions of runaway slaves wearing trousers over their breeches. Both of these arguments can be easily refuted. In the case of the first, we know that seamen owned and wore drawers, so it could very easily be that the just-visible undergarments are in fact drawers: none of the pictures can be conclusively shown to be depicting breeches. In the case of the second, it has been argued by social historians that the slaves were wearing all of their clothes (or as many as they could) so they would not have to carry the extra bulk upon their backs. Neither does the logic for an overall type garment hold true: if the principal purpose was the protection of the breeches then the simplest and most reliable method would be to not wear the breeches at all, to wear slops instead rather than over. The fact that the undergarments are visible shows that the protection would not be complete in any case. In the absence of any conclusive evidence the modern reenactor could wear breeches under his slops for comfort or warmth if he wishes, but should avoid doing so “because it’s what they did.”

The second garment to be considered is trousers. Long trousers first began to make their appearance during the Golden Age of Piracy, and were at first peculiar to seamen. Moreover, they were peculiar to English seamen. A Spanish official who was unfortunate enough to meet George Shelvocke’s privateers during his circumnavigation in 1720 stated that he knew Rogers’ men to be English by the fact they were wearing long trousers.

Trousers, being a relatively new garment, were less popular at the beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy than later. Haycock’s slop shop contained only one pair of trousers for example, and despite their apparent popularity by Shelvocke’s time they did not appear in the official Admiralty Slop Contract specifications until 1731 — although we know they had been unofficially supplied as early as 1725.

Trousers should be similar to slops, but somewhat narrower and longer, reaching to the ankle or a few inches above it. The 1731 Admiralty Slop specifications give a length of 34″, which even on a modern (and thus slightly taller) man falls to only a few inches above the ankle.

Mary Read from the 1st Dutch ed. of Johnson, 1725

The third garment is simply the typical breeches of the period. Over 90% of the leg garments listed in Haycock’s shop were breeches, and until the introduction of trousers in 1731 breeches were the only leg wear specified by the Admiralty for their slops. The pictorial record of sailors of the GaoP shows an overwhelming majority of breeches until the popularity of trousers increased in the 1720s. Breeches of the correct period should thus be more common than either slops or trousers.

For the construction of breeches see the breeches section in the common man’s article. Materials list in the inventory of Haycock’s shop include canvas, ticking, fustian, and wool.

© 2006 Kass McGann and Ed Foxe. All Rights Reserved. The Authors of this work retain full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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