How to Dress Like a Historically Accurate Pirate
The Standard Perception of a Pirate
On Halloween, during boys' birthday parties, or on September 19 (International Talk Like A Pirate Day!), we can see several interpretations of pirate garb. Most, however, involve similar features found in almost every modern depiction of pirates: a black tri-corn hat bedecked with the skull and crossbones symbol, a peg leg, a parrot on a shoulder, a fancy red jacket with gold buttons, and a hook for a hand.
While not every element of this pirate depiction is historically inaccurate, the modern perception of pirates has largely been influenced by author J. M. Barrie's infamous character, Captain Hook. Hook was always dressed in fine clothes, with a fancy wig in the manner of the English King Charles II, and of course, had a hook for a hand thanks to a malicious crocodile. Real pirates, however, looked nothing like Captain Hook, although some of the mythology surrounding his type of piracy did have some factual basis.
King Charles II
Pirate Myths and Realities
- The fancy dress: Sure, Captain Hook was dressed in finery -- he was the captain, after all. But most pirates were poor working men and sailors who did not have the money or the class status to own such finery. They generally wore clothes made out of cheap fabrics that would not get caught in the ship's rigging...so the likelihood of them wearing long wigs and hats with feathers was fairly slim!
- The hook and the peg leg: This myth, while hardly as common as modern perceptions of piracy would suggest, did actually happen occasionally. Pirates would lose limbs either in combat or in accidents at sea, and they did occasionally replace those limbs with wooden appendages. The hook might be an exaggeration, though!
- Parrots: Some pirates did, in fact, collect exotic pets on their voyages, either to keep or to sell at high price when they landed at a port. Pirates were allowed a certain amount of space on a ship, and so a parrot or a monkey, for example, could be found on some pirate ships that had traveled to Africa or Asia. It is fairly unlikely that they carried their parrots around on their shoulders, though -- they were too costly an asset to risk losing them.
- The skull and crossbones: Although everyone is familiar with the iconic Jolly Roger, the black flag of the pirates, different pirate crews had very different flags. Some flags were red, others had several colors, and still others featured different kinds of swords and cutlasses or even different skeletons. All were intended to inspire fear, but not every pirate flew the Jolly Roger.
For further reading about pirate myths, check out Marcus Rediker's book Villains of all Nations, as well as David Cordingly's book Under the Black Flag.