Dressed to Kill – pirates, fashion and rebellion

Sally Malcolm’s Choc Lit debut, The Legend of the Gypsy Hawk, was released on Valentine’s Day. Here she talks a little bit about the background and research to the pirate theme of her new book …

Sally-Malcolm---pic 2014

“I should like to meet a pirate,” says Elizabeth Swann at the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean.  And who can argue with her? From Treasure Island to TV’s Black Sails, we have an enduring fascination with devil-may-care pirates.

But is the roguish buccaneer, thumbing his nose at society with a glint in his eye, just a Hollywood myth?  Real pirates, after all, were ruthless thieves and dangerous cutthroats.  You probably wouldn’t want to meet one.

Well, no. You might not want to meet one (he might not smell very good!) but if pirates had been no more than commonplace thieves I doubt we’d still be telling their stories. Yes, pirates were criminals and, yes, they were violent. But they represented something important that still resonates today.

From Elizabethan Sea Dogs to Caribbean Buccaneers, pirates threatened not only the wealth of the ruling classes but their authority.  Refusing to be bound by convention, pirates turned the social order on its head.  And this is never more apparent than in the clothes they wore.

The stereotype of the flamboyant pirate captain in his brocade coat, scarlet sash, and feathered hat is more than just a cliché.  In fact, it was a deliberate challenge to social convention.  As early as the 1300s, Sumptuary Laws were passed in England and France.  These laws dictated the clothing people were permitted to wear according to their rank.  Silk, velvet, brocade, taffeta and lace were all forbidden to commoners.  So was any fabric of scarlet, purple, gold or silver.  Gemstones and pearls, naturally, were also banned.  Such finery was reserved for the aristocracy; their clothing denoted their status.

So when a pirate ship took a prize, the crew often pilfered the fancy clothes from their victims and relished parading in the finery society forbade them to wear.  In fact one of the most notorious Buccaneers, ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, was named for the brightly coloured calico shirts he wore.

But, shocking as it was for low-born men to wear the colours and fabrics of the aristocracy, this was only a symbol of their rejection of society’s rules.  There were other, more significant instances.  Where else but in a pirate crew could seventeenth century women openly wear men’s clothes and be accepted as equals?  There is ample historical evidence that two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Reid, not only dressed in men’s clothes but also fought alongside their crewmates in battle.  So highly respected were they that many of the crew deferred to them instead of their captain – ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham himself.

Pirates have always stood for social rebellion, but they were political rebels too.  The Articles of Agreement each pirate signed when joining a crew gave everyone a vote in electing their captain, provided for a fair share of prizes taken, established rules about the resolution of disputes, and even provided pensions for those injured in battle.  Compared to the feudal societies on land, pirate crews – and pirate colonies such as Libertalia in Madagascar, on which Ile Sainte Anne is loosely based – were some of the first experiments in creating communities in which their members had a say in how they were governed.

Living on the very edge of society, and on the very edge of the map, pirates could rewrite the rules by which they lived.  Yes, they were violent and dangerous, but their legends endure because their rebellion against a rigid and unfair society struck a chord that still reverberates in the twenty-first century.

There’s a little bit of pirate in most of us, after all.

9781781892176Find out more about The Legend of the Gypsy Hawk:

Sally’s Twitter: @Sally_Malcolm

Sally’s blog: My Scribblings

The Legend of the Gypsy Hawk is available on Kindle:

Kindle Uk   Kindle US 

4 thoughts on “Dressed to Kill – pirates, fashion and rebellion

  1. Fascinating post, Sally – I had no idea about the laws regulating what people wore, according to rank. Thanks very much for sharing; I can’t wait to read your book!

  2. Like Claire, I knew nothing about the law laying down dress codes and assumed that the popular idea of pirate costume was a modern-day fabrication. It’s fascinating to learn that silk and lace were fabrics worn by rebels. I absolutely loved your Choc Lit treat, Journey’s End, and The Legend of the Gypsy Hawk keeps calling on my Kindle… I may have to bump it up the TBR pile!

  3. Sounds like a fabulous background for a novel – can’t wait to read it! And I’d love one of those brocade “frock” coats for myself – scarlet or purple would do nicely 🙂

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