Nautical Renaissance Costumes
By Jeremy David Clos
Historical Director, The North Carolina Renaissance Faire
The costumes of renaissance sailors reflected the conditions with which they were forced to contend. Living conditions aboard ship during the 16th century were unimaginably harsh. A typical main deck measured only 75 feet by 20 feet. The captain, or master seaman, would have a cabin, but the crew would sleep on the decks or in hammocks. The hold and areas between decks were dank, uncomfortable, foul-smelling, and infested with rats, roaches, and lice. Latrine buckets furthered the stench.
Renaissance mariners were constantly wet. Freezing cold water sloshed in the bilges with the constant rolling of the ship, dripping down through leaking decks and topsides.
Obviously, the fashion of the renaissance seaman echoes these conditions. While no standard or recognized uniform existed, a service outfit was provided for men attached to the Navy and other seagoing men copied these styles for their functionality.
The Costume of the Master Seaman, or Captain
The jacket, sometimes with sleeves, sometimes without, is cut to fit the shoulders only, and hangs in folds to just below the waist line. In this particular illustration, the jacket has close fitting sleeves, and fastens with one button, at the throat.
Under this jacket was worn a shirt of white linen or canvas featuring a small, turn down collar and small cuffs which turn back to protect the fabric of the jacket sleeve.
The breeches, or galligaskins, were of coarse cloth, cut very wide and then pleated into a waist band in front, tapering down and fastening around the knee, possibly with ties or buttons.
Both the jacket and breeches would be made of woolen cloth, for its water repellency, and are most likely lined with canvas. Colors would have been derived from natural dyes (browns, yellows, blues, etc.) as the Mariner was constantly wet and there was no method for setting expensive dyes into cloth. (Therefore any expensive dyed cloth would have been bleached by the sea).
The seaman would have worn thick hosen of knitted wool and shoes of the strongest leather. These shoes would feature a leather sole, a very dangerous proposition for wet decks.
The high crown cap of cloth lined with canvas turns up around the head to form a brim (see the description of the "thrummed cap" below). A seaman always carried a dagger or knife slung to the waist belt (worn beneath the jacket) and some mariners had a whistle hung around the neck, a master mariner's being of silver; an admiral's would be gold.
The Renaissance Seaman's Costume
The renaissance seaman's doublet is just ordinary for the period, a sturdy, close-fitting garment, probably in his case made of wool to take advantage of its natural water repellency. The sleeves would tie into the arms eyes, making them removable for warmer days. The sailor might also have a jerkin, a garment cut similar to a doublet but not as close fitting, made of leather to wear over his doublet on colder and wetter days. Again, because of the expense and inconstancy of dyes and the constant damp aboard ship, the seaman's garments would be of colors easily and cheaply obtained (yellow from onion skins, blue from woad, browns from barks, etc.)
Like his captain, his shirt would have been made from linen or canvas, a collar or small ruff at the neck, and turn back cuffs to fold over the doublet sleeves to protect the more expensive fabric of the doublet sleeve.
The renaissance seaman's leg coverings are a distinctive garment, called "trousers" and are typical only in nautical dress. These were constructed of coarse white, or unbleached linen, and frequently (but not always) striped with coloured bands of one or two colors encircling the legs. The wide-legged garment provided a practical purpose. A sailor who had gone overboard could easily remove the weight of his wet trousers without attempting to remove his boots or shoes.
The renaissance seamen would wear socks or stockings of any shade, and black leather shoes would be standard. However, on board ship, because of the treacherous wet decks, sailors often went barefoot.
The cap worn by the seaman is made of knitted wool and was known during this period as a "Monmouth" cap. The Monmouth cap had a shape similar to a modern Scottish tam. The name comes because the best made hats were fabricated at Monmouth during the period.
Another variation is called a "thrummed" cap. For extra warmth the seaman needed a cap which fitted tightly and could not easily be blown off. It was composed of coarse canvas and shaped like a flower pot. Wool scraps were knotted through the canvas (looking like modern knotted rugs). Such caps had a shaggy appearance and were most often dyed brown or blue.