Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Vincent Briggs, a part-time alterations tailor and part-time dinosaur cartoonist who is very fond of 18th-century menswear and has been sewing for over a decade. He can be found online here.
Our Flag Means Death (2022-) is a romantic comedy about pirates, and it’s my favourite piece of queer media in the entire world. I LOVE this show.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are multiple queer couples who get on screen kissing scenes, there’s a nonbinary pirate played by a nonbinary actor, and the writers have been extremely careful to make sure nobody’s queerness is ever the butt of the joke, nor is it ever the source of suffering. There are so many queer pirates just existing and it’s presented as completely normal. It made me so happy I cried, and I don’t cry easily.
I’ll cover the costumes episode by episode, and will briefly describe some bits of the plot as I go.
I admit that my first impression of the costumes wasn’t good, but having now watched the whole thing five times (it’s only about 5 hours in total) I’ve come around to actually liking most of them, and have noticed a lot more details to appreciate.
It took me a while to get out of my “must be historical!” mindset, but I now think that the wildly inaccurate silly style is definitely the right choice here. Real pirates were horrible, but these are fantasy pirates.
The closest thing I can think of to compare the style of this world to is Galavant. It doesn’t have any musical numbers, but it feels like it could. There’s a very wide range of eras represented in the fashion, decor, etc., and the best description I’ve seen of it was a comment saying it has “community theatre on steroids energy.”
The show is set (very loosely) in 1717, and the costumes were designed by Christine Wada. Fabric buyer Hannah Greene has been posting about the making process of some of the costumes on Instagram, and the costume team had to make a huge amount of things within teeny tiny amounts of time, so I’ll try not to comment too much on the finishing techniques and such. The buttonholes don’t look like 18th-century ones, and there are way more metal buttons than there would be historically, for example, but I know doing it more accurately wasn’t an option!
The main character is Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby), a wealthy landowner who has run away from his monotonous life to become a pirate, and who isn’t very good at it. He gets a lot of costume changes.
I counted 17 different suits, not including the 2 he wears in childhood flashbacks, plus an additional 4 waistcoats, at least 4 outfits with just shirt and breeches, 2 outfits I can’t really categorize, 3 nightgowns, and 2 wrapping gowns. We also get some shots of his very large closets (he has a main one and another with a secret door, just for fun), and a few scenes where the crew members dress up in his clothes.
That’s too many to cover in detail, not to mention all the costumes the other characters wear, so I’ll focus on the most prominent and/or interesting ones.
The historical fashions are all over the place in terms of decade, mostly skewing towards the mid 18th century. Please know that I am nitpicking for educational purposes, and that I still think most of the clothes are beautiful.
Just for reference, here are some fashionable 1710s suits. Long coats with low pockets and big cuffs, long waistcoats, long wigs, and a lot of shirt showing. Buttons are small and numerous, shoes are chunky and square-toed, and facial hair is very unfashionable.
(If anyone is completely unfamiliar with the layers and various fastenings of an 18th-century suit, please allow me to shamelessly plug my 1730s getting dressed video.)
In episode 1, Stede steals a small potted plant from a tiny fishing boat and gets his crew to come up with pirate flag designs. They have a bit of trouble with an English naval ship (not in the way you’d expect) but manage to come out of it alive and with two hostages.
The first suit we see Stede in is this bright blue one, and in terms of historical accuracy it’s one of the strangest and most disjointed ones.
The length of the sleeves, size of the cuffs, low pocket flaps, and full coat skirts are all pretty good for 1710s, and the breeches fit fairly well. But the narrow front pieces with very straight edges, the back seams, the existence of a waist seam and darts are all very weird and not 18th century. I’m also not sure what the thingies on the shoulder are, or the dangly ribbons hanging off the pocket flaps.
His hair is modern for most of the show, aside from the couple of scenes in which he wears a wig. His sideburns are also quite unfashionable for this era.
The waistcoat is really short and looks early 1780s, and also has a waist seam for some reason? The pocket watch in the waistcoat isn’t a thing until the 19th century, 18th-century watches go in the breeches pocket and the fancy little chain hangs down over your thigh. I know the goal isn’t accuracy here, but it looks odd having such a late waistcoat with an early-ish coat. This suit returns at the end of episode 8/beginning of 9 with a different and better waistcoat.
This bit of neckwear is one of the main reasons my first impression of the costumes was bad. I’ll admit that neckwear is one of the things I’m more easily annoyed by, since it’s something movies almost never get right, even when they are trying to be historical. Stede’s cravat looks … somewhat similar to early 18th-century lace neck cloths, but those typically had much larger areas of lace.
The fact that here it’s applied as gathered trim, and especially that there are two rows of it, edges it much more towards sad lace bib territory. Thankfully it’s the only time we see him wearing this thing. However, the thin black cravat over top of it is a weird detail that I actually like!
It’s pretty close to something you see in a lot of mid 18th-century portraits, where a pair of black ribbon ends that are attached to the queue bag are brought around to the front. Often they’re simply tucked under the front edges of the waistcoat, but sometimes they’re tied in a knot or a bow.
The black cravat is a pretty significant costume piece that sticks around for the rest of the show, and I think this was a nice way to incorporate it.
We also see Stede in a beautiful yellow wrapping gown with soutache embroidery, which he continues to wear in later episodes.
According to Hannah Greene’s Instagram post, it’s made of a textured rayon jacquard and lined with silk. It’s fairly similar in cut to late 17th- and early 18th-century wrapping gowns, which would have been made in heavier fabric and not had any embroidery.
I love it, and think it suits the character and situation perfectly.
Stede’s ship The Revenge has a crew of 9, and they wear the same shabby outfits for most of the show. It’s an odd mishmash of modern and historical clothes, and I haven’t got a huge amount to comment on, but they’re all wonderful characters, and I love them.
Lucius (played by Nathan Foad) wears a pretty nice looking pair of 18th-century sailor’s slops, usually paired with a striped T-shirt.
He’s also got a short little paisley jacket, which is pretty modern in cut, but has an interesting fringed edge along the bottom.
His boyfriend Pete (played by Matther Maher) has an 18th-century shirt with the sleeves ripped off, a waistcoat that’s mostly 1780s-looking apart from the breast pocket, and quite a nice pair of striped breeches.
Frenchie (played by Joel Fry) hasn’t got a very historical looking outfit, but we do see him sewing with a sailmaker’s palm in the first scene!
I don’t think it’s necessary for something as lightweight as making a small pirate flag with an appliqué cat, but oh well.
Oluwande (played by Samson Kayo) has a nice little knitted cap with a diamond pattern. I don’t know much at all about sailor’s clothing, but as far as I’m aware they did have knitted caps.
He appears to be wearing slops too, but we don’t get a very good view of them.
The shoes in this show are as widely varied as the rest of the costumes in terms of historical accuracy and quality, and the most modern pair are Olu’s crocs.
Jim! Jim is a nonbinary pirate, played by nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz, and the show makes this clear without using modern language to describe it. (There were three nonbinary people on the writing team!) They’re in disguise as a mute man for the first few episodes, then after that everyone just calls them Jim and uses they/them pronouns without making a big deal out of it, and their story doesn’t revolve around gender. As a trans man I was thrilled to see this!
They’ve got a long shabby coat and a somewhat late 18th-century looking waistcoat, which has narrow red and brown fringe around the edges. I like this detail, fringe trim is sometimes seen on late 18th-century waistcoats.
Roach (played by Samba Schutte, who has been posting loads of great behind the scenes stuff on Instagram) has a modern striped T-shirt with rather interesting sleeves and an apron because he’s the cook/surgeon. The actors were given a lot of creative freedom in making their characters, and this Instagram post talks about the accessories and the meanings of the three tattoos he chose.
Mr. Buttons (Ewen Bremner) has a fairly plain outfit, but his jacket has a sailor collar, and sometimes he has a seagull on his head. The seagull’s name is Karl, and they’re best friends.
Wee John (Kristian Nairn) and The Swede (Nat Faxton) also have rather plain costumes, but I didn’t want to leave them out after mentioning everyone else.
In episode 2, the ship runs aground on an island. Stede decides the crew ought to have a little vacation, but none of them seem to have heard of vacation before. The hostages escape, but they get one of them back.
Stede wears a rather 1760s-looking waistcoat in a beautiful peach and gold brocade (probably the same fabric as this poly brocade from puresilks; it’s listed as silk, but I know it’s polyester because I bought a yard of it), worn with a pair of lilac-coloured breeches. I really like it!
The back being shorter than the front is something you do see sometimes on extant waistcoats, and it’s usually a different material from the front, to save on the expensive fabric. Often it’s unbleached linen, but not always.
Look at that shirt! I see nice rectangular construction, a shoulder strip, and it appears to be made of fine linen.
The most noticeable inaccuracy is the narrow little placket with buttons down the front, which would historically just have been a hemmed slit, with the only buttons being on the collar. It’s hard to see here because the shirt has been cut up, but you can see the same thing on multiple other shirts. It’s also a bit odd that there are two layers of ruffle at the wrist.
(A more accurate 18th-century shirt would also have sleeve links, but I can see that being quite impractical for television costumes, since you have to fit the wrist precisely, and it isn’t easily adjustable. And thread buttons on the collar, but again, time and budget constraints are very much a thing here. It’s a good shirt.)
Here we’re also introduced to three of Blackbeard’s crewmen.
Nothing much historical about any of these clothes, especially not Fang’s Hot Topic belts.
In episode 3, Stede and Lucius visit The Republic of Pirates in extremely impractical white suits with exaggeratedly huge collars. (The rest of the crew comes too, in their regular outfits.)
The cut of these suits skews quite modern, which I’m not personally fond of, but I do like the combination of textured fabric and soutache embroidery! It reminds me a bit of that style of quilted/corded/embroidered 18th-century clothing that was done all in white cotton or linen.
And is also similar to embroidery done with couched cords.
Both suits get badly stained, and according to the Instagram post, they had to make 10 duplicates in about a week and a half. Oof.
They visit a bar belonging to Spanish Jackie (played by Leslie Jones). She wears a suit “inspired by Marlene Dietrich and ’90s era Prince.” I find the circular ruffles and fabric choices jarring, but her wooden hand is very cool.
She gets a few different outfits in later episodes, with a similar style, and shirts in different colours and textures.
When an overconfident Stede gets himself stabbed by a Spanish naval officer, his white suit shows off the blood magnificently.
We don’t get a very clear view of it, but it looks like the guy who did the stabbing has a pretty good 1710s coat!
What’s up with this guy though?
Ignoring the rest of his outfit, why is he wearing the symbol for the East India Company when he’s supposed to be a Spanish naval officer?? It confuses and distracts me every time I see it. I’m pretty sure it’s a re-used piece from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
At the end of episode 3, we’re finally introduced to Stede’s love interest, Blackbeard! Aka Edward Teach, or Ed for short (played by Taika Waititi in a magnificent wig and false beard). His crew shows up and rescues everyone from the Spanish, and there’s a delightful meet-cute where Ed stares down at Stede, who has been almost hanged and looks absolutely awful.
They’re properly introduced in episode 4.
Ed has also been finding his life boring and monotonous and decides to start sailing with Stede and teaching him to be a better pirate, if Stede will teach him about being a fancy gentleman.
Ed wears the same outfit for most of the show, consisting of a one-sleeved black leather jacket with a pauldron thingy and some decorative shark teeth (actual shark’s teeth, not the sewing technique of the same name), a black T-shirt underneath, and tight leather pants with a knee brace.
David Jenkins said in an Instagram post: “Blackbeard’s costume was inspired by The Road Warrior and a picture of Prince that came up when I googled “Prince 1978.” The legendary Christine Wada took these references and very quickly arrived at Blackbeard’s look. Leather at sea in the Caribbean makes no sense. At least there’s a little breathing room at the midriff.”
On my second watch through, I noticed that the pants have a late 18th-century style fall front, and the buttons down the sides are just like the ones on sherryvalleys! I love that they did this, and that the jacket closes with buttons instead of zippers.
Other than that, there isn’t much of anything 18th century about it, but Ed clearly isn’t meant to look historical. He’s meant to be an attractive goth boyfriend and contrast with Stede’s frilly and colourful aesthetic. Audience reaction seems to indicate that this was a wild success.
This episode has a lot of flashbacks to Stede’s arranged marriage and unhappy home life, and he’s got a variety of suits in them, as well as one very cozy looking nightgown. The wedding suit has an awfully short waistcoat (as so many of his suits do), but the coat is quite a nice mid-century one and has the curved front edges!
The paisley fabric isn’t very 18th century, and I have similar complaints about the neckwear to my ones about the episode 1 suit, but I quite like the colours.
This green one isn’t cut as well as the wedding suit, but has fabric that’s rather similar to this velvet one from The Met.
This would be a pretty accurate neck cloth if it were in a plain white linen and had longer trailing ends.
One little thing that bugs me with the styling of a lot of these (and most 18th-century film costumes in general) is that they button so many of the waistcoats all the way up. If you look at portraits, for most of the 18th century the waistcoats are typically worn partially unbuttoned, especially in the earlier decades. You do see some buttoned all the way up, but generally the fashionable silhouette had the waistcoat and coat worn open with the shirt ruffle sticking out.
Neck stocks (like the one in the above portrait) are also massively underrepresented in the vast majority of 18th-century films, despite being the formal neckwear for most of the century, and very simple to make. It puzzles me! Why is this such a widespread thing? Why do more people not put ruffles on the shirt and leave the waistcoat partially unbuttoned?
For this show in particular, I think having the more accurate silhouette would also be good because then you could have Stede buttoned all the way up for specific scenes when he’s feeling especially repressed. He does have one outfit where there are shirt ruffles sticking out, in a couple of the episode 4 flashbacks, but no others that I noticed.
I also noticed a few instances where the bottom button of a waistcoat was left undone, which is a practice that started in the early 20th century and is still done today, and it’s always weird to see it on 18th-century waistcoats. This doesn’t apply to the really long ones that have buttons all the way down to the bottom edge and are only buttoned at the waist, but on the ones where the buttons stop at the level of the pocket flap it’s decidedly odd to not fasten those lower ones.
Getting back to the present time, Stede shows Ed his walk-in closet, and Ed is completely enthralled. They trade outfits and trick the Spanish navy into not following them anymore.
There’s a pair of really fabulous reddish breeches here with a great fall front, corner pockets that button closed, and a proper adjustable waistband with lacing in the back!
A lot of the breeches in this show are much too loosely fitted, and I’m assuming that’s mainly due to the rushed schedule because this pair fits beautifully. These are a lot more visible than most of the others, being worn without a coat or waistcoat, and they get a lot of screentime.
They’re fairly late 18th-century style, which is understandable. Early 18th-century breeches look weird to modern eyes.
The shirt that’s worn with them is rather strange, what with the tassels and the lace going up and around the collar, but like most of Stede’s shirts it’s pretty decently 18th century in cut and construction. That black cravat from episode 1 is back, and Ed keeps it after they trade clothes and wears it right to the very end of the season.
In Episode 5, there are some more piracy/gentleman lessons, and we get to see a nice adjustable waistcoat back with lacing, which is a thing on a lot of 18th-century waistcoats.
Stede, Ed, Oluwande, and Frenchie attend a party on another ship. If you haven’t seen the show, you should know that logic and travel times don’t matter in the slightest, and you can get anywhere safely in a rowboat.
Frenchie’s coat has nice curved edges, but Olu’s is cut awfully straight and narrow in front. I like the contrasting waistcoat and coat cuffs though, that was pretty common in the first half of the 18th century. Often it was a plain solid colour coat and breeches, with the cuffs and waistcoat being made up in a rich brocade.
It’s weird that there are buttons down both sides, and you’d never see shirts that colour, but overall I think they’re averagely decent mid 18th-century suits. Light-coloured stockings would be much more common, but dark stockings did exist.
Ed’s suit is rather odd, and the cut doesn’t belong to any particular decade, but it’s tolerably 18th century-ish. A few of the weirdest things about it are the shape of the cuff lace, the white shoes and black stockings combination, the fact that all three pieces are different shades of purple, and that the coat is heavily decorated but the waistcoat is completely plain. And the coat has no buttons.
I like the embroidery and sequin trim! It was copied from a rental suit, and it’s very impressive that they managed to make it so quickly.
Stede’s suit is extremely weird, and I can’t really think of how to compare most of it to anything 18th century. I don’t like this suit. A lot of people do really love it and find it beautiful, but after so many years of pickling my brain in 18th-century images, I’m incapable of looking at it normally. (I feel a bit mean for saying that, so I should clarify that just because I don’t like a design doesn’t mean it’s objectively bad. And I do love taking liberties with historical accuracy! I’m just picky about how it’s done.)
I do at least have to appreciate the pattern-matching and the lovely embroidered silk panels it’s made of. His wig is fairly mid 18th-century looking, and the flowers in it are inaccurate but cute.
At the party Ed learns that the seemingly fancy rich people are mean and fickle. Frenchie and Oluwande very cleverly redistribute a great deal of wealth. Back on the ship, Lucius avoids doing chores.
I haven’t much to say about what the other guests were wearing, aside from the fact that they were definitely over the top on purpose, and that I was glad when the ship caught fire.
Afterwards there’s a moonlit scene where Stede tucks a little piece of red silk into the breast pocket of Ed’s waistcoat, and they almost kiss. Just to reiterate what I said in the intro, this is very explicitly a romantic comedy and all of this is intentional and not queer-baiting, and they will kiss a few episodes later.
Breast pockets don’t appear until the 19th century, and I don’t think wearing decorative pocket squares in them was a thing until the early 20th century, but will I complain about it? No. This is a well motivated contrivance that I am in favour of.
I don’t like their shirt fabric here though. It’s some sort of soft drapey satin, rather than the nice linen we’ve been seeing for most of the other shirts.
And that’s the first half of the show! This post got much longer than I expected, so I’m splitting it into two parts. Most of my favourite costume pieces are in episodes 6 to 10, so tune in next week for some better suits!
What do you think of Our Flag Means Death and how the costumes play with 18th-c. styles?
As you say real pirates were awful people but since practically no other pirate movie depicts that why should this one? They sound like worthy successors to the Pirates of Penzance.
But they were all noblemen who had gone wrong.
This is a gentleman who has gone wrong. Maybe his example encourages others to go the same way?
I’m definitely less bothered by anachronistic costuming in shows like this one, that very obviously telegraph their anachronism through dialogue/humor/soundtrack (as opposed to the recent slate of BBC shows that retain a veneer of ~period drama prestige~ while having wildly incorrect costumes (and just details more generally) that could actually shape viewers’ perception of history). I agreed with you, though, that more accurate costumes could actually help with characterization in this case, especially with Stede’s suits! That said, though, I hadn’t realized how short the time frame the costumers had to work with, so I’m impressed with what they were able to accomplish.
Also, more generally, I just had a blast with this show. I had no idea (SPOILER) that I needed a naval takeover scene soundtracked by Fleetwood Mac until I watched this!
The flowers in Ed’s hair during the party scene are pikake. A little plot point joke!
This show was an unbelievably moving souffle of a show, almost like “Pushing Daisies”. I have high hopes for season 2.
Yeah, I love what Ed did with his hair. Jury’s still out on the purple dyed beard. Purple beard?
I’m so excited to read this review, Vincent! I’ve followed you on Tumblr and Instagram for a couple of years and your blog posts have been a great help to me in getting into historical menswear! I love the detail you’ve gone into here. (I haven’t actually seen the show yet but I don’t mind about spoilers.)