Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pirate Costumes-An Introduction

Greetings Halloween Fans.
Who doesn't love pirates, eh?
One of these two is a pirate...the other is not.  Can YOU spot the difference?
Pirates have been hot ever since Johnny Depp sashayed onto the dock of Port Royal in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl although in all fairness they were hot before that as well.  Hollywood went through a NO PIRATES phase for several years as the films just weren't money makers in a world jaded by explosive action movies.  POTC:CotBP brought new life into the pirate genre, which was a good thing, but with it came the inevitable slew of disease infected poo-water following in the wake.  After the surprise success of POTC any, and I do mean any, material related to pirates, no matter how tangentially, was published, filmed and merchandised.  This pirate renaissance also dramatically increased the variety, availability and popularity of pirate costumes for Halloween.
The pirate costume is indeed a perennial favorite of American Halloween costumes going back to the days when children made their own outfits from whatever they had about the house.  As a result of this long standing tradition coupled with the pre-POTC popular image of pirates in literature and fiction, a basic attire was formed that made the wearer instantly recognizable as a pirate.  The common items found in early pirate costumes were: gold hoop earring, stripey shirt, tattered sleeves and trouser cuffs (usually in a ragged, oversize triangular pattern), vest, head scarf, fake beard, eye-patch, and perhaps a hook-hand.
Where did these uniform items come from?  What does a real pirate look like?
Somewhat accurate depictions of pirates
Above are some pictures of real pirates from history.  Not a hook-hand or eye-patch between them, I'm afraid.
The problem, as I see it, is that we don't have accurate pictures of pirates from their own eras.  What we do have are engravings, woodcuttings, and paintings made after the actual persons pictured were dead, in most cases, and often published in contemporary works of the time.  The best-selling The Buccaneers of America (1st Dutch edition 1678) by Alexandre Exquemelin was a contemporary look at piratical activities in the Caribbean from a first-hand perspective (and incidentally the subject of a libel suit by one of its subjects, Henry Morgan).  Most works about pirates are not first-hand accounts, are not written contemporary to the subject matter and are of dubious authenticity.  Add to this the fact that most famous pirates were pirate leaders.  We remember the exploits of Bart Roberts, Henry Morgan and Blackbeard because their stories were told, printed, read, and retold.  These were bits of sensationalist literature.  As a result we don't really know Tom Cooper the angry seaman turned pirate who held no rank at all on a sloop that encountered no great trouble and died of too much drink in Tortuga.  Why should we?  How could we?  We occasionally know a quartermaster, but this is almost always because that quartermaster would go on to be a pirate captain later.  Thus the image of pirates we most commonly have is of the fanciful pirate captain or of the dirty sea-roving rogues we encountered in the painted plates published in Stevenson's Treasure Island or even in Barrie's Peter Pan.
Scottish Pirate Heavy Metal band called Alestorm, seems fairly accurate to me
So how should a pirate look?
Pirates looked like sailors from whatever era they happened to live.  Sailors have long had a distinctive look, often going shoe-less aboard ship and in the warm Caribbean wearing very little.  They have tanned skin, tarred pigtails/ponytails, they may indeed have tattoos.  In the era of the buccaneers there are three distinctive looks: the true buccaneer who wears animal skins and lives on Hispaniola (and surrounding isles); the sailor; and the Henry Morgan type of adventurer who organizes them (in which case the buccaneer looks more soldier than sailor with bucket boots and a buff coat).  Of course a Chinese pirate or Barbary corsair would look period and culturally appropriate to their time and place.  Even Christians who "went Turk" and joined the corsairs would be expected to dress and look like their Ottoman shipmates.
For my own part I can say that a pirate should not wear boots.  Boots are the footwear of landsmen and soldiers.  Pirates should wear shoes or no footwear.  If you are going for a Henry Morgan style buccaneer by all means wear boots.  I'm not even sure how boots became the default fictional pirate choice of footwear given that the classic fictional pirates of Barrie and Stevenson wore shoes.
Trouser choices are also a bit controversial.  The "traditional" sailor trouser would be slops in the Blackbeard days and knee-length cuffed trousers in the Morgan days.  In the picture of Blackbeard at the very top we see slops.  These loose fitting, flared trousers stop between the knee and the ankle, usually mid-calf.  Vertical strips are entirely a matter of personal choice.
Shirts can be trouble.  Collars, no collars, frilly cuffs, no frills, laced, not laced, the choice of shirt usually has to do with time period, but the classic striped shirt is not usually on the list.

In the coming posts I will explore your costume options on the market today, including accessories and...(gag)...BOOT TOPPERS!  (I despise boot toppers).  Boot toppers, in case this term is new to you, are really gaiters.  These gaiters are slipped over the trousers and rest atop the shoe, often laced tight, to provide the look of a boot.  To pull off the illusion successfully the shoe color should match the topper and laces should not be seen.  Unfortunately boot toppers for pirate costumes, are often decorated with skull and crossbones motifs.

Keep your smoking lamp lit.

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