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The very first Pirates of the Caribbean film (subtitled The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) was a Big Costume Movie, but it’s old news now. (Oh my god, that was 20 years ago. Hang on while I find my walker and oxygen tank). It’s not really something that’s worth snarking anymore, being as old as it is, but somehow I came across its Wikipedia entry and I spewed whatever I was drinking as I read the following:
“In 1720, while sailing to Port Royal, Jamaica, aboard the HMS Dauntless, Governor Weatherby Swann’s crew encounters a shipwreck and recovers a boy, Will Turner. Swann’s daughter, Elizabeth, discovers a golden pirate medallion around Will’s neck, and takes it. Eight years later…” — the main action begins.
I’m sorry WHAT? This movie is supposed to be set in one thousand seven hundred and TWENTY EIGHT??!!
Let’s look at the two main dresses worn by lead actress Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann, in her non-pirate life:
Dress #1: A sort-of mantua?
It’s an open-fronted gown with a stomacher … with lace on it? No wait, that’s a lace applique on top but the fabric underneath is embroidered. There’s a matching rosette trim along the edges of the gown as a faux-“fly fringe.”
Super hard to find any full pics of this gown!
The sleeves are ruched up at the elbow over undersleeves. It’s very fitted at the waist, with a separate waist seam.
There’s an embroidered? quilted? petticoat, and the trim continues down the front edges of the gown.
It looks like the center back is cut in one piece between the bodice and the skirt, but the bodice itself doesn’t look pleated in back.
So what kind of dress is this? I mean, clearly it’s an attempt at an early- to mid-18th-century mantua, which is the fitted gown (derived from the draped dressing-gown like one of the same name from the late 17th century), which would later go on to become the nightgown and then robe à l’anglaise. But it’s got some problems:
Jamaica is a British colony, and sadly I can’t find any imagery of what colonists wore before the 1780s. But based on the practice in what would be the United States, colonists probably wore British-style dress, perhaps in lighter fabrics to adapt to the heat.
Brits WOULD in fact be wearing mantuas in this era, but they’d look a bit different:
So this is a very formal occasion, but it’s a good example of the fitted mantua gown worn in Britain in the 1720s | The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox by William Hogarth, 1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mantuas in this era had open fronts (check), vertical pleats at the gown fronts (nope), open front skirts (check) | Mantua, 1735-45, altered 1775 & 1880s, Victoria & Albert Museum
The center back of the gown was cut in one piece from bodice to skirt, pleated on the bodice back, and then released into the skirt (nope) | Mantua, 1735-45, altered 1775 & 1880s, Victoria & Albert Museum
Very formal mantuas had long super long skirts… | Mantua, 1735-40, Victoria & Albert Museum
Which were folded up and pleated/draped (nope, but okay) | Mantua, 1735-40, Victoria & Albert Museum
Cuffs were pleated at the inner elbow and wide at the back elbow (they did a shitty attempt at this) | Mantua, 1735-45, altered 1870-1910, Victoria & Albert Museum
Skirts were full and worn over rounded hoops | c. 1725, The Paper Buildings, Inner Temple, London, Yale Center for British Art
And all of this applies even in more casual situations… | c. 1725, John Laguerre, Hob Continues Dancing in Spite of his Father, Yale Center for British Art
And down the class spectrum (the market woman on the right has a big apron wrapped around her skirts) | c. 1726, Pieter Angillis, Covent Garden, Yale Center for British Art
1726c, Pieter Angillis, Vegetable Seller, Covent Garden
Dress #2: A definite robe à l’anglaise:
Fitted bodice that closes at center front (thank god) with what I think are faux-buttons, three quarter sleeves, V waistline.
Too-long lace cuffs.
Open skirt over quilted petticoat.
Skirt cut separate from the bodice all around.
So yeah, that’s an anglaise, which dates from the late 1760s at the earliest but really takes off in the 1770s. The anglaise was a fitted version of the mantua seen above with some tweaks, including the closed front and separate bodice and skirt all around.
Your prototypical robe à l’anglaise with closed front (check) | Dress (robe à l’anglaise) and skirts in chintz, ca. 1770-1790, MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp
Bodice cut separately from skirt, and no back pleats in the bodice (check) | Robe à l’Anglaise, 1785-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art
And what about the hairstyles and hats? Her first hat is very flat and rounded and tied on with some veiling:
She should instead be wearing:
A flat cap on top of the head with long lappets of lace or a veil. You could claim her hat is an approximation of these | 1725-26, Bernard Lens, The Exact Dress of the Head, Victoria & Albert Museum
Or without | 1725-26, Bernard Lens, The Exact Dress of the Head, Victoria & Albert Museum
Or a slightly puffy on the back of the head, ruffled around the edges cap, again possibly with lappets of lace (far right) | c. 1725, The Paper Buildings, Inner Temple, London, Yale Center for British Art
Or a small-brimmed hat with a small crown. You could also claim her hat is an approximation of this | c. 1725, John Laguerre, Hob Continues Dancing in Spite of his Father, Yale Center for British Art
And what about her later hairstyle?
It’s kind of a wedding updo…
Which seems like a bad take on something like this | Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, later Countess of Sefton, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1769, via Wikimedia Commons
But what the hair really reminds me of are those late 19th/early 20th century fancy dress/theater “18th century” costumes/Frances Evelyn (Daisy), Countess of Warwick, née Maynard (1861-1938) as Marie Antoinette, Devonshire House Ball, 1897
Harriet Wheeler as “Marquise de Vaudreuil” for the Château de Ramezay Historical Fancy Dress Ball, Montréal, QC, 1898, by William Notman. Image © McCord Museum
And she’s got a wide-brimmed hat tied on with lace.
Which I think is trying to be something like these flat bergère (shepherdess) hats trimmed with ruffles, ribbons, and feathers | Cricket Match Played by the Countess of Derby and Other Ladies, 1769, via Wikimedia Commons
Or these, but none of them are tied OVER the hat but rather under | Fashionable dresses of 1771, probably from the Ladies’ Magazine
If you’ve read all of this and are thinking “so what? the 1770s isn’t that different from the 1720s,” remember that’s FIFTY YEARS. It’s like dressing a Jane Austen movie in 1860s.
Verdict: Bad 1720s and bad 1770s! And that, my friends, is your annual Snark Week nitpick.
Kiera has got some cleavage in some out these shots like I never saw in later years!
You’ll never guess why. ;)
As a 17-year-old on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightley would get her boobs contoured every morning, in order to give her the kind of cleavage expected from the romantic lead of an adventure movie. “They literally painted them on,” Knightley told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the release of her latest film, Misbehaviour.
It may be the wrong time period, but it’s quite pretty anyway…
I can’t believe it’s been twenty years!!! I was 13 and I loved it so much, I saw it twice in theaters. I like reading about the lack of accuracy, but out of nostalgia and the fact that it’s a fun movie to watch, I’ll give it a pass :D
The snark I didn’t know I needed this morning. Thank you!
Well writ, Madame!
I have seen it stated in various FF write-ups that military dress is generally of little interest to you good ladies (it is of great interest to myself!), but a little knowledge of the British naval establishment during the long eighteenth century can only serve to further illustrate your original conceit; that attempting to force the POTC franchise into an understandable historical timeline is a recipe for headaches!
Commodore James Norrington and his officers are dressed in post-1748 Royal warrant naval uniform (most likely because prior to 1748, Naval personnel generally dressed to suit their own tastes, and the production designers no doubt felt a strong visual palette was required), with gold trimmed, large cuffed, collarless blue coats. White smallclothes were made standard following the Seven Years’ War of 1754-63 (blue breeches were not uncommon prior), and so we could say that the naval staff are more-or-less styled for the 1750s.
Norrington himself is seen (following his promotion) in either a Captain’s full dress uniform (most scenes) or an Admiral’s full dress uniform (fort scenes). While I am certain that the wardrobe dept. simply wished for him to appear grand, there is a feasibly canonical explanation if one is willing to do some mental gymnastics:
To oversimplify, a Commodore still holds the official rank of Captain, but is now permitted to command more than one warship at a time. Following his appointment, Norrington (perhaps not wishing to waste the full dress uniform he only wore for formal occasions as Captain of HMS Interceptor) cast aside his worn Captain’s undress togs and invested in an Admiral’s uniform (which, as highest-ranking military officer in the colony, he could somewhat justify), opting to wear his Captain’s full dress togs for daily tasks.
Now where was I? Oh yes…
The British Marines (not yet Royal until 1802, not prior as “His Majesty’s Marines”) seen in the film are an even more peculiar sartorial mix; their cocked hats are sharp, with pointy, low brims: appropriate for the 1750s or prior. Yet their jackets are short-tailed coatees with standing collars, which would not see service until the 1790s (The first four Ioan Gruffud ‘Hornblower’ films use these in their proper context!). Their white smallclothes and dark gaiters all pint towards the fourth quarter of the century also.
Governor Weatherby Swann is by far the character best dressed for the 1720s, wituniverse as being some manner of historical fantasia, in which the “Greatest Hits of the Age of Sail” are all on display.
Keep up the fine work! h his long-skirted waistcoats, large cuffs, broad-brimmed hats and “full-bottomed” periwigs.
*Whew! that’s more than enough. At any rate, I have learned to think of the POTC universe as some manner of historical fantasia, in which “The Greatest Hits of the Age of Sail” are all on display.
Keep up the fine work!
The fact that they seem to so consistently seemed to go with costuming with mid-to-late-ish 1700s attire makes me wonder if there was any specific reason why they even bothered saying it was set in the 1720s? Is there some kind of pirate or politics related reason why the movie couldn’t have just been set in the 1750s-60s?
My understanding is that piracy stopped being a major concern in the Caribbean after the 1720s. BUT the robe volante style of dress that was in vogue at that time probably wasn’t deemed attractive for modern audiences.
Ah, fair enough! I personally happen to love the robe volante, and it does seem like for the one or two costumes they would have put Elizabeth in they could have gotten away with using it.
If I recall correctly, the first dress is supposed to be one her father just brought back from London for her; it’s what leads to her snit fit about how “women in London must have learned not to breathe” while she’s being laced into her corset (as if Elizabeth wouldn’t have been wearing some form of corset for years at that point).
May I add that the Royal Navy had no uniform at all in 1720; officers and ratings wore whatever they liked or happened to own. Even dark blue – though common, because blue dye was cheap to produce – was far from universal.
The first uniform regulations for officers were promulgated in 1748. Lieutenants got a plain navy blue single-breasted dress coat with a white lining, in the same style as the civilian coat of the period – full skirts, big flap pockets, BIG white bucket cuffs, no collar – and a long white waistcoat trimmed round the edges and on the pocket-flaps with fairly narrow gold lace.
They also got an undress ‘frock’ of a more military design, plain all-over blue, with a low stand collar and lapels that could be buttoned back or over the chest; the top corner of the lapel is a pointed tab almost up to the shoulder, more or less as seen on Commodore Norrington in “1728” ( as in your first still).
All the surviving official pattern uniforms of the 1948 regulation – the lieutenant’s coat and frock, and a midshipman’s coat – are in the National Maritime Museum, which has good pics of them. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/search/1748%20pattern%20uniform?page=0
Interestingly, the midshipman’s coat, unlike the lieutenant’s, has “mariner’s cuffs” – a genuinely traditional nautical feature, with a vertical slash that could be unbuttoned to allow the cuff to be turned back and the shirtsleeve rolled up. In 1748 it appears that commanders and captains of less than 3 years’ seniority also had these; in the next regulation, issued in 1767, lieutenants got these too; In 1768 lieutenants also got white lapels, which they kept till the end of the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. However, the triangular tab at the top corner of the lapel disappeared around 1770, and in 1774 the gold lace was removed from the waistcoat.
So the uniform Commodore Norrington’s outfit most resembles is immediately post-1768. Here’s a marvellous portrait of Captain Richard Howe, painted by Gainsborough around then (on the same page there’s a lovely companion portrait of his missus in pink): https://www.thefashionarchaeologist.com/uploads/1/2/1/6/121630325/published/1763-viscounthowe-bygainsborough.jpg?1599762696
If you look at Norrington’s uniform and mentally subtract three-quarters of the gold lace on it, you can see that apart from the white breeches he’s wearing the same kit as Captain Lord Howe. He even looks rather like him: I do wonder whether the costume designer originally took Howe as a model, and the director and/or the studio said ‘Yes, but stick a load more gold bling everywhere!’
BTW: that market woman in the Angillis painting; is that really an apron wrapped around her, or her skirt-fronts folded back to keep them clean and out of the way while she’s at work?
I never saw the movies, but I heard Kiera Knightly’s character has things to say about her stays. As in “this is true suffering, this hurts with the power of a thousand menstrual cramps. Stays are a wearable iron maiden, etc.” Please note I’m made up the phrases in quotes, I was going for sentiment over verbatim accuracy.
Honest to goodness quote form her in the film: “You like pain? Try wearing a corset.”
Allow me to add another nit-pick: it was set in 1728 in Port Royal…
…you know, about 36 years after Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake and mostly underwater. Fort Charles is one of the only structures that survived at what you see in Pirates of the Caribbean is clearly not Fort Charles.
So where is it set as well?
One of few, or the only?
Her whinging about Stays/Corsets bothered me! She would’ve worn them from ca. 10-12? She would’ve been well used to wearing one by now! I have many questions about Elizabeth’s upbringing by Governor Swann!