The Quick and Dirty
This Getting Dressed Guide is designed for absolute beginners so they can make good choices their first time out. To that end, it glosses over some of the finer points of correct historical clothing. If you want to find out more about the clothing of this period, follow the links in the text to the more in-depth articles elsewhere on this site.
One of the biggest mistakes maritime reenactors make is portraying seamen as landsmen — wearing frock coats, cocked hats and breeches. Although both common and fashionable men were attired this way in the Golden Age of Piracy, seamen dressed quite differently. The following quotation post-dates the Golden Age of Piracy, but demonstrates how very differently seamen did appear.
“The seamen here are a generation differing from all the world. When one goes in Rotherhithe and Wapping, which palces are chiefly inhabited by sailors, a man would be apt to suspect himself in another country. Their manner of living, speaking, acting, dressing, and behaving, are so very peculiar to themselves. Yey with all their oddities, they are perhaps the bravest and boldest fellows in the universe.” Sir John Fielding, A Brief Description of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1776.
Unfortunately not many extant sailors’ garments survive. However there are ample inventories, wills, pictures, and other references to seamen’s clothing that help us inform our decisions.
- Shirt — Sailors were famed for wearing checked shirts (particularly blue and white checks). Blue shirts and striped shirts also appear in the documentary evidence. However white is still the safest colour.
The illustration below is from an extant shirt. Avoid lace and frills.
A GAoP Shirt
- Breeches and Trousers — Seamen had their own styles of breeches and trousers which set them apart from landsmen, but typical breeches of the time were also very common amongst them. In order to stand out as seamen long canvas trousers (reaching somewhere between just below the calf and the ankle) or wide open-kneed breeches are a useful garment for reenactors, but they should not by any means be universal.
- Jacket — Although various documents record seamen as having long coats the fashion was predominantly for short jackets, reaching from just below waist length to around hip length. These jackets were generally plain, with simple buttoned cuffs and often pockets in the front. Prior to 1706 the Admiralty specification jackets were blue, but were changed in that year to grey lined red. Seamen, even in the Royal Navy, were not forced to wear jackets of these colours, and we also have records of red, white, undyed, and even striped jackets. Short waistcoats were often worn under, or in place of jackets.
Woodes Rogers and his men raiding Guayacil, engraving from Rogers journal, 1712
You’ll notice from the picture above that the only person in a frock coat and breeches is Woodes Rogers himself, the Captain of the Duke.
- Shoes — Among common men, tied shoes are very common in the 1680s and 90s. Slowly buckled shoes are coming to be worn. By the 1700s, buckled shoes will be just as common as tied shoes among common men. The basic style of shoe was the same across the board — narrow latchets over the instep, very small openings in the side, long tongues running up the ankle, and stacked heels. Heel height could vary from nearly flat to what we’d today consider “too high” for a man.
Early Buckle Shoes
- Hats and Caps — Tricorn (the period word was “cocked”) hats have become a cliché. Seamen wore many other types of caps and hats.
- Neckwear — Seamen more often wore neckerchiefs rolled and tied in a double knot at the throat. Some are shown wearing nothing on their necks but their shirt collars worn open. However even when worn open, nothing below the clavicle shows.
- Stockings — Knit or cut cloth. And garters to hold them up with. Tied around the knee.
- Accessories — Most seamen should carry a short stout working knife, and many are depicted carrying canes or cudgels when ashore. Other personal items could be kept in a bag or sea-chest. However tempting it may be ship’s fittings should not be carried to make your impression more “sailor-y”. Nothing says “sailor” like a belaying pin stuck in the belt, but it would be a bad boatswain indeed who allowed members of his crew to leave the ship carrying bits of her furniture.
- See “Top Ten Pirate To Dos” for more tips on portraying a Seaman or Pirate
- Wear boots
- Wear nothing on top of your shirt
- Dress in a frock coat, tricorn, and breeches like a landsman unless you’re the captain
- Carry bits of the ship around in your belt