Getting Salty with Sailor Garb

Lord William "Cookie" Barfoot

In this article I focus on what the 16th century sailor wore for clothing. Part two, in the next issue, will cover footwear, accessories and covering what made sailors dress the way they did.

In short the clothing sailors wore was practical, hard wearing and had safety in mind. You could not board a Spanish Gallon if you keep on getting your shirtsleeves stuck on the rigging. Also, you probably did not have more than one change of clothes, so what clothing you had with had to last for months on end living in a wet and grimy world. This account for as well, that it clothes of the highest fashion, with all the ruffles, ribbons and fancy bits are best left to those who the hard life on deck is less than attractive, like officers.

Now Mates, you are going to hear me mention wool, linen and leather a lot when describing these garments. That is because these materials are sometimes a sailor’s best friend; wool especially. Wool has an amazing property of staying warm when wet and because of its natural ability to make air pockets, it is a brilliant insulator. I have even overheard stories told of desert nomads wearing thin wool shirts to help keep them cool! As for leather, well it makes a tough outer shell that helps protect one from danger and the elements. Linen is a good conductor of heat, wicking heat away from the body making it cooler for the wearer. Linen is also extremely strong for a fiber, making it ideal for rough and tumbles life on a ship, and absorbs moisture away from the body.

But don’t let these three fabrics limit you. Other common fabrics include cotton and silks. And there were all kinds of colors available. Yes there were the mandatory browns and blacks (but black could be an unlucky color), but there were also shades of blues, greens, reds (a seemingly favorite of 16th century sailors) and yellows. Just check with your local sumptuary laws, as I would hate to see someone break the law.

So, what should you be wearing? Let’s explore this a little bit, shall we?

Shirts (with gussets on the side) and smocks (without the side gussets) where often made out of rough linen for the working class. They were loose fitting clothes but not billowy so they will not catch on things. It was the style in the 1500’s for the shirt or smock to reach down to the wear’s thighs. This was so the wearer could tuck the shirt between the legs to act like drawers though some people still wore braies (male under garments that were wrapped close to the loins). The collars on the shirts were high with a draw string closure and were kept simple, like the cuffs, so they can work in them and not get caught on anything. It was in fashion for the collars to have a ruff around them, but most sailors keep it simple with maybe some decorative embroidery if they had the money. It was also not unusual to have a second work shirt made out of canvas or wool to wear as a work shirt, but doublets were more common for this.

Breeches were usually made out of canvas or wool that was sometimes dyed or striped, the sailor breeches were typically knee length according to the fashion of the time. The breeches went straight down from the waist, making them baggy, and were either left loose or tied at the knee. When gathered at the knee, the breeches were closer fitting than the puffy trunk hose worn on land. If left loose, similar to the modern day board shorts that reach to the knees, the hem could be trimmed in a contrasting color or cut into a convex point. When wearing the beeches lose some sailors left the breeches un-hemmed so if they did get stuck on something sharp it would not get caught. To keep them up, the breeches tied to the doublet, but some, to aid in back support, wore a wide leather belt. Codpieces were also not uncommon, though (too much of a many lass’s chagrin) the codpiece size shrank over time becoming less globular.

People have worn hose to cover the legs and feet for centuries. There are several different styles of hose from ones with feet sewn in to one piece garments that go all the way to the waist. In any case, a sailor’s hose was most likely made of wool and was worn to help protect the legs.

It is debated whether you wear the doublet over the jerkin or the jerking over the doublet. A lot of this confusion comes from the often interchanging of the words, but I personally believe it is jerkin, referring to a short jacket or vest over doublet, being a sleeved garment.

The doublet’s job was to keep the breeches up and to provide a covering to the torso. This sleeved apparel was usually close fitting and often had skirts covering the top part of the legs. Most of these would have been made of cloth, once again wool, and had high collars like those on the shirts.

The common seaman and officers wore both the jerkins, though the officer’s jerkins were usually fancier. Worn over the doublet, it aided in warmth and protection as well. Wool was commonplace material for the Jerkin to be made out of, as was leather was very common. The sleeveless jerkin varied in style and could have on them deep skirts, seamed waists and integral wings. Some jerkins found on Henry VII’s Mary Rose wreck site were decorated by piercing holes in them or pinked and one had an internal pocket on the skirt.

Probably one of the most ordinary hats was the Monmouth Cap. This knitted cap, which resembles the modern watch cap, was made of wool and was tight fitting. Also, because it was a tight fitting cap, it did not blow off in high winds. One variation of the cap is known as "Thrummed" cap. Commonly knitted of thrums (single ply remnant yarn), or loose frazzled ends of yarn, the cap developed a "hairy" appearance aiding to its nickname.

Flat caps were also common place it the 16th century English ship yards. Worn by all classes, once again wool was common (are you starting to see a pattern here with the wool?)

*For sources , contact the author.

Connect with the Fleet

If you wish to be on a ship's crew, please contact her Captain to discuss berthing. If you would like to join us without being on a crew, you can submit a letter of intent to us at info@corsairium.org.