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Gentlemen of Fortune

Pirate Living History 1680-1725

Clothing During the Golden Age of Piracy

For some of you who still cling to the Hollywood notion of what a pirate is "supposed" to look like, you will probably be in for a shock.

Admiralty Slop Contract

20th Century Interpretation

Most of the evidence that survives from the GAoP suggests that a "period" pirate looked much like other sailors of the same era. This is not too surprising, really, as sailors wore specific sailor clothing to do the job of running a ship. Much like a blacksmith wears particular clothing to suit the specific needs of his craft (heavy apron etc).

If you are new to "Pirate Re-enacting", curious about what "authentic piracy" is all about, or ready to take your "fun" pirate clothes up another notch or two, I suggest you stop by the "Sailor's Slops" after reading the overview below. On that page you will find all of the basic items you would need for your kit.

Some of you are entertainers, some Living Historians, and some are just looking for Fun. But if you are portraying a pirate then you are, first of all, a seamen with all of the maritime skills that go along with it. Secondly, you would have all of the skills of a naval mariner, that is, have all the skills of a sailor that operates a ship of war. Many pirates were former naval seamen or former merchant seamen.

It is the first goal of any re-enacting/living history group to enjoy what they are doing. Secondly, and just as important, is that the group portrays the men and women that were alive during the GAoP as accurately as possible. To this end, you should ensure that your clothing, equipment, and mannerisms reflect those that existed during the Early 18th Century. Modern clothing, jewelry, and glasses should be forbidden. Use only natural materials that would have been available at the time such as linen, fustian, wool, silk, and hemp. Hand stitch, if possible, at least the visible seams. Make or buy leather items that are made with vegetable tanned leather. And lastly, before making any purchases, consult someone that is knowledgeable with early 18th century dress/equipment and modern day vendors.

What does a Golden Age of Piracy seamen look like?

The sources below include "Working Dress" by Diana de Marly (1986), Christopher Lloyd's "The British Seaman" (1968) and G.E. Manwaring, “The Dress of the British Seaman from the Revolution to the Peace of 1748, "Mariner’s Mirror, The Journal of the Society for Nautical Research, Volume 10, 1924.

Slop Contract Clothing

Ed Foxe in Slop Contract Clothing

In 1628 the British Admiralty made sailor's clothing, called "slops," available to press-ganged men They consisted of a suit of canvas with doublet and breeches, Monmouth caps, cotton waistcoats and drawers, stockings, linen shirts and shoes.
The Pursers stood to make a profit from the sales from the slop chest, but since clothing is a necessity, it seemed unfair to allow each ship's purser to name his own price. Thus, by 1663 the Admiralty began to issue specifications for the types of clothing (slops) and set fixed prices. (NOTE: these will be referred to as The Admiralty Slops Contract or ASC) It was also stated that they had to be sold before the mainmast, once a week, and in the captain's presence.

So, while the Royal Navy (RN) did not have or issue an “official” uniform until at least the mid 18th Century, they did issue a contract for, and made certain types of sailors clothes available to, sailors on their ships and in the major costal towns where England’s sailors were.

Though these slops were not a uniform because there was no "order" for the sailors to wear them, Manwaring does say that;

"Nevertheless, as these were the only clothes permitted to be sold on board ship, and the men were allowed to purchase them on a long credit, it is safe to assume that the supply was eagerly taken up”.

One of the most important facts overlooked time and again when examining the common members of a pirate crew is that seamen of the Golden Age period did not consider themselves "Navy" seamen, or "Merchant" seaman, they were just "seamen". One year they might be in the RN. The next year they'd be on a trading voyage to the East Indies. That might have been followed with a six months tour on a Newcastle collier, and then maybe a quick jaunt on a privateer, as the fancy and opportunity took them. So even if many pirates hadn't come directly from an RN ship there's every probability that they had RN slops in their chest from earlier voyages.

In 1706, a new contract was issued by the Admiralty for the kinds of clothing that would be acceptable as slops; and they were pretty specific. The contracting system was not all that different from what we have today; that is, the government published what it wanted, and various firms bid on the contract. The winning company had to have slop clothing available at set prices to RN ships. The government even provided "sealed patterns" or samples of each garment that was available in various English ports (even in Lisbon). Sea captains needing to outfit a crew could compare the quality of the local slop supply with these samples.

Each contract ran for a limited number of years and then a new contract was issued and opened to bidding. From 1706 to 1748, each new contract specified pretty much the same set of clothing, with some minor variations, and also specified the price of each article.

The 1706 contract, for example, called for:

  • Shrunck Grey Kersey Jackett, lined with Red Cotton, with fifteen Brass Buttons, and two Pockets of Linnen, the Button Holes stiched with Gold Colour Thread, at Ten Shillings and Sixpence each
  • Kersey is a very coarse cheap wool. "Shrunck" appears to mean water-resistant, possibly fulled or felted. "Cotton" probably refers to a type of napped wool
  • Waist Coat of Welsh Red plain unlined, with eighteen Brass Buttons, the holes stiched with Gold Coloured Thread at Five Shillings and Sixpence each>
  • Welsh red refers to a type of wool flannel; cotton flannel does not appear until the end of the 19th Century
  • Striped Ticken Waist Coats of proper lengths, to be one Yard in length at least, with Eighteen Black Buttons, the Holes Stitched with Black Thread lined with White linen and two White Linnen Pockets, at the Rate of Seven Shillings each Ticken/Ticking A strong material of linen, basket woven, and usually in stripes
  • Red Kersey Breeches lined with Linnen, with three Leather Pockets, and thirteen white Tinn Buttons, the Button Holes stitched with white Thread, at the Rate of Five Shillings and Sixpence each Kersey is a very coarse cheap wool
  • Striped Shagg Breeches lin'd with Linnen, with three Leather Pockets, and fourteen white Tinn Buttons, the Button Holes stiched with white Thread, at the Rate of Tenn Shillings and Sixpence each Shagg also called Duffel - a coarse woolen fabric with a thick tufted nap
  • Striped Ticken Breeches of proper lengthes, lined with white linen, and two linen Pockets, with Sixteen Black Buttons, the Button Holes stiched with Black Thread, at the rate of five Shillings each Ticken/Ticking A strong material of linen, basket woven, and usually in stripes
  • Shirts of blew and white chequered Linnen, at the Rate of three Shillings and Threepence each Chequered or Checked linen of the time seems to be more of a windowpane style an not as much checked like an Italian table cloth
  • Drawers of blew and white chequered Linnen, at the Rate of Two Shillings and Threepence each
  • Leather Capps faced with Red Cotton, and lined with Black Linnen, at the Rate of One Shilling and twopence each Not sure what exactly these caps are. Cocked hat and Monmouth Caps are worn during this time, but don't appear in any GAoP era ASC lists
  • Small Leather Capps stich’d with white Thread, at the Rate of Eightpence each
  • Grey Woollen Stockings at the Rate of One Shilling and Ninepence per Pair
  • Grey Woollen Gloves or Mittens at the Rate of Sixpence per pair
  • Double Sold Shoes, round Toes, at the Rate of Four Shillings per pair
  • Interesting that the "fashion" of the period calls for Squared toe shoes, but the ASC calls for round
  • Brass Buckles with Iron Tongues at the Rate of Three Pence per pair
  • These slops lists continued in much the same vein with minor variations until 1748. Since there was no order compelling Royal Navy sailors to buy slops, this could not be considered a uniform, but it amounted to such since these were the clothes most commonly available to them. According to G.E. Manwaring, this is the costume that British seamen were most often pictured wearing in period prints and paintings. Grey jackets, red breeches or trousers, striped waistcoats and blue-and-white checkered shirts was the de facto uniform for this era.

    The point about caps is interesting. British seamen were not issued hats until relatively late. They were known for their thrummed and Monmouth caps in the 16th through 18th centuries. For some reason, knit caps disappear from the slops list for several decades. Despite this we know through other sources that knit hats and cocked hats were worn during this period, they just do not appear on the slop contracts during the 1690-1720 period. It is not until the list of 1730 that you find the leather caps replaced with "Caps, woolen milled" and "Caps, yarn”. The "Caps, Woolen, milled yarn" is repeated in 1739, when for the first time "Hats" (with no other description) is added.

    Manwaring believed that trousers were exclusive to British sailors in this era. He cites a English report from the Pacific in which some Spanish seamen recognized them as British because they were wearing trousers.

    The above information is not meant to coerce you into adopting the Admiralty Contracts as your sole guide or vision for building your pirate kit. It is meant, however, to provide examples as to what the common or average sailors clothing might have looked like.

    For more specific information, please go to Sailor's Slops