Tuesday, April 7, 2009


While attending PyrateCon, I had a conversation with the guys from Flying Canoe Traders about period-correct pirate clothing. I think that he and I were the only ones at the event wearing slops and he commented that I wasn't wearing them correctly - i.e. over breeches (neither was he). Here is their position on wearing slops:
The slops were made to be worn over your regular pants and protect them.
This is why it is made longer and much baggier then the French Fly or the Drop Front. Most slop did not have pockets, they were just opening so you could access to your real pocket: just like a women shirt giving access to her pocket. On the original pair, the waistband had only one pewter button. When we initially copied that, I found out that wearing it was uncomfortable because the waist was folding itself in two at the button and caused some pressure and it was uncomfortable at the waist.

Doing this hobby, we often cheat and I am the first one to admit that I do sometimes. The slops were design to be worn over a pair of pants that gives you a waist support and comfort so even if the original slops would have folded in two, it would not have pinched my belly, because my breaches would have protected me…our ancestors were so clever.
But when I wear my slops, I wear them alone, I've decided to put a button at the waist level and provided them whit a functional pockets. Beside that, only there was still one difference between my pair and the museum one: the museum one had 4 hand made round buttons holes on the back for adjustment, mine is machine made and plate.
I have a lot of respect for Flying Canoe and wear one on their sleeved waistcoats as part of my pirate clothing but I am going to respectfully disagree with their interpretation of slops.

Note - Sometime in the mid-17th century, navy ships began carrying sets of clothing that sailors could buy as they needed new clothes. These were also called slops. I am only referring to the wide, open breeches.

Before I start, I will agree that some land-based trades did wear overbreeches to keep their good clothing clean. I part company with them when they carry this practice on to the water. Sailors and fishermen get wet and I no one has suggested that slops were waterproof. This eliminates the advantage of wearing something over your clothes.

Flying Canoe gives the next argument against wearing slops over breeches - it isn't comfortable. It also is not practical. I discovered the reason for slops years ago when involved in filming a National Geographic special on John Smith mapping the Chesapeake. I waded ashore in my regular 17th century breeches and ended up with a gallon or two caught in each leg. Canvas breeches that are open at the bottom will not hold water and will dry faster than wool. The tighter breeches of the late-17th and 18th centuries would not capture as much water but neither would they be as practical as slops. Also, breeches worn under slops would take hours to dry. On a ship, they probably would never dry.

All of this is is just speculation. Fashion sometimes has people wearing strange things (I saw a lot of women in stiletto-heeled sandals in the French Quarter). What does the historic record say?

Cindy Vallar examines pirate clothing from Chaucer into the 18th century. She refers to slops protecting the sailor's underclothes.

This detail is new to me:
Canvas clothes were made from old sails and were usually greased and tarred prior to wearing them to make them waterproof.
She also quotes
Edward Barlow, a mariner of the 1600s, wrote, "…half awake and half asleep, with one shoe on and the other off, not having time to put it on: always sleeping in our clothes for readiness."
This is in conflict with the idea of sailors having overclothes that they would take off when off-duty.

Gentlemen of Fortune has a 1720s woodcut of a Dutch sailor who is wearing slops with no indication that there is anything underneath.

On the way home from PyrateCon, I happened to find an article in X Marks the Spot, the Archaeology of Pirates. It mentioned a 1740s fan in the possession of Colonial Williamsburg which shows sailors and soldiers. It mentions that sailors were very conservative and slow to change clothing styles. They were still wearing short coats and loose breeches at a time that the soldiers were wearing the more stylish long coats and tight breeches. It also has a woodcut of a 1780s ship's cook who is wearing slops with nothing else showing beneath.

The web site for the HMS Richmond also says that slops were worn over clothing but does not cite a source.

The US Navy's history of naval uniforms says this about what sailors wore during the Revolutionary War.
The American Revolutionary sailor fared little better. He participated in a Navy that was built from scratch. Meager funds and the scarcity of a manufacturing complex concentrated attention on procuring ships and ammunition. There was no money for uniforms. The peak strength of the Continental Navy during these times consisted of about 30 ships and 3,000 men. (Most sailors, on the other hand, preferred the life of the privateer. It was lucrative and appealing enough to attract over 2,000 ships.) Thus, naval uniforms under these parsimonious conditions were non-descript, consisting of pantaloons often tied at the knee or knee breeches, a jumper or shirt, neckerchief, short waisted jacket and low crowned hats. The short trousers were practical so as not to interfere with a man's work in the rigging of his ship. Most sailors went barefoot. A kerchief or bandana was worn either as a sweat band or as a simple closure for the collar.

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